Back in May, 1969, the Public Broadcasting Service was facing serious cuts in its budget. Executives from the organization went to Capitol Hill to plead their case in front of a subcommittee of the Senate’s Committee on Commerce. The chairman of the committee, John Pastore, was a self-described “tough guy” and not known for being a spender. PBS needed $20 million at the time to keep functioning – an amount equal to about $140 million in today’s dollars. With their backs to the wall, the corporation’s executives called upon their very best salesman to save the day. That person was none other than Fred Rogers.
Who doesn’t know Fred Rogers? Well, at the time, quite a few people didn’t. For one, Pastore had never heard of him or his show (“Are you the narrator?” he asked. “How long is it?”). Although the 41-year-old Rogers had been on the air in a few local markets for the almost 15 years he had only begun specializing with children during the past six. Rogers had yet to gain the national prominence that would one day establish him as arguably one of the nation’s greatest communicators to children. His Mister Rogers Neighborhood show on PBS would eventually run for decades, and Rogers would ultimately win countless awards and change the lives of millions of young children to this very day.
But first, Fred Rogers needed to make a sale. He needed to convince a Senate committee to give his company $140 million. He did. In a testimony that came in just under seven minutes, Rogers famously pled his case and the importance of PBS — and persuaded the committee’s “tough” chairman to hand over the cash. How did this unassuming man — a children’s show host — accomplish such a feat? Watch his testimony here and you’ll see how.
Rogers was spellbinding. This was not a Shark Tank pitch. There were no elaborate demonstrations, waving of arms, special effects or glitz. Rogers was sweet, yet firm. He was mild, yet passionate. He quickly made his credentials clear and then got to the heart of the issue. He was fluent in his topic and worked with few notes. He was calm and measured in his testimony, not rushed or over-enthusiastic. He asked for permission to speak and respectfully responded to questions. Rogers connected his audience with his product, a TV show aimed at children, by appealing to their own experience as children. He made sure to convey his mission, which was not to profit but to give his young audience “an expression of care each day” so that they would realize that they’re unique and that, famously, “I like you just the way you are.”
Like any good salesperson, Rogers also gave a quick demonstration of his product. After asking for permission, he gave an example of the kind of lessons his show teaches young children, reciting from memory the words of one song about anger:
“What do you do with the mad that you feel? It’s great to be able to stop when you plan the thing that’s wrong and be able to do something instead and think about this song.”
As he spoke, the hard-edged Pastore melted, admitting after just six minutes that he was “supposed to be a pretty tough guy and this is the first time I’ve had goosebumps in the past two days” and then approving PBS’ budget request to a sigh of relief from their executives and a round of applause from the room.
Rogers and PBS made this sale not just because his product was so good. It was more because he was so good. He conveyed a sense of confidence to members of the committee. You wanted him to succeed, and you wanted to be part of his success. He was passionate, dedicated, caring and competent. The taxpayers’ money would be in good hands with Fred Rogers.
Would your prospective customers feel the same way about you?