Marketing Expert's Corner

This article written in 2008


The Opening Gambit

I might find the courage yeah 
I might get up the nerve
Oh but if my timing ain't just right 
What purpose would that serve?
I don't know how to say those first few words
If I want to put myself in touch
The first few moments mean so much --
Get it right the first time
That's the main thing
I can't afford to let it pass
Get it right the next time
That's not the same thing
Gonna make the first time last.

         -- Billy Joel, Get it Right the First Time

We all know that in personal relationships first impressions really count.  Those first few moments leave an indelible mark that forms the context for interpreting subsequent communication.  But it's also true in business:  as Leil Lowndes wrote, "You have 10 seconds to prove you're a Somebody."   People make important decisions with the subconscious mind, which quickly assigns meaning and impact to events (see Gladwell's Blink).  If emotion does the selling, the highest leverage communication you can ever have -- as a salesperson, marketer, or CEO -- is the opening gambit.

Opening gambits require a lot of sensitivity -- whether in Billy Joel's cocktail bar, at a sales call, or in a VC pitch -- because you don't have a lot of advance information about the audience's state of mind.  It's hard to choose your opening line because you don't know how it will be taken.

Of course, you always want to get the non-verbals right, because grooming, dress, stance/gait/ swagger, facial expression, eye contact, handshake, and particularly posture have an instant emotional effect on people.  Studies by UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian have shown that half the impression you make will happen before the first words are uttered.   And we all know a bit of small talk breaks the ice and helps you match the energy level of the audience.

But when it comes to the meat of your discussion, you can't use platitudes any longer.  You only get one opening line.  How to best engage he audience depends varies entirely on the situation and your objectives.  But generally, you want to take them on an emotional journey, get under their skin.  Find a way to get the audience visualizing about how they'd user your product, participate in your investment, or follow your lead.  Although the specifics vary by situation (as discussed below), the  universal mistake is to not match the mood, energy level, interests, and sensitivities of the audience.

Public Speaking -- Usually, the audience has chosen to be there and you've been formally introduced.  Your goal within the first minute or so is to motivate the audience to listen and to start building your credibility.  The specific tactics vary hugely, but I generally recommend having a very compelling visual as your first slide -- forget title pages -- and to set up an allegory or metaphor that revolves around it.  Audiences tend to react best to anecdotes, metaphors, and puzzling truths -- not facts, figures, or abstractions.  The opening gambit must be on point, and propel you and the audience into the main points of your pitch.  The special challenge here is the physical and emotional distance between you and the audience, particularly in a large hall.

TV or Radio Interviews -- Here, the audience is interested in the broad topic of the program, but may not share your point of view.  The interviewer will introduce you and the thrust of the conversation, and your job is to establish believability and make your "must-air" point within seconds.  The opening gambit should be very short, provocative, and inviting follow-up.  Brevity and clarity are your only hope, and vocal/visual emphasis are essential.  Relentlessly practice your opening gambit in front of a microphone or camera, and review the recordings for clarity and impact.  War-game Q&A responses even if it's not a contentious situation, as part of your goal is to guide the conversation even though the interviewer is in control.  The special challenge here is the complete lack of control and context, as what you say will be edited and put in context by the reporter/interviewers' words and image choices after the fact.  The best way to avoid having your meaning changed by editing and rearranging is to speak with brief, tight thought-sentences that beg to be left intact.

Advertisements -- If you think about it, your company's advertisements should be pure opening gambit.  Even pure branding campaigns aren't just for visibility:  the goal is to create a mood and an association with what you stand for.  Your advertising folks should be researching the audience's attitudes and and thinking about their interests before you see a word of copy or a pixel of graphics.  The special challenge of advertising:  the cost of getting the right message to the right audience.  While online advertising gives you technical control and relevance that's never been possible before, the terseness (AdWords) and annoyance factor (interstitials and animated banners) mean the impact and credibility of online advertising gambits are still limited.

Web Site -- Your company's website is often the first and only chance you have to make an impression on the audience. The opening gambit of your site is the first 10-20 seconds of "story" as perceived by visitors.  Work closely with your designer and use eye-tracking tools to optimize where the user looks, and to get your gambit out as clearly as possible.  It's a real challenge:  expect the home page to take 50% of your emotional energy when you do a site rework.  The special challenge of web sites is your lack of knowledge about the audience until the initial engagement is already over.  That's why it pays to have multiple landing pages with messages tuned to the search or advertising terms that directed people there.  Another approach is to use Flash or Web 2.0 features to hide and tailor part of your story until the user self-identifies (e.g., by industry, nationality, problem/solution).

Sales Pitches -- This is the most common speaking situation for most of my readership, and it's amazing how few sales presentations have an effective opening gambit.  Usually, the rep launches into a bunch of company and product information that the audience doesn't really care about yet.  Gambits should relate to the business problem or personal opportunity your audience faces, inform them about something new or unexpected, and paint pictures along the lines of "what if this pain were just gone?"  Make the audience care before you jump to the feature-benefit-advantage story -- and if they don't care, find out why instead of hitting them with your product stuff.  You may find out the reason they don't care is because of a more pressing problem that can make for a faster, cleaner sales cycle.  The special challenge of sales pitches is speaker credibility.  The audience knows the rep has a commission at stake and will ignore most of the content because they don't trust the speaker.  It's important for sales presenters to find genuine ways to avoid this reflex -- and to be viewed as an advisor about this kind of purchase rather than a hawker of second-rate merchandise.

VC / Investor Pitches -- Entrepreneurs (particularly founders or engineers) fall into several traps when speaking to the investor community.  Investment bankers don't really care about your product, technology, or value proposition the way customers and employees do.  VCs are busy people who've heard 1000 tight pitches, and they care far more about the size of the market, the depth of the pain, and your team's ability to evangelize and execute.  Therefore, investor opening gambits are quite different -- even between an "A" and a "C" round, let alone the IPO roadshow.  For the early funding rounds, you have 30 seconds for the gambit to identify an unresolved customer pain, a market disruption, or an unleveraged potential.  For example:

  • Factoid: “Every day, a billion people…”
  • Unsolved problem: “What if you could make fuel cells cheaper than Li-Ion batteries?"
  • Unexploited opportunity: “Someday, we’ll all be doing X and paying $100 a month for it.”
  • Demo:  Only if it's flawless, killer, and 30 seconds or less.

Gambits must not be hackneyed!  Set the hook and move to show the scope of the customer pain, the size of the market, and the thumbnail sketch of your offering within a couple of minutes.  Avoid details -- instead, spend your energy making the investors curious so that they'll be asking about the "how."  The special challenge of VC pitches is the inequality of information and power:  your audience may have heard a dozen pitches from your competitors, probably knows things you don't, and may hold very strong opinions about the potential for your business.  

Testing Your Gambit

Of course, the only real test is with the target audience.  You should engage with them -- and really listen -- to continuously tune your gambit for best effectiveness.  But you can get some feedback from less targeted test audiences such as:

  • Surveys of your real audience who visit your web site.
  • Surveys of your target audience through email solicitations and SurveyMonkey sessions.
  • Discussions with friends who are a reporter or analyst, asking for their feedback on how to make it more powerful.
  • Trial-runs with your significant other, cousin, or mother in law -- see if you can keep them from yawning.
  • Talking about it over beers with your peers at different companies -- see if you can keep them from laughing.

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