What Pitchman Ron Popeil Can Teach Us About Explanation

Ron PopeilIf you've been reading for a while, you've seen us write that a secret to a strong explanation is putting the subject in the context of someone's life.  Don't just talk about what it does, talk about how it fits into their world - how it takes away pain or makes something easier, faster, better.

Recently I've been reading the Malcolm Gladwell book What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, which is a collection of his past articles from the New Yorker. One of the articles is called The Pitchman and focuses, in part, on Ron Popeil of Ronco.  You may recognize his name from late-night TV, where he's often seen pitching a new kitchen appliance like the Veg-o-matic or the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie BBQ. He is a classic pitchman - a pro.

Though I would never call myself a pitchman, there is an element of the skill in creating explanations. Think of a commercial or an exhibit on the floor of a fair or trade show. The pitchman only has a limited amount of time to attract attention and hold it long enough for value to be clear. Common Craft may not sell Ginsu knives, but we do specialize in making value clear, in about three minutes.

There is a section of the story that struck me as particularly apt for explainers. Ron Popeil discusses pitching kitchen gadgets and how VCRs were marketed... 


You have to show them exactly how it works and why it works and make them follow your hands as you chop liver with it, and then tell them precisely how it fits into their routine, and, finally sell them on the paradoxical fact that, revolutionary as the gadget is, it's not at all hard to use.

Thirty years ago, the video cassette recorder came onto the market, and it was a disruptive product too: it was supposed to make it possible to tape a television show so that no one would ever again be chained to to the prime-time schedule. Yet, as ubiquitous as the VCR became, it was seldom put to that purpose. That's because the VCR was never pitched: no one ever explained the gadget to American consumers... and no one showed them exactly how it worked or how it would fit into their routine and no pair of hands guided them through every step of the process. All VCR makers did was hand over the box with a smile and a pat on the back, tossing in an instruction manual for good measure.  Any pitchman could have told you that wasn't going to work.

These days I see a lot of companies acting like VCR makers - handing over a gadget and focusing on features - without indicating how it fits into the lives of customers. Perhaps we all have something to learn from Ron Popeil.

NOTE: If you're interested in learning in-depth about the skill of explanation and how to make Common Craft Style videos, check out our online courses at the Explainer Academy.