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Posted: December 15, 2010

Improv your way to a sale

Whose line is it, anyway?

Julie Hansen

(Editor's note: This is the second of two parts. Read part one.)

"Improvisation is too good to leave to chance."

Paul Simon

I began studying improv to sharpen my acting skills, but I quickly recognized that this fast-paced "acting in the moment" discipline could be applied to many of the challenges I faced as a salesperson, where "think fast" is the rule rather than the exception. Following are three more key rules of improv that have helped me become a better scene partner on-stage and a better business partner off-stage.

1. Say, "Yes and..."
No matter what your partner gives you, in improv you must always reply with "Yes, and..." in order to keep the action moving forward. Improv performers know that their scene partner's cooperation is vital to a successful scene and they secure this by making their partner look good, acknowledging his ideas and being open to his perspective.

"Yes and" demonstrates an attitude of acceptance that is as helpful in improv as it is in sales. Here's how it works: Suppose your prospect tells you that they never buy anything but Product X. Instead of saying "Yes, but you've never tried our product," which immediately puts them in the position of defending your competitor, you reply: "Yes, and that's why you don't yet have anything to compare it to and then decide which is better." You have acknowledged their point as well as offered an alternative perspective without getting their defenses up. "Yes, and" allows you to build on your prospect's point-of-view and keep the lines of communication flowing.

2. Don't block
Unlike "Yes and," blocking brings forward progress to a dead stop or worse, negates another performer's perspective. Consider the following improv scene:
Player 1: "What do you think of my gorilla?"
Player 2: "I don't like gorillas." Or: "What gorilla?"
Blocking is a way of minimizing the impact of new information. In sales, blocking might sound like this:
Prospect: "I'm happy with my current supplier."
Seller: "But they don't provide the most cost-effective solution to your problem."
The "Yes and" response: "Yes, and I'm sure you wouldn't work with anyone who didn't appreciate your needs. We just happen to have a solution that gets better results."

3. Cut to the chase.
Most improv scenes start in the middle. Where the interesting stuff happens. If performers take too long setting up the scene audiences get bored. If you take too long getting to your point, so will your prospect. With attention spans growing increasingly shorter, if you don't get to the meat of it quickly, you may lose your window of opportunity. Which of the following two improv scenes would you prefer to watch:
Scene One:
--Hello, I'm Chuck.
--Hi, I'm Jan.
--Nice to meet you.
--You also.
--How are you?
--Great.
--How are you?
--I just got mugged.
Scene Two:
--Can you help me? I just got mugged.
--Stay here while I call the police.
--No police! I'm wanted in four states.

Scene two cuts to the chase, doesn't it? Not that we shouldn't be pleasant and courteous, but how many sales calls do you suppose busy executives receive every day? Five? Ten? Twenty? Yes, building rapport is important, but when you get a busy prospect on the telephone or have just a few minutes of face-to-face time, jump in and get to the interesting stuff before it's too late.
Improv requires a certain amount of vulnerability and a willingness to occasionally look foolish. If performers are focused on protecting themselves and saving face, the scene will be lifeless and flat. Play it safe in sales and you risk the same outcome. Great improv players are in the moment, accepting, daring and therefore memorable. Qualities we could all use a little more of as salespeople.

While these rules may not lead you to the stage of your local comedy club, they can lead you through the maze of unknowns in this new economy and make you a better business partner.
So think fast! And whose line is it anyway?
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Julie Hansen helps sales and business executives differentiate their solution and deliver winning presentations by leveraging proven performance skills from film, stage and improv.  The founder of Performance Sales and Training, Julie’s techniques have been adopted by Fortune 500 companies across the globe, including IBM, Oracle, SAP and local Colorado companies to gain a competitive selling edge.  Julie is an international speaker, sales trainer and the author of ACT Like a Sales Pro!  Learn more about workshops and keynotes at  PerformanceSalesandTraining.com, start a sales conversation at Julie@actingforsales.com  or connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

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