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Try this creative tactic to improve an idea or hone your pitch

Suneel Gupta

After explaining an idea to a friend, I’ll often ask them to explain it back to me. Not only does that help me understand whether the idea is landing, but it also helps me pick up new ways to explain it. When I first thought about writing this book, the bestselling author Dan Pink listened to my pitch and then explained it back to me, only far more eloquently. “People who get ahead aren’t just brilliant . . . they’re backable,” he said.

Asking people to repeat my idea back to me always gives me a sense of what’s actually resonating. It helps me prune away the parts that aren’t working and dial up the dialogue that is. This is similar to how the film industry uses “table reads,” where actors and actresses sit around a table to read a full screenplay aloud. The director will tune in to how the room is reacting to the lines. Those that fall flat might get cut, while others get amped up.

Hunter Walk, the venture investor, told me he brings the same approach to helping startups raise funding. He and a founder will print out the pitch deck and put an asterisk on slides that, on a scale of one to ten, “should be dialed up to an eleven.”

The goal of an exhibition match is to get the most direct feedback possible. After giving a practice pitch, don’t ask the question “What do you think?” It almost never leads to the type of insight you need to get prepared for a difficult backer. Instead, dig beneath surface-level feedback by asking more specific questions.

Dr. Tom Lee is the founder of One Medical, which is one of the fastest-growing primary care providers in the world. One Medical is publicly traded and serves nearly 500,000 patients, but it started as a one-man operation. Early patients were surprised when they walked in to see Dr. Lee answering phone calls, taking vitals, and administering flu shots.

During his training, Lee discovered how the right questions could uncover root issues. He says that if a patient came in with a headache, for example, he learned to ask not “Why did you decide to come in?” but rather “Why did you decide to come in today?” That one additional word helped get to the source of the problem, which Lee says was often tied to the stress of an unworkable job or family situations.

Lee began to see questions like medical instruments—the wrong instruments led to useless answers. When he started One Medical, most medical providers would ask their patients, “How satisfied were you with your visit?” But Lee felt like that question was a blunt instrument that didn’t probe deep enough. “Almost everyone circled four out of five.”

Lee decided to ask each patient a much more specific question. “On a scale of one to ten, how likely would you be to recommend me to a friend?” Then he’d dig into why each patient scored the way they did, so he could apply what he learned to his next patient’s experience. Lee says that question, known by marketers as a Net Promoter Score, was a much more sensitive instrument that allowed him to “pick up a lot more defects.”

By not settling for the standard patient satisfaction question, Lee was able to get past the obvious and design what a Business Insider reporter called “the best medical practice I’ve ever used” and what Fast Company named the No. 1 most innovative company in health in 2017. (Apple was No 2.)

Lee showed me what’s possible when we go beyond softball questions like “What do you think?” As much as we may enjoy hearing “I like it,” this kind of feedback won’t get us very far. The most backable people know this. That’s why every night after filming The Daily Show, instead of going straight home to his family, Jon Stewart would huddle with the show’s producers in a windowless room with a few chairs for a postmortem. Snacking on his nightly post-show bowl of cut fruit, Stewart would ask “what went right” but mainly probed into “what we could have done better.”

Steve Bodow, the show’s head writer and executive producer, was in the room for nearly 2,000 postmortems. He recalls how one night they questioned why one of the show’s montage reels had received a flat reaction from the audience. By digging beneath the obvious answers, they discovered that writers had submitted the clips without timestamps, which then required the video team to spend 20 extra minutes searching the footage. “Sounds like a small thing,” says Bodow. “But because they didn’t have enough time to refine the video editing, the joke wasn’t set up properly—and that’s why it tanked.”

One final point about gathering the right feedback: Sometimes the best insight comes from how people act, not what they say. A friend may not want to hurt your feelings, so pay attention to nonverbal cues—facial expressions, nodding, smiling at the right moments—to tell whether your delivery is landing.

When testing new product concepts with customers, some top researchers skip verbal feedback altogether and just pay attention to the nonverbal behavior. When I was at Groupon, my team and I stopped asking beta customers what they thought of a new design and simply watched the way they interacted with it. We got much more accurate feedback that way. Sometimes customers would say they preferred one design but then spend a lot more time interacting with the alternative.

Author Neil Strauss told me that when he’s done writing a book, he prints it out and reads the entire manuscript out loud to someone he trusts. But he almost never asks for their feedback. Instead, during his read-through, he’ll pay close attention to their facial expressions and make little notes to himself in the margins based on their reactions. Strauss considers this practice one of his secrets to success, in his case seven New York Times bestsellers.

Excerpted from Backable: The Surprising Truth Behind What Makes People Take a Chance on You by Suneel Gupta. Copyright © 2021 by Suneel Gupta. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Co. All rights reserved.

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