Game helps students perfect persuasive pitches
By Dale Singer, Beacon staff
Sure, maybe you think you’re clever enough to sell ice to Eskimos, but how about selling surfboards to lumberjacks or beach balls to teenage techies?
Those challenges and more are posed to people who play Pitch It!, a game devised by history teacher Scott Moeller that can help students develop their powers of persuasion, as well as serve as a fun diversion outside of the classroom.
Players get two cards: a what, saying what kind of product they have to come up with, and a who, designating their target audience. Their challenge is to devise a name for their product along with a slogan and a drawing that will help them develop a successful sales pitch. A timer forces them to work fast.
Alone or in teams, the players then make their pitches to each other, then vote on whose was the most successful.
Moeller said he was shooting for a game that would be fun but also nurture skills that don’t always figure into typical lesson plans.
“A lot of teachers ask me in professional development sessions how do you get kids to learn to problem solve,” he said. “How do you teach them to think creatively?”
By working to come up with new ways of looking at old products, Moeller said Pitch It! helps get those creative ideas flowing.
“Thinking outside of the box and playing with language are important,” he said. “Making abstract connections and sharpening presentation skills are a huge part of this game.
“There’s also development of a team, if you are playing in groups, and how groups generate the best ideas, learning how to communicate with each other so nobody talks over the other. Then there’s coming up with the final plan on how to pitch the product to your certain audience and becoming aware of your audience. Using humor to sell a product is a big plus, so there are all kinds of skills that I can see in this game.”
Ladders, woks and electric underwear
For the students in Megan McCorkle’s English III summer school class, playing the game was a good way to use in a different way the persuasive skills they have been learning. It was also a good activity to keep teens engaged on a hot morning the day before July 4 — and having some Hershey’s chocolate and Starburst candy handy didn’t hurt either.
McCorkle reminded the class that they have been studying the three elements that go into persuasion — pathos, ethos and logos, or the emotional, the ethical and the logical — then split them into six groups of two each and dealt the cards that told them what their product was and to whom they had to pitch it.
They quickly got down to the business of how to sell frisbees to hip hop music fans, ladders to rock music fans and lawnmowers to cat owners. The winning pitch was for Country’s Finest Hose, a garden hose meant for country music fans.
Subsequent rounds involved food powder for meteorologists, MP3 players for cheerleaders, cell phones for high school jocks or woks to the crews of fishing boats — a popular entry that led to the Fish Fry Friday Frying Pan, for those times when fish just jump into your boat.
Though the team selling ladders didn’t latch on to the easy slogan — your easiest way to get high — McCorkle did mention an earlier class where a team selling underwear to electricians had to modify its original sales pitch: Let us cover your ass. A quick change to “bum” made the slogan successful and acceptable.
After round two, students were unanimous in their praise when they were asked whether they would like to play the game with their friends on a Friday night, when they weren’t in class playing under the supervision of a teacher.
“It’s fun,” said Jamika Loyd. “It’s entertaining. You can learn a lot about business.”
To Ja’Vaughn Barnes, the game became more fun when the timer was added, putting pressure on the teams to come up with their ideas fast. “It’s a good game,” Barnes said. “I would recommend it.”
“You can put your own personality into it,” added Chris Reyes, whose pitches took a musical tack. “You can make it how you want it and put your own spin on it.”
Said Courtney Spink:
“It’s a good idea to put two different things together you wouldn’t normally see together.”
Toys are serious business
McCorkle was pleased with the way the game’s goals fit in with the persuasive appeal part of her curriculum.
“In a regular class,” she said, “I would have them write an argumentative paper. This game goes along with that so well. It’s fun and intuitive and really does get them to think about their purpose and their audience.”
Talking after class, she and Moeller agreed that Pitch It! was a good opportunity to loosen things up without sacrificing academic goals.
“You’re asking them to think creatively,” McCorkle said. “How often do we have the chance to do that in school? For teenagers, it’s very hard to get them to think about their audiences. They are very much focused on themselves.”
Moeller recalled that the seed for the game was planted on a long car trip when his mind began to wander to word play games as something to pass the time.
“I focused on billboards on the side of the road,” he said, “and I started imagining selling unique items and products to unique audiences. I played with that idea. I thought it would be fun for people to create a product title for that product and a logo.
“I kept mulling over it and came up with rules and parameters for play. I eventually came up with a prototype and had people play it, my family first, and I realized that my mom enjoyed it. I thought I was on to something, and I’ve been developing it ever since.”
As the game evolved, Moeller had to start doing some pitching himself, to establish himself in a business that isn’t all fun and games. A trip to the New York Toy Fair was humbling, he said.
“It’s really tough to break in with a new product at this time,” he said. “You’re there in the same place with LEGO and Ty stuffed animals — all the toys you realize you’re competing against. It’s a bit intimidating. It’s been challenging.”
With his network of teachers, and what he called an “underground campaign” including word of mouth, e-mails, Facebook and other avenues, Moeller keeps trying to sell what he thinks is an ideal product to a receptive audience. With TV shows like “The Pitch,” “The Apprentice” and even “Mad Men” highlighting the powers of persuasion, he sees himself as making the right move at the right time.
“It’s timely,” Moeller said. “The economy is shifting and changing, and jobs are shifting and changing, so this is kind of a lighthearted way to take on that challenge and to think differently.
“I’ve had many people play this game and come up with an idea on paper, and they walk away saying, ‘I’m really serious going to try this, or think about trying it anyway.’ So that part’s been fun.”
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