Friday, November 20, 2015

Last call: JBTC Special Issue on the Rhetoric of Entrepreneurship

I know that those of you on the semester system are desperately trying to finish up the semester, but please don't forget that your abstracts for my JBTC special issue are due November 30.

The theme of the special issue is "The Rhetoric of Entrepreneurship: Theories, Methodologies, and Practices." If you're not sure that your project is the right fit for this special issue, please don't hesitate to shoot me an email. Looking forward to your contributions!

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Reading :: Pitch Anything

Pitch Anything: An Innovative Method for Presenting, Persuading, and Winning the Deal
By Orem Klaff

Pitch Anything is a set of techniques, portrayed as based on neuroscience, to assert social dominance during pitches and thus win deals. Orem Klaff, by his own account an accomplished pitcher who routinely does $30 million deals, describes his approach with the acronym STRONG:
Set the frame
Tell the story
Reveal the intrigue
Offer the prize
Nail the hookpoint
Get the deal 
He illustrates each lesson with multiple stories, usually with himself as the protagonist who succeeds by dint of his successful efforts, sometimes with others as protagonists who fail, and very rarely with illustrations of his own failures. After all, he has to set the "authority frame" in order for us to respect him.  (The limited accounts of his failures constitute limited concessions in which he graciously redistributes social power.)

This approach has merits and drawbacks.

In terms of merits, this approach teaches people to fake, and eventually feel, confidence in themselves and their pitching. It does help them to realize that they don't have to think or act as supplicants; they can recognize their own worth in the potential partnership, and they can think of it as a partnership rather than a transaction. They can also recognize and put names to adverse conditions, especially moves that their audiences might take to repattern interactions. The approach is finely geared to pitching a good or service as is. That is, the technique is kairotic, tuned to presenting a specific deal at a particular moment and decision point. There's no ongoing development or negotiation over time. Think in terms of deals such as bidding to finance an airport (which is the extended example at the end of the book). Who can sell the deal most seductively? For that reason, STRONG relies on manufacturing and sustaining a moment of social dominance.

But these merits also point to the drawbacks. In particular, the pitches in which I am most interested are the ones that involve cocreation, such as pitches involving technology commercialization. In these pitches, the offering is not fixed and can be pivoted easily in response to an emerging understanding of the clients' needs. Ideally, they constitute an ongoing conversation that can yield changes in the offering's design or use as well as the arguments for the offering. And for those pitches, the STRONG method would be less effective because establishing social dominance tends to short-circuit such conversations. If the offering is produced and developed through an ongoing partnership rather than presented as a complete package at a given moment, the social dynamics have to be different. It's not a seduction, it's an ongoing relationship.

For that reason, I was underwhelmed by the book. It was too narrowly focused, too consumed with winning and dominating, too unconcerned with the long view. Because of its essentially competitive orientation, it limits the horizon and collaborative possibilities of the pitch. Still, it may provide the careful reader with a vocabulary for understanding the hostile moves one might expect from pitch audiences.

Reading :: The Organization Man

The Organization Man
By William H. Whyte, Jr.

I had a very odd moment when reading this classic, oft-mentioned book from 1956. In Chapter 5, "Togetherness," the author describes how the National Training Lab in Group Development had been experimenting with the leaderless group. He notes that "One of the most astute students of the group, sociologist William Foote Whyte, was moved to write some second thoughts on his experience at Bethel." The author lauds Whyte's contribution and later investigations.

The passage confused me because I couldn't understand why the author was talking about himself in the third person. I had long assumed the two William Whytes—William F. and William H.—were the same. When I realized my mistake, the first thing I felt was relief.

Why relief? William F. Whyte's work is not always careful, but it's generally more textured than the broad strokes found in this book. The Organization Man is billed as "the first complete study of a way of life that many Americans are now leading ... life under the protection of the big organization" (back cover). Like any "study" of millions of people, this one relies on a combination of broad statistics and narrow anecdote. It attempts to characterize changes in education, jobs, careers, mobility, and teamwork as emanating from the shift toward large organizations and their ethos. Oddly, these discussions seem oblivious to other changes that affect the above: the shift from agricultural to industrial and service work; the impact of the automobile; the GI Bill and the broadening of the university system to serve the needs of a far more diverse set of students; the postwar boom.

As you might expect, William H. Whyte has a deeply (small-c) conservative understanding of how things ought to be, and his broad sketch of organizational impact in the US seems to look back constantly to prewar America as a guide: a time when people were stubbornly independent, created and lived in solid multigenerational communities, and studied subjects without regard to vocation. That is, although he doesn't put things in this way, he looks back to a more predominantly agrarian US that had not yet taken on a leadership role in the world. This essential change in the US' geopolitical standing—and in the source of its wealth—seems not to factor into his analysis at all.

In that context, I did find the take on universities to be interesting. Whyte notes that "Each June since the war, commencement speakers have been announcing that at last the humanities are coming back, and each fall more and more students enroll in something else," specifically vocational work (by which Whyte means engineering and business) (p.87). In particular,
look what's happened to English. Now it is becoming 'Communication Skills,' and in what is called an interdisciplinary effort everybody from the engineers to applied psychologists are muscling in. In some cases, Michigan State, for example, they not only have whole departments of communication but have made it the center of required under-class courses. In others, it has been made the heart of a vocational training in advertising and journalistic research. (pp.102-103).
He cites Drucker as saying that English, particularly writing poetry or short stories, is potentially the most important vocational course. But
That English is being slighted by business and students alike does not speak well of business. But neither does it speak well of English departments. They are right to recoil from justifying English on the narrow grounds of immediate utility, as better report writing and the like. But one can recoil too far. In so resisting the vocationalizing of English, they have contributed to it. If technicians of 'business writing' and the psychologists have been able to denature English into a 'communication' science, it is because the greater relevance of English has been left undrawn. (p.108)
Whyte finishes with a wan defense of English as providing universals but insufficiently addressing the particulars. This line of argument, nearly 60 years old, is still being deployed, and to just as little effect.

I stopped reading this book at Ch.22 (out of 29 chapters). Maybe I'll get back to it, but I doubt it. It's perhaps useful for understanding historical context, but I didn't find it to be intrinsically useful for understanding these societal changes per se.