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351Pitch some holes

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  • Jon Roland
    Sep 3, 2013

      Pitchmen have long practiced the art of posing several alternatives and knocking down all but one, leaving the mark to choose it as the only one left. Aristotle covered that method in his Rhetoric.


      But there is a variant on this method that can be more effective if done skillfully, that Aristotle never considered: Leave strategic holes in arguments for others to fill. Rather than making the one alternative explicit that you want your prospect to choose, structure the argument so that he is left with only one alternative that you leave it to him to come up with. That alternative will then be his idea, and he is likely to be emotionally invested in it.

      One way to do this is to partition the alternatives into two groups, which we might call "A" and "Not-A", then show why A is not a good choice. Next, divide the not-A group into "B" and "Not-B", and knock down B. Continue to further subdivide the remaining alternatives, leaving the "nots" inexplicit, and break off when the remaining "not-something" is one one thing that is somewhat but not completely obvious. It is better for him to struggle a little to come up with the idea, but not so long that he gives up. In some situations you may have to be patient. For something important but not within the ken of the prospect, it could take years, but be worth the wait.

      Sometimes the only remaining choice is obvious, but unappealing for some reason: too costly, too risky, too distant, or too complicated or difficult to understand. This method is especially useful for such "hard sells", because the prospect comes to realize it is his best or only good choice, perhaps after trying all the others. There is sometimes no substitute for hard experience.

      That is what led Winston Churchill to quip, ""We can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other possibilities."

      People often resist ideas offered by others. They want to own the idea, and the best way to get them to do that is to make them think it's their idea. Anyone with skill at managing small children is likely to eventually stumble on this method. 

      Stalin is supposed to have said that the secret of successful rule is to "get in front of the people, but not too far in front". That is examined in The Diffusion of Innovations.

      But hopefully, with a little skill, we can lead people to make the right choice without suffering the consequences of making all the wrong ones. That's the challenge of leadership.


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