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Perfect Pitch—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published on newyorktimes.com on January 11, 2010.

Perfect Pitch
By Ian Ayres ’86

I recently attended my third Renaissance Weekend in Charleston, where among the normal cornucopia of ideas and fellowship, Sam Horn was incredibly generous in helping me sharpen my elevator pitch for a new project.

Horn literally wrote the book on the subject: Pop! Create the Perfect Pitch, Title, and Tagline for Anything. I just finished the book and I like its incredibly concrete “do this, then do this” advice. It attends to the often-overlooked question of prosody. And it provides a rich set (literally hundreds) of examples of what to do. For example, here’s what she says about the genius of the Freakonomics cover:

The cover of the brilliant book Freakonomics proves that a picture can indeed be worth a thousand words. This book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner not only won the 2005 Quills Book Awards for Business, I’m nominating it for the POP! Hall of Fame for the following reasons.

1. The pithy one-word title is a compelling example of how you can alphabetize a core word (economics) to coin a new term and a one-of-a-kind brand name that belongs only to you. (This technique is introduced in Chapter 3.)

2. The sub-title, “A Rogue Economist Explains the Hidden Side of Everything,” is purposeful in that it promises to reveal secrets which favorably positions the book with its target audience of executives and business book buyers who have “seen it all.” (Chapter 2)

3. Their ads feature a marvelous “Valley Girl” endorsement from the Wall Street Journal that says, “If Indiana Jones were an economist, he’d be Steven D. Levitt.” That comparison linking the professor/author to movie actor/celebrity Harrison Ford broadens the topic’s appeal, turning it into a cross-over book that’s attracted mainstream readers who wouldn’t normally be interested in this subject. (Chapter 5)

4. The authors pose such fascinating “POP the Question” inquiries as “How is a beauty pageant like a crack dealer? What do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?” Aren’t you intrigued? Phrasing these unexpected comparisons into questions engages our curiosity. (Chapter 13)

5. The book cover “AFLACs” its premise, “Things are often different than they appear,” by showing a crisp green apple with a slice cut out and you clearly see the inside of the apple is a juicy … orange. This made their abstract concept concrete. This startling image has become an identifiable visual brand that is now associated with their work.

6. Furthermore, this visual contradiction is an excellent example of Contra-brand (Chapter 10) in which they challenge a common assumption, in this case, the belief that you can’t compare apples and oranges. They just did! Kudos.

Horn practices what she preaches. Here’s the pitch she made for her book Tongue Fu! at the 2005 Maui Writers Conference:

My name is Sam Horn. (Pause).

I’ve written a book on how to deal with difficult people — without becoming one yourself. (Pause.)

It’s called … Tongue Fu! (Big smile.)

Tongue Fu! is … martial arts for the mouth. (Point to mouth.)

Some of the chapters include:

Fun fu! — how to handle hassles with humor instead of harsh words.

Tongue Sue! — Tongue Fu! for lawyers.

And Run Fu! — for when Tongue Fu! doesn’t work.

I’ve written about the Lulu title scorer which is a fun (if slightly frivolous statistical) way to predict the success of a book title. But Sam Horn’s take on the subject should probably be in the back drawer of a lot of book publishers (and agents and publicists).