Stop Hedging and Unleash Your Inner Zealot
My friend Gregg once visited a pizza joint in Syracuse, New York called Robbie T’s.
Apparently Mr. T (no relation) is very, very excited about serving pizza to his customers. Abnormally excited. Drastically excited.
You walk in to pick up a pizza. He looks up from what he’s doing, rushes over with a big, genuine smile and gives you two minutes of intense, undeniable, so-glad-you’re-here-you’re-going-to-love-it pizza excitement.
It’s shocking in comparison to most retail experiences. It is by all accounts delightful, and makes the (apparently good but not quite mind-blowing) pizza taste better. Just take a look at his reviews.
“If you want to operate a pizza joint, you should visit Robbie T’s daily and take notes…I always feel happier after I leave this place.”
Robbie T is not doing what I call conversational hedging. He is not playing it cool, waiting to see how the other person responds before committing to a position or a level of excitement.
He loves pizza more than you. He thinks about it all the time. He has strongly held beliefs on the placement of toppings and the temperature of ovens. He knows that all of his passion and dedication is worth sharing with every person that walks through his door, even though very few of them will ever care about pizza as much as he does.
Robbie is a pizza zealot.
The best yoga teachers are a little bit crazy.
I once took classes from a woman called Soleil who lived in an experimental commune. She took pilgrimages to India, meditated for hours on end, and eschewed traditional shampoos and deodorants in favor of some sort of essential oil regimen.
She lived and breathed yoga.
I wasn’t on the same page as Soleil. I wore gym shorts and an old t-shirt to class. I disagreed with her on the finer points of, well, of lots of things. I rolled my eyes every time she suggested that our session had increased the receptivity of my pineal gland, making it much easier for me to tune into the vibrations of the world for the rest for the day and manifest positive interactions and experiences.
And yet, I loved it. I didn’t go to yoga just for the stretching and sweating and so I could rationalize some curry fries later — I went for the Soleil. I went so that a little bit of her intense belief in her worldview would rub off on me — so that without having to take a pilgrimage to India, I could internalize a tiny little fraction of the peace and health and calm confidence she had found there.
I wasn’t exactly a convert. In fact, sometimes I found myself making fun of Soleil with classmates and friends. Some of the things she said that sounded profound in class turned out to be kind of hilarious once I’d shed the sitar music and inward focus that permeated the studio.
But I’ve never had a better yoga teacher. Soleil, as it turns out, did give me a tiny fraction of her peace and health and calm confidence. Her enthusiastic and unwavering conviction that yoga would improve my life was infectious and self-fulfilling. And even though I don’t quite believe the pineal gland is a literal aura antenna, the idea became a powerful metaphor and/or placebo, and I tended to have more positive experiences (or notice them) on days when I attended her classes.
Soleil was a great yoga teacher because she had bought what yoga was selling. She was in — all the way in.
She never apologized for her beliefs. She never hedged her namastes in case we didn’t respond in kind. She didn’t laugh nervously after catching me rolling my eyes and pretend she was just joking. Soleil was a complete, unabashed, yoga zealot.
A few years ago, I was standing at the front of the conference room at the ad agency I worked for. I was pitching some work to a client, and I felt something crazy welling up inside me.
I had been on a bit of a roll with these kinds of meetings, and I was in the zone.
“These words — your new brand — will be the difference between failure and success in your next five years,” I heard myself say with an intense, fiery confidence. “Brand work for a company is like therapy for a person. Welcome to the new you.”
Uh-oh. This was not the way we talked. My mentors in the agency world were masters of the art of not taking the work too seriously, and I had been an eager pupil.
Clients were fickle, and dour, and interested in KPIs and measurable results. They didn’t want to be preached to on the tenets of the Tao of Marketing. Of course we believed in the Holy Intangible Value of a Strong Brand, and subscribed to the Doctrine of Long-Term Results for the Faithful. But talking about these things in earnest was not how we sold the work we did.
Out clients knew branding and marketing was something they had to do, but not much more. So we tried to find common ground in the intuitive, common-sense parts of what we were selling, with the occasional wink and nod toward the Altar of Multiple Touchpoints.
A common refrain in our pitch meetings:
“I apologize in advance because some of what I’m about to say might sound a little hokey. But these ideas are useful tools for getting us to an end result that you’ll love, and those results won’t need any explanation.”
In other words, we hedged. Every meeting was a tightrope walk — an attempt to convince someone to follow our advice, while also convincing them that we felt exactly like they did about it all. We recited from the Scrolls of Ogilvy and hoped they would agree to its commandments, but made it clear we were open to the idea that it was mostly bullshit. Listen to the story and leave your offering in the plate, we said, but don’t worry, nobody’s trying to convert you. Heck, we’re not even sure we like it here.
We tried very hard to avoid being the marketing zealots our clients were clearly terrified of encountering. We all believed, but we were insecure in our adherence. An eye roll was a dagger through the heart; a whispered comment and shared snicker about our evangelism was the nightmare that kept us up at night.
And so instead of being Soleil — letting our passion and radical convictions lead the way — we pretended to be fellow students. We winked and laughed and rolled our eyes to prove we were just like them — along for the ride, interested in a good workout, but not one of those people.
I came to my last slide. I had really leaned into the almost-magical power of a strong brand. I was way off the reservation. Adrenaline was pumping. I looked across the table.
“Thanks, Donnie. We love it. We can’t wait to share it with the rest of the company.”
“Look,” I started. “I understand this all sounds a little…say what now?”
It’s not that they were converts, exactly. I’m sure there were a few shared laughs in the cab ride back to their office as the intoxicating ether of our glass-walled conference room faded. “Did you hear when he said that brand work is like therapy? I don’t even like therapy!”
They weren’t totally buying it. But they appreciated that I did.
They had come for a yoga class, and they had found Soleil. They had gone out for pizza and stumbled into two minutes with Robbie T. I was a little crazy, maybe. Way more into all this stuff than them. But clearly there was something to it — my deep convictions and infectious enthusiasm were hard to ignore.
For the first time, I was a marketing zealot. And it worked.
If you sell your expertise in the form of services or advice, you’re probably leaving a lot of money on the table by hedging when you talk about what you do. Congratulations — no one thinks you’re crazy. But no one is really excited about you, either.
Think of a hero of your profession. Not your boss (probably), but the sort of person who speaks at the conferences you go to because their success as a practitioner led to a demand for their perspective. When they talk about what they (and you) do, how do they sound?
What if their secret isn’t that they are more talented, or smarter, or more creative, or more lucky, or even better at hustling? What if their secret is that the way they preach The Gospel of What Works — the way they inspire you and everyone else in the audience — is the same way they have been preaching to clients and coworkers and bosses from the beginning?
Stop hedging. Figure out what you believe about the value of what you do, and then start figuring out how to bring that closer to the surface instead of burying it.
The people you are selling your work to want to be challenged and inspired.
They didn’t walk into your shop or agree to a meeting because they’re hoping to finally find someone else who is exactly as cynical and skeptical as they are.
They didn’t hire you because they already know exactly what they want, and exactly what will be most effective.
Whether they realize it or not, what they want is a zealot.