How To Make Your Pitch STAND OUT – Interview with Dorie Clark

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Episode Summary

Dorie Clark is a strategy consultant and professional speaker who has worked with clients including Google, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, DHL, Fidelity, Yale University, and the World Bank. She is also a regular contributor to Forbes and the Harvard Business Review, and the author of “Stand Out” and “Reinventing You”. Dorie talks on how startup founders can stand out and touches briefly on how they can let go of fear.

How To Make Your Pitch STAND OUT – Interview with Dorie Clark

Welcome to The Successful Pitch podcast. Today’s guest is Dorie Clark who is a branding expert, according to AP. She’s written not one, but two books. One is called Stand Out, the other one is called Reinventing You. She consults for companies like, oh, I don’t know, Google, Microsoft, Yale. She’s also a contributor for Forbes and Harvard Business Review. She teaches at Duke school and she’s a former presidential campaign spokesperson. My goodness, what an impressive background. Dorie, welcome to the show.

Thank you so much. It’s really fun to be talking with you.

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Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It

I always love to hear about the concept of branding. I was listening to one of your talks where you said that your personal brand is “your career insurance.” Which I think is such a great way to think about that. Before we dive into that, I want you to take our readers and listeners, if you will, back a little bit. Because sometimes people read the transcript and not listen to the podcast. How did you start out? What made you become interested in branding and how did you write your first book and all that good stuff?

I got interested in branding essentially because I needed career insurance. I came on board too late and so I started to learn about it and to try to help other people figure out how they could get a little bit ahead of the curve as compared to where I was. I started my career as a political journalist. I was about a year out of grad school.

I had been working as a reporter for a year and unfortunately, I had entered the profession at a pretty bad time. It was right around the tipping point where the internet started to just erode the newspaper’s profits, which had been very fat for a long time. Newspapers, we forget now, but it was a very, very lucrative business. All of a sudden, Craigslist was just going nuts, taking everybody’s business.

My newspaper laid me off. It was during a bad recession. It proved almost impossible to get another journalism job. I really had to reinvent myself and to try to figure out a new thing that I could do. I realized that it would be a heck of a lot easier for me or for anybody else if you have the kind of really strong brand that’s developed so that people are seeking you out specifically.

For me the true test, it’s not are you immune from vicissitudes or layoffs or whatever. You can’t control stuff. You can’t control what’s happening at a macroeconomic level. You can control necessarily what’s happening at your company. I mean, the poor people at Enron or Arthur Andersen or whatever. There’s lots of really good people that had no clue and no way of doing anything about it.

The real thing that you can protect against is, at an individual level, what is your reputation, what are you known for? If you lose your job or if you fall off the horse, how quickly can you then recover?

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Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future

What motivated you to write Reinventing You? Was it this whole concept that you yourself had to reinvent yourself from a political journalist into a branding expert?

Yeah, pretty much it was. The genesis of Reinventing You was I started out with a blog post that I wrote for the Harvard Business Review. I didn’t really think of it as big official statement per say, but it was one blog post that I did based on my experiences. It was called How to Reinvent your Personal Brand. I thought, this will be interesting. I’ll share a few insights about the process

It turned out that it actually proved to be a very popular blog post. Popular enough that they asked me to turn it into a magazine piece. It went from about 700 words to about 2,500 words. It when it came out in The Harvard Business Review magazine, I got approached by several literary agents that said, “Hey, have you thought about turning this into a book?” At that point, I realized that it was an idea that had traction. I decided to go ahead and turn it into a book proposal and make that work.

Wow, what an amazing Cinderella story. So many people feel like they have a book inside them, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody tell us the story of a blog to a magazine article to a book, that they are calling you to turn it into a book. Which really shows, if you put something out there, whether you’re a startup with an app, or in your case, somebody putting out really great content, and it clicks with people, it will be successful organically.

That’s a great way of reinventing yourself, so I would guess that if you’re going to get career insurance and being a branding expert, that you would recommend people make sure they start putting out good content is a great way to enhance your reputation and your brand, yes?

I’m a big fan of that. It absolutely worked for me. The asterisk on this, the proviso, is that what happens to me in terms of publishing something and then having the agents come to me, it’s of course relatively rare. But what I did to tee myself up for that possibility, this was not you try once and then, “Oh, you got so lucky.”

I had actually written three book proposals prior to Reinventing You. None of them got picked up. No one was interested. It was part of a continuing process where this one clicked, but I was trying to put myself into the path of opportunity beforehand.

Thank you for clarifying that. Because it is helpful to know that you’re not just an overnight success. That you learned so much, just like entrepreneurs do while they have their startup. When they pivot, “That proposal didn’t work, nobody bought that one, let me try something else.” Oftentimes, people really don’t get the successful exits until their third or fourth or fifth startup. In your case, it was three. Bam, after that, you got the book.

I’m extremely curious to know how you got and what it was like to be a presidential campaign spokesperson. Let’s talk about branding and every day dealing with poll numbers going up and down and one wrong word and your brand is damaged.

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I served as Robert Reich’s press secretary. That was my initial experience working as a high level press person on a campaign.

Absolutely. The initial transition that I made, so I lost my job as a political reporter and I kept hoping that I could get another reporting job. It was just not happening. Finally, after about six months of freelancing and trying to cobble together a living, I got a phone call from a guy that I knew. He was a political consultant, and it turned out that Robert Reich, the former US Labor Secretary, was running for governor of Massachusetts.

He entered the race really late and he didn’t have any campaign infrastructure. They needed to hire people very quickly. My friend knew that I had been out of a job. He asked me if I was interested in it and I ended up taking the job. I served as Reich’s press secretary. That was my initial experience working as a high level press person on a campaign.

After that, I figured that I might be able to leverage that into a role on the subsequent presidential cycle, because the New Hampshire primary, of course, is really central to the elections. Most of New Hampshire’s medium market is the Boston medium market. There’s actually only one television station in New Hampshire. All the others are the local Boston channels. I had relationships with all of those reports. I thought that’s an asset I can leverage.

Again, it took a long time. It took about six months for me to be able to make the connections that I needed. Howard Dean was the candidate that I most want to work for. I had to really finagle my way in. I had a bunch of meetings that didn’t go anywhere, but eventually they did hire me.

That’s a great story of networking. A, you knew enough people that when an opportunity arose, somebody thought of you. You had brand awareness and then you delivered on your brand when the opportunity arrived.

So many of the founders are looking for how do I position my startup to investors in a way that it comes across as a brand with a culture that attracts the right team? Because that’s number one criteria for investor, is not the idea, but the team. The team is attracted to the leader, which creates a culture, which is what the brand is.

That’s why you’re such a great guest, because you’re a branding expert. Listeners need to know, how do I create a brand? When you’re talking to Microsoft and Google, what advice do you give big established brands like that?

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When you have this behemoth like Microsoft that people already have fixed thoughts about, I think that the key thing there is you want to focus on segmentation.

It is an interesting challenge when you have this behemoth that people already have fixed thoughts about. I think that the key thing there is you want to focus on segmentation, because you’re never going to be able to succeed in changing everybody’s mind at the same time. People have different levels of awareness.

If you think about a tech company, as in your example, there’s going to be a different opinion in the general public of like, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of them,” versus tech super users who have really particular opinions about, “Oh, they’re amazing,” or, “Oh, they suck.”

You really have to start with that and to figure out, who are the distinct constituencies and what is the message we want to drive with each of them and what are the proof points that we need? What do we actually have to do?

A crucial thing that people oftentimes fail to understand when it comes to marketing and messaging is they think it’s just about spewing messages at people. But actually it can’t be because no one will ever believe it, no one will ever take it seriously.

Marketing has to be integrated with product, with operations, etc. If people think your product sucks, you actually need to change the product in such a way that it doesn’t suck and then you have the ability, the flexibility, to change the messaging because it becomes about, “Hey, have you tried this? Have you looked at us lately?”

I think that some people just think it’s like this generic spin doctor kind of thing. Actually, it’s taking a holistic look at everything that the company is doing and then making sure that a light is shined properly on those initiatives.

What I find fascinating is you used the word constituency. It’s a political word. You have taken your political expertise of branding a politician and who their audience is, if you will, that can vote for them in their neighborhood or region or state, and applied it to branding for startups and huge successful tech companies figuring out, we’re going to break down which segment are we talking to, as you mentioned.

The really techies, are they gonna be the first adapters to try something new from Google or Microsoft? Or if you’re working for Apple, the new apple watch. You have to segment out who’s going to be the first to try and who are the brand ambassadors.

Can you share any differences between the brands of Google and Microsoft? I think everyone has their own personal opinions. I would just love to hear what Google and what Microsoft want people to think of them as brands. What’s their idea goal and see if it matches what we each think.

The first caveat with that is I wouldn’t want to say in any way that I speak for Google or Microsoft.

No, no, of course.

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Just in July, I was at Google’s offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I gave a talk about Stand Out.

I’ll also say too, I have consulted for Google and worked for them as a consultant in the past. Lately, my most recent connection with both Microsoft and Google has been as a speaker. I’ve come in and spoken to their organization.

My new book, Stand Out, came out in April. For folks who are interested in watching online, I actually, just in July, was at Google’s offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I gave a talk about Stand Out to that, which is available on YouTube. When I was on book tour, I spoke at the Microsoft campus in Redmond as well about the book.

Let’s talk about that then, because that’s even more interesting than what my question was. Instead of what is Google’s brand that they want people to think of, I’d love to hear what was it in your message from your book, Stand Out, that Google felt compelled to listen to?

How much more does Google need to stand out? Are their employees trying to get their idea to stand out? Give us a little trailer, teaser, to get us to go to YouTube and watch your whole talk. What was it that made Google say, “This book and this topic is right on brand for us.”

One thing that I have learned a bit about Google. I’ve actually spoken at Google, at different offices, three times. For Reinventing You, my first book, I spoke at their Mountain View headquarters. That’s actually available on YouTube as well. I spoke about Reinventing You at their London office and then the Stand Out one in Cambridge.

Something that I’ve learned that I think is actually quite interesting is that Google, I wish more companies would do this, they really seem to have a culture where they’re interested in retaining their employees.Even if the employee gets bored or for some reason doesn’t want to do the job that he or she has been doing, they don’t just say, “Fine, leave.” They really are invested in these people, they want to keep them.

There’s a lot of the culture, in fact, and encouragement within the culture, for people to switch jobs and functions within the company. It’s constantly revitalizing yourself creatively by having the opportunity within the confines of Google to do a lot of different things. That’s kind of exciting. I think that is relevant to the message of reinventing you, that you’re constantly sort of proactively deciding, “What do I want to learn? What do I want to be doing and how do I go about doing it?”

For Stand Out, I think the message that seems to resonate there is that if you’re doing something within a company or outside a company, if you want to have an impact, which I think that most of the people at Google and probably many people elsewhere want to have, it needs to get recognized.

You don’t want it to be, you’re doing this amazing thing and a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears about it. You want the word to be able to get out so that people can, A) understand your contribution, but B) so that the idea can spread. In Stand Out, I have a latter section of the book talking about how to build a following around your ideas. If you have something you’re doing that you’re really passionate about, I think that people are excited to spread the word.

Do you have to get them to believe in your vision in order for them to spread your word? I would think that there’s got to be something in it for other people to get them on your team. I keep using the analogy of a founder getting really great talent to come join his startup when they have other choices and some of the other choices might even pay them more.

It goes to this whole culture of, if you get into Google and Google puts you through such a arduous process to get in, I can see why they don’t want to let you go. Because obviously they feel like they’ve picked the best of the best.

This whole concept of, so you’re a startup or you’re in a big company like Google, how do you get your idea to stand out? Or if you’re a startup working on your pitch, how do you make your pitch stand out? Do you have any tips that you could give our listeners about, if you’re pitching an idea, or in this case, asking for money, what are your tips for standing out on a pitch?

I think your question John, is really to the point. I lay out a framework in Stand Out that is a three step process. I interview about 50 top thought leaders and tried to reverse engineer what their process was for how they got known.

My tech listeners are going to love the fact that you reversed engineered that, by the way.

That’s right. When in doubt, reverse engineer. That’s definitely how to do it. What I learned was that almost everybody followed this formula for spreading their ideas. It’s a three step process. I’ll lay it out briefly and then explain a little bit more.

The short version. Step one is building your network. Step two, building your audience. Step three is building your community. What I mean by this, step one building your networking, this is of course really important because in the early days of any idea, there’s a few things that are happening.

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You need to have a group of people around you who are both smart and talented, but also people that you really respect and respect you.

Number one, the idea’s probably not refined. It’s probably not that polished. It may actually not be that good. You need to have a group of people around you who are both smart and talented, but also people that you really respect and respect you. They have to have your best interest at heart so that you can receive honestly their feedback to make the idea better. They’re the people who are rooting for you. They want to help you. They’re going to open their Rolodex, they’re going to try to do what they can to advance you to the next level. That’s number one.

That’s great. I just want to recap, because it’s so helpful. In this case, it was an idea, but so many pitches are not refined. You can’t just pitch something without getting some feedback from your network is my big takeaway there. Thank you. So, step two is the audience, how does that help you stand out?

Step number two, about building your audience. This becomes the place where you start to share your idea with the outside world. Clearly, your idea is not going to do a very good job spreading if you are only talking to the inside circle or the people that you know personally in your network. You gotta start sharing it.

This is the place where, it’s the public phase. You are speaking about it, you’re writing blog posts about it, you’re sharing on social media, writing books. Basically, what you’re doing is you are making yourself findable by other like-minded people who would be interested in an idea of this sort. You start to do this to get the idea out into the ecosystem.

Make yourself findable. I love it. And while you’re on the topic Dorie, if you don’t mind, I just want to take a little subset into this. So many people, and all of us experience it to one degree or another, have a little bit of fear of what other people are going to think and what if it gets rejected and all that stuff.

When you’re helping people stand out and say, “Now it’s time to put it out there,” there’s decision, analysis paralysis, it’s not perfect yet, especially with a new app or something. It’s like, ugh! Do you have any advice for people of how to let go of fear or how to not worry about what other people think?

It’s a real challenge, obviously. We’re held back by the concern about what other people might be thinking or saying or whatever. I would say this is yet another reason why it’s really important to have that internal network as your first step. Because even if you don’t trust yourself, and it’s easy, frankly, if you’re getting negative feedback, to doubt yourself.

If you have put around you a group of people whose opinion you really respect and they’ve said to you, “No. You have something here. This is good. I believe in this,” then in the moments when you’re doubting yourself, you can look to the people around you to get that kind of extra boost of confidence you need.

That’s fantastic information. It’s almost like a force field from your network before you go out into your audience. Love it. The final secret is how do we get a community around us so that we can stand out.

The final step here, so you’ve been building your audience, you’ve been sharing the idea, getting it out there. What happens next? Ideally what happens is that your community, your audience members who have been listening to you, start to form a community.

Basically what that means, what that looks like, is instead of just you talking to the audience as this one way megaphone, they start talking to each other. That is what enables virality to take hold. They become ambassadors, they become messengers, they’re spreading it. You’re able to achieve experiential growth for your idea.

The key, and this is something that you were alluding to earlier, is that this is never going to happen if your message is too self-centered or self-focused. They need to see themselves in the idea, they need to feel the idea is valuable to them. If they do, then they will be willing to spread it.

Got it. If you want virality, make sure people see themselves in the idea. That’s fantastic. That’s the whole shift from push messaging to pulling people in. It’s all about the secret of virality. It’s so great. First, come up with an idea, make sure your internal network agrees with you, gives you feedback, adjust it. Then put it out into the world. In other words, make yourself findable.

Finally, if it’s really clicking, like your first blog did, you will find people that will want to share that because they see themselves in how to reinvent themselves or the need to stand out and that this is something they want to share with their friends.

Because they think it’s got a lot of value and that they’re going to be perceived as someone who’s got good content. Their friends might even thank them for sharing something and therefore you become someone who stands out. How did I do? Did I get that right?

Yes. Rock and roll, you got it.

It’s just so great. I really want to do it justice and then just connect the dots for the listeners who are founders as it relates to how does that relate to my pitch. It’s the same three steps. Practice your pitch with your network, and then start talking to investors, and then believe me, if the investors like the pitch, it will get a community. All the investors know each other, and your pitch will become viral.

If you follow Dorie’s book, Stand Out, and these three steps, it will make your pitch hugely successful and you will get funded fast because of what Dorie had to say today. Can’t thank you enough. That’s absolutely amazing.

Before I end the podcast, because it goes so fast with somebody like you with such great content, can you talk to us about the Forbes inner critic article that you wrote that talks about taking a pause and having compassion and being curious?

I think this is a really important topic obviously, because for so many of us, we’re not compassionate with ourselves. People are incredibly hard on themselves. They see someone else doing something and they say, “I get it, I understand.” We just hold ourselves to such a high level of perfectionism.

For Forbes, I actually co-authored a piece with a friend of mine named Susan Brady, who is high-level staffer at the consulting firm, Linkage. This is a topic that she’s written about pretty extensively, about how to quiet and silence the inner critic. I think that part of why we wanted to address it is that it’s almost impossible, frankly, to accomplish what you need to accomplish if you’re the one shutting yourself down.

You can’t move forward if you’re expecting perfection because no one is perfect out of the gate. That’s just the definition. It’s like somehow, we’ve seen these stories about a three-year-old that you sit him down at a piano and he can play Mozart. Everyone thinks, “I should be like that about pianos and about everything else.” Are you joking? No one is like that.

I think that we need to give ourselves a break. Of course, we need to do our best and try improve, but that’s a very different thing than saying, “If I’m not perfect then somehow I’m flawed.”

That’s great because so many founders are going to struggle and do struggle with the need to be perfect and that they think the pitch has to be perfect to get an investor to say yes. They think the app needs to be perfect to get a lot of users. You can’t move forward if you expect perfection.

I’m all about telling people to be progression-ist not perfectionists. Just focus on your progress. This whole concept of compassion as the way out of silencing the inner critic. If you’re criticizing yourself more than anybody else, you will not be successful. Thank you for that.

As we wrap up, besides the great books, Stand Out and Reinventing You, are there other books that have inspired you that you would think would be helpful for a founder who is looking to pitch investors to read?

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Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time

There are so many really interesting, great books out there. Some ones that are favorites of mine to recommend, I always like Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi, great networking classic. One that I feel like is talked about less but I think is very valuable is called Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer. The subtitle, it goes, Power; Why Some People Have It And Others Don’t, which is always a very interesting thing to be aware of.

Especially in the political world.

I’ll just wrap up with Robert Cialdini who wrote a classic book Influence; The Psychology of Persuasion. He is so impressive. I actually interviewed him for both of my books. I have sections about him and his insights in both Reinventing You and Stand Out. He’s somebody that, with the book Influence, was very influential to me and to lots of other folks.

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Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t

We’ll be sure to put all three of those books plus yours, of course, in the show notes for people. Dorie, how can our listeners follow you? If someone wants to hire you as a speaker? Obviously people should go and buy your book. You have a website. Give us your Twitter handle or give us everything we can to know more about you and to track what you’re going to be doing.

John, thank you so much. I appreciate it. One thing that I’ll actually mention to your listeners, if they are interested in honing their skills for pitches and developing breakthrough ideas, is that I have a free 42 page workbook that I developed that folks can download off my website. It’s available right on the home page at

In addition to the free 42-page workbook, I have about 400 free articles that folks can access there. I’m on Twitter @DorieClark. I do a lot of speaking and consulting. Information about that is all on the website as well.

Great. Clearly, you walk your talk. You have put out amazing content and you’re generous with it. Obviously people see the value in that and you are someone who definitely stands out and makes a difference in the world. I can’t thank you enough for being on The Successful Pitch podcast today.

Thank you very much.

Links Mentioned

Dorie Clark: “Stand Out” | Talks at Google
Forbes Welcome
Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi
Power by Jeffery Pfeffer
Influence by Robert Cialdini
Dorie Clark Website
Reinventing You by Dorie Clark
Stand Out by Dorie Clark.

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