In the swim, making the pitch

Anthony Sullivan teaching Ashley James how to swim. Photograph courtesy U.S. Masters Swimming.
Swimming, like pitching products, Anthony Sullivan says, is the triumph of tenacity over repetition.

People know Anthony Sullivan as the enthusiastic pitchman behind such products as OxiClean, Nutrisystem, Arm & Hammer, Ped Egg and Swivel Sweeper.

What they probably don’t know is that he is a member of U.S. Masters Swimming, the national governing body for adult competitive swimming, which has 65,000 participants. Sullivan has a top-five ranking in his age group (45-49) and a certificate to make one of the most crucial pitches of all — teaching adults how to swim.

More than one-third of adults in the United States cannot swim the length of a 25-yard pool. About 10 people drown each day, making drowning the fifth most preventable cause of death in the United States.

In contrast, the British-born Sullivan says, “I’ve been swimming so long I can’t even remember when I learned how to swim. I just assumed everyone could do it.”

That everyone can’t — even though adults aspire to swim more than any other activity, according to U.S. Masters Swimming — “just seems tragic. If your parents don’t swim there’s a 10 percent chance that you won’t swim.” And then, he adds, fear settles in.

In the first lesson, which may not even take place in the water, Sullivan addresses that fear and, if the student is willing, teaches him or her how to float. But only if the student is ready.

“You have to be aware of the fear factor and take it one step at a time,” he says. “Baby steps, listening to how you feel, very slowly. But when you see that person float, it’s very rewarding.”

For Sullivan, there is nothing about swimming that isn’t rewarding. With a 50-meter pool just a mile from his St. Petersburg, Florida, home, he’ll squeeze a 45-minute workout into the end of a busy day, covering 2,500 yards. (He can swim a mile in 19 minutes.) He’s in the pool three to four times a week.

“I love the fact that you jump into a body of water and there’s no cell phone, no computer. I feel very present when I’m in the water, and, added to that, I’m getting a wonderful cardio workout. Swimming is the greatest workout….and it’s also a social activity.”

What swimming shares with pitching products is the need for tenacity in the face of repetition.

“I like to think if I’m pitching well then you don’t feel you’ve been sold something,” says Sullivan, who began honing his skills in the outdoor markets of England and Wales and the exhibit halls of London in the 1980s before teaming with an American manufacturer to create the Smart Mop. “The only question is how many are you going to buy. You’re in agreement with my passion for the product.”

Unlike some salespeople, Sullivan never betrays desperation, never undersells and never pushes. Call his philosophy the opposite of that of the cutthroat characters in David Mamet’s play “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Or, as Sullivan puts it, “You should never be closing.

“I never feel the need for the hard sell. And I never feel compelled to sell people what they don’t need.”

Rather for him, “it is a connection” and understanding that “you’re not just selling a product. You’re selling yourself.”

Sullivan has been pitching the art of pitching across several platforms. From 2009 to ’11, he served as executive producer and co-star of “PitchMen” on the Discovery Channel. He’s been featured on “Today,” “The Tonight Show” and “Good Morning America” as well as in articles in The New York Times, The Financial Times, Fortune and Advertising Age. 

Now he’s sharing some of his secrets in “You Get What You Pitch For: Control Any Situation, Create Fierce Agreement and Get What You Want in Life.” Co-authored with Tim Vandehey, the book is due out Sept. 12. It is the latest chapter in a life that Sullivan says has been blessed. He bikes as well as swims, has great friends and a great home, he says, and has written something that he thinks will be of value to others.

“If I can help one person get that dream job or dream house, then it will have been worth it,” he says.

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