The Secret to a Good Sales Pitch: Frame Control

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Pitch Anything" by Oren Klaff. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do you craft a successful sales pitch? How can you get through the prospective buyer’s defenses and get them to seriously consider your proposition?

According to Oren Klafff, the author of Pitch Anything, the key to crafting a good sales pitch is to win what he calls a “frame collision.” There are three common frames that your target could adopt: 1) the power frame, 2) the analyst frame, and 3) the time frame.

In this article, we’ll discuss how to establish yourself in the dominant frame, which will greatly maximize the chances of getting your idea considered.

Working Within Frames to Control the Narrative

The first step in managing the primitive instincts of your target’s croc brain is understanding “frames” and mastering “frame control.”

Frames are mental structures that shape how we see the world. They are our particular, specific perspective on the world, and they regulate how people interact with one another: Are you the one in control? Are you the “prize” in this relationship? Who’s paying attention to whom? Frames are controlled by the croc brain and are shaped by very basic desires: power, authority, strength, knowledge, and status. 

Controlling the Frame Is the Key to Selling Your Idea

In any business or social interaction, two frames will meet and compete for dominance. The person with the winning frame will set the tone and agenda of the meeting. The losers will play by her rules, acknowledging her authority, respecting her opinions, and accepting her decisions with minimal push-back. With this in mind, the key to crafting a good sales pitch is to win a so-called “frame collision.” To do so, you must establish yourself in the dominant frame.

Mastering the power of frames is the most important thing you’ll learn regarding pitching. Without this skill, you might find yourself resorting to typical sales techniques like fast talking, spin selling, and trial closing, which are rarely successful. 

Sales techniques like this were created for people who have lost frame control and are trying to win business from a subordinate position. Because they are typically ineffective, they are dependent on the “law of large numbers”: you might expect to make just 2 sales out of every 100 attempts. Worse, they have a reputation as being annoying and signal to your customer that you are desperate, activating her croc brain to filter you out.

(Shortform note: For a different perspective on the effectiveness of some of these sales techniques, read our summary of Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling.)

There are three common frames that you will run into in most business situations, that your prospective buyer might adopt:

  • The “power frame”
  • The “analyst frame”
  • The “time frame”

To counter these frames, you’ll use techniques specifically designed to put you in a stronger position against each, plus one more, a “prize frame,” that is useful at every pitch no matter what frame your target uses against you.

Understanding the Power Frame 

A “power frame” exudes status and authority. It is the most common opposing frame you’ll encounter in a business setting. A person who wields a power frame often displays imperial behaviors: arrogance, lack of interest in you, rudeness, and pursuit of her own interests over those of others.

If you allow your target to maintain her power-frame dominance, she will quickly shut you out. If you can establish your own frame over hers, though, you will have a much greater chance of making a deal. Fortunately, it can be quite easy to disrupt a power frame, as those who use them aren’t used to being challenged. 

Disrupting a Power Frame 

Before your pitch even begins, you must start working to establish your frame as dominant. 

First, do not react to your target’s power frame in ways she expects. Do not act overly polite or friendly, don’t engage in meaningless small talk, and don’t let her tell you what to do. If you play by her rules, you confirm her dominance. 

Second, look for an opportunity to use a “power frame disrupter”: a small act that lets your target know that you are not playing by her rules. In some minor way, deny her of something, or defy her. For example, if you brought visuals and you notice your target taking a peek, take them away and say jokingly, “Not yet” (a denial). Or, if your target says she only has 15 minutes, counter by saying you only have 14 (a defiance). Do it lightheartedly, but mean it. 

The key is to keep it light and use humor. If you keep it humorous, it is typically well-received; she’ll see your challenge as a game and will enjoy the play.

Understanding the Analyst Frame

The “analyst frame” is a logical, analytical way of perceiving the world that places more value on cold cognitions—data and numbers—than relationships and ideas. It is common in industries with engineers and financial analysts. However, you need your target to listen to your pitch with hot cognitions—desire, excitement, emotion—in order to prevent her croc brain from filtering it out.

Excitement is generated in the croc brain and cools in the neocortex, and the analyst frame can kill your pitch by freezing out the excitement for it. Getting mired in technical details derails your momentum and saps enthusiasm from the room. 

Disrupting an Analyst Frame

You can counter the analyst frame with two techniques:

  1. Keep your target focused on the big picture.
  2. Use an intrigue frame to snap your target out of her neocortex and back into her croc brain.
Keeping Your Target Focused on the Big Picture

The “big picture” is where hot cognitions live, so to keep your target “hot,” focus on the overall vision and the business relationship you’ll be developing rather than technical details that can be worked out later.

  • Separate your financials and technical materials from the other materials in your presentation. 
  • Let your target know that the pitch is not the right time for highly detailed analysis.
  • Convey confidence that your idea has strong numbers to back it up, which you are happy to review in greater detail at a later time. 

If your target pushes for more details anyway, give her concise, high-level information, and then redirect her attention back to your pitch. You need to anticipate these kinds of questions with a prepared answer. Have these numbers at your fingertips so you can answer quickly and move on.

For example, if she asks about specific expense and revenue numbers, you can briefly let her know the top-level numbers, then note you have other facts you can examine further at a later time, but right now, the question is, are we a good fit? 

Using an Intrigue Frame to Snap Your Target Back to Attention

A person with an analyst frame has a tendency to lose interest in your pitch the moment she decides she’s “figured it out.” 

When you start your pitch, she’s interested. Most people like being challenged with something new and different, and up front, your pitch is certainly something new. However, a person with an analyst frame will be interested in your pitch primarily as a puzzle, asking herself, “How is this problem like others I already know? Have I already solved this?” This person will focus on figuring out how your idea works, rather than the overall relationship. 

If she gets to a point where she feels she can predict or explain your ideas without your guidance, her croc brain kicks in and tells her there is nothing new or exciting to be learned. She will no longer feel compelled to pay attention.

If your meeting is getting lost to analysis, use an “intrigue frame” to get it back on track, with a fast-paced, tension-filled story to grab your target’s attention. Through suspense, tension, and narrative, stories are designed to teach us survival skills. The croc brain loves them, and by hijacking her croc brain with a story, you’ll yank her out of her neocortex, because the brain can’t do analysis while it is lost in narrative—a person can’t have both hot and cold cognitions at the same time.

Think of watching a movie. If it’s a good one, you’re so absorbed in the narrative that you may only realize plot holes later, after the movie is over. Conversely, if you’re watching a movie and are aware of its plot holes, you’re no longer lost in the story. You switch to analyst mode, watching out for more faults. 

Go to each pitch with a prepared personal story that you can refer to if your pitch starts getting lost in analysis. 

  • It should be brief and related to your meeting.
  • You must be the protagonist.
  • It needs tension: difficult obstacles; a time crunch.
  • It must have serious consequences: very bad things that will happen if you fail.
  • It should show your skills in action, and should have a human element. People connect with stories about other people—don’t center your story around numbers. Your target will ultimately decide on your deal based on her assessment of your character. Your story should showcase this. 

Your narrative should follow a predictable structure that hooks the listener and ends in suspense:

  1. Ground your audience: What is happening as you begin your story? (Were you working on a deal? Preparing for a pitch?)
  2. Introduce an obstacle: Have something go wrong. (Did your investor back out? Did your competition pitching for the same deal hire a celebrity?)
  3. Escalate your problem: Make things even worse. (You find out your investor is involved in a scandal; the celebrity has a personal grudge against you.)
  4. Provide no immediate resolution. Leave your audience feeling tension and suspense. Finish the story only after you’ve moved forward with your pitch. This once again convinces their croc brains that you are the one in control, allowing you to drive the meeting. 

Ideally, your story should be related in some way to business or your product or pitch. For example: 

  1. “I was closing a $22 million deal with a mid-sized bank where I was responsible for coming up with $6 million of it. I had found a dozen investors and was ready to close. (Ground your audience.)
  2. “Suddenly, one of the investors disappeared. Couldn’t track her down, and her bank wouldn’t wire the money without her signature. The entire $22 million deal was at risk. (Introduce an obstacle.)
  3. “Remarkably, by reaching out to my network of contacts, I was able to track down a phone number. As luck would have it, her husband answered. I explained the situation and that I just needed a signature—his would do, as her husband—and that I was willing to fly out to meet him to get this done. But he cut me off—he’d separated from her six years ago and said he’d rather slice off a finger than help her out. (Escalate your problem.)
  4. “The second I heard that, I hopped on a plane.” And here, you stop the story, and return to your pitch. Only finish the story later, after you’ve delivered more of your message. (Provide no immediate resolution.) 

While typically your intrigue story will relate to your pitch or to business matters fairly directly, you may at times find it useful to insert a story for pure entertainment, if you really just need a jolt to grab your audience’s attention. Do keep it somewhat related to your pitch, so it doesn’t come across as contrived, but have fun with it.

Klaff used a story about almost being in a plane crash, which he spoke about at a pitch on an airfield (related to your meeting), when his audience was getting mired in technicalities. In his story, he was on a small plane (be the protagonist; ground your audience) when the plane started to nosedive (introduce an obstacle and serious consequences). He related that he could see the pilots fighting over the throttle (escalate the problem). Then, he broke away: “Anyway, where was I?” (provide no immediate resolution).

It’s important to note that this type of story is less instructive than entertaining. It doesn’t illustrate your skills so much as simply grab your audience’s attention if it’s waning. It can be useful in certain situations, but a business-related story that illustrates your skills is more ideal.

Understanding the Time Frame

The “time frame” is a time constraint thrown at you by your target. It is an attempt to force you to react to her restrictions. It asserts her dominance because whichever person is reacting to the other is not in control.

It’s important you react assertively to this type of challenge. If you accept and go along with her restrictions, it signals to her croc brain that you have ceded control to her, and that you need her more than she needs you. She is now primed to reject you.

Disrupting a Time Frame

Counter a time frame using a time constraint disrupter.

If the restraint you are given is reasonable, and you can work within those limits, respond with a tighter time constraint. For example, if you arrive at a meeting and your target tells you she only has 15 minutes, tell her you only have 13. Be lighthearted about it, but mean it. Wrap it up in 13 minutes. 

However, if the time constraint is not reasonable, and you would not be able to properly convey your message in that time limit, do not accept it. For example, if your target arrives late, then says she only has ten minutes, and you decide you can’t properly get your message across in ten minutes, don’t respond with a typical, “Thanks for fitting me in!” This is an expected response that only serves to reaffirm her higher position.

Instead, tell her you don’t work like that, and that you only work with people when you both respect each other’s time. This lets her know you value your time, and so should she. It shows her you have high professional standards, and it makes her feel she has to earn your business. 

Offer to reschedule at another time. You’ve now broken her time frame and with your unexpected response, focused her attention fully on you. Rescheduling may not even prove necessary. She may respond by admitting she actually has 30 minutes, and that she’d like to meet now.

A time constraint might also be an unspoken restriction, where you notice your audience’s attention waning and you know your time is running out. Attention spans are short. Her waning interest may not be a reflection on your pitch. She may just be at the end of her abilities to focus. For this reason, pitches should be short as a general rule.

If you notice you are losing your audience, wrap up your pitch quickly by inserting your own time constraint: “I have to run to my next meeting.” Don’t start to talk faster or rush through your presentation to get to the end, which invokes her croc brain to sense desperation, and makes her more likely to reject you. It is better to end strong by indicating you are wanted elsewhere, than to drag out a meeting which is clearly over. If she wants to learn more, she will follow up with you for a second meeting. (We’ll cover attention spans in more detail in Chapter 4.)

Using the Prize Frame

“Prizing” happens when you get your target to realize that the true prize is not money—it’s you: Money comes from many sources, but there is only one you. You can adopt a prize frame at any time to counter any oppositional frame you run into. By positioning yourself as a reward to be pursued, you activate your target’s desire instincts and make her more receptive to striking a deal. The croc brain places high value on things that need to be chased. 

There are several ways you can project a prize frame:

  • Don’t appear overly grateful to be there: “I’m glad I was able to fit you in today. Let’s get started—I have another meeting right after this one.”
  • Make your target justify herself to you, making her feel she is the one doing the chasing. You might say to her, “I’m choosy about who I take on. Why do you think we’d be a good match?”
  • Don’t use tired sales techniques like trial closes: “So, are we getting close to a deal?” It makes you look eager and needy. You’ll lose your “prize” status if you are seen as the one doing the chasing.  
  • Make statements, never questions, when closing. Don’t look like you are seeking validation. Even when posing a question (“How will you grab my attention.”), say it as a statement with your voice.
  • Close by stepping back, projecting calm, and reminding your target that there is only one you. Do it with humor: “So many buyers, only one me…”
  • Truly internalize the fact that the prize is you, not the money. Make this realization part of your mindset and it will come across in your interactions. The money needs you if it’s going to accomplish anything. It can’t do it without you.

Prizing is a useful tool to help you regain frame control if, for any reason, you’ve lost it. Say, for example, you arrive for a meeting only to discover that the key decision maker is no longer planning to show up. You are invited to present to her subordinates instead. 

Here, you’ve lost frame control, because even if you successfully pitch to her subordinates, when they return to their boss to debrief her on the details of your pitch, their frames will be subordinate to hers. Her dominant frame will override theirs, and it’s unlikely she’ll properly listen to the merits of your pitch. 

You need to position yourself as a prize in order to regain the dominant position. Your target has essentially rejected you and your way of doing business. She will expect you to accept this. To grab her attention, you need to reject her way of doing business.

Do not present your pitch to your target’s subordinates. No one can make your pitch like you can, and saying “no” to their terms conveys to them you are valuable, and not one they should easily dismiss. 

Instead, tell them you’ll give them 15 minutes to “get organized” but after that, you’ll have to reschedule. This portrays you as the prize: They have to accommodate your terms. It also implies that they are disorganized and are wasting your time, again, showing that you consider your time valuable. Keep it light and friendly, but be firm.

If your target does not show up within the 15 minutes you’ve allowed them, leave. Again, keep it friendly. The others will naturally feel bad about wasting your time (this is their croc brain in action, worrying about social norms). There’s no need to press this advantage.

Offer to reschedule, but this time, at your office. This changes the dynamic: It conveys that they need you more than you need them (you have thousands of other buyers who could snap you up), and tells them they will have to earn you.

Although this technique may sound far-reaching, and it may feel unrealistic to think you can set the terms in this way, consider the fact that if you arrive at your meeting and your target does not show, you’ve already lost the sale. Positioning yourself as the prize is the only chance you have of regaining any leverage and opening the door to a successful pitch. 

A Final Word on Frames

Once you take control, it is vital that you don’t abuse the power you now hold. Any true “frame master” knows that dominating the frame is only a means to an end. It’s not the point in and of itself. You don’t want to make the other person feel inferior, but rather, to win the game (and the deal). You are truly in control only if she allows you to be in control because she’s enjoying the experience. So keep it fun and keep it light-hearted.

The Secret to a Good Sales Pitch: Frame Control

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Oren Klaff's "Pitch Anything" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Pitch Anything summary:

  • An approach to the art of pitching that appeals to prospects' primitive instincts
  • How to establish your frame as the dominant one
  • The four parts of a successful pitch

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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