Don't Talk About The Thing. Talk About What's Behind It.

I’ve seen every episode of AMC’s Mad Men, one of my favorite shows of all time.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the show’s caddish anti-hero, plays a 1960s ad executive. When he’s not engaged in a spectacular act of self-sabotage provoked by his messy personal life, no one can pitch a product better. His greatest strength as an advertising pitchman is his deep understanding of the emotion behind the products he’s pitching.

As an example, here’s a clip from Mad Men’s first season. In this clip, Draper is pitching his ad concept for the new “slide wheel” to two executives from Kodak.

Imagine if Draper had done what so many people in business do—pitch the features instead of the benefits. A feature-heavy pitch would have sounded more like this:

“Kodak’s ‘Wheel’ can hold 80 slides, the most in the marketplace. It allows you to go backward and forward, project on any bare wall, and change the order of slides in mere moments. With Kodak’s ‘Wheel,’ you can go on vacation—and have your slides printed within 24 hours of dropping them off at a certified Kodak photo center.” 

Businesses use that feature-centric approach all the time when selling their products. Advocacy organizations do it when promoting their campaigns. Local politicians do it when promoting their initiatives.

Don Draper Mad Men

But Don Draper didn’t even mention the features of the “Wheel.” Instead, he told a story about a mentor named Teddy, which led him directly to the consumer benefit:

“This device…takes us to a place where we ache to go again…It’s called ‘The Carousel.’ It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”

When speaking about your products, causes, and initiatives, forget about the features for a moment. Ask yourself what’s behind those features. Don’t tell me why I should care that your toothbrush has more bristles than other toothbrushes or that your initiative seeks to reduce urban blight. Look for the benefits behind those features instead. If you do, you might just find that you have a winning message.

A big hat tip to Danny Groner, whose article “5 Presentation Skills Learned From Mad Men” inspired this post. He tweets at @DannyGroner.

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