Q & A: Uncovering the hidden agenda

February 6, 2012

According to Kevin Allen, we pitch business ideas every day. But how do we ensure our pitches will be successful? Allen’s forthcoming book, The Hidden Agenda, teaches readers how to connect to their audience on an emotional level in order to win pitches. Entrepreneurial spoke with Allen about how to find and connect to what he calls the hidden agenda.

You write in your book that each of us makes a pitch every day. What do you mean by that?

Whether you’re trying to get a group of people to follow you for the first time who you’ve hired or you’re running a small company, at the end of the day there’s an organization you’re trying to reach and connect with. In business (that’s) an audience that you’re trying to get to do what you want them to do and to buy your product. So the notion of pitching, that is reaching someone and connecting with them so they will follow you is a universal thing in business we do each and every day.

What do you mean by the title of your book, Hidden Agenda?

Over the years of pitching, I realized that behind every decision is an emotional desire. People don’t buy with their heads, they buy with their hearts.

While everyone was listening for the functional stuff (in meetings), my antenna would go up and I would say I think this person is nervous or this person has an ambition. If I could connect with that in the form of what makes me special or what I believe or maybe establishing a shared ambition, I’ll connect with them and they’ll believe in my business. Once I started to codify this and use this as a process, we won much of the time.

First, it’s putting yourself in a relationship of empathy with your prospect to understand what keeps them up at night, what they aspire to, what they believe in. But that’s only half the job. The other half is reaching inside yourself, your core, to see what makes me special? Or what is it I believe or what ambition do I have? Often connecting to that hidden agenda is the magic.

What is the key to reaching the audience you wish to motivate?

There’s a whole set of things you can do to establish an empathy and dialogue with the prospect. They usually fall into three groups:

  • Wants
  • Needs
  • Beliefs

Assume you’ll have a theory or hypothesis about the prospect after listening very carefully. Active listening is a very important skill. Then you can say there are three potential ways in which I can connect with that hidden agenda (what Allen calls core, credo and real ambition)

For someone starting to make pitches, how should they follow the advice in your book?

You have to ask three questions:

  • Who are you talking to?
  • Who is this person and what is their hidden agenda? What keeps this person up at night? What is it they emotionally seek?
  • What is it I have either in my skill or my ambition that I can share with them or my value system that can connect with them?

Once I figure that out, I’ve connected to them in a profound way. Then how can I put that into an argument that is persuasive and in a way that has a touching human component to it.


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One of the other elements you probably need to consider is the difference between a conversation with one or two people and talking to an audience. It’s hard to judge what a large group is thinking because we tend to think blank faces are judging us. Blank faces in groups are normal.
So reaching a group can be hard unless we understand what is going on.
We, as speakers, still tend to look for approval because we are still using normal conversational skills in front of a group. But on the whole we don’t get approval signs when we speak. So you might be thinking that you know their hidden agenda (they think you are boring) when you are interpreting the wrong signals. They are just listening. We need to re-think the audience and need to re-think how we are in front of an audience. It’s a fundamental of public speaking that tends to get missed. It seems to catch a lot of people out and during my courses you see the a-ha moment when we explore this point. So to be in front and to have trust in yourself learn how to be ease with blank faces – then you can probably see their agendas better.
John Dawson, Bath UK

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