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Posted: December 08, 2010

The first three rules of improv

New tools for selling on your feet

Julie Hansen

(Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.)

"Using improv and humor to communicate in the business world is effective and powerful..."
-Tom Farley, The Chris Farley Foundation

Ever marveled at how skillfully Improv performers respond to the seemingly unrelated suggestions thrown at them? There is no script, no direction and typically only the thinnest of plots. If you're in sales, where thinking on your feet is more the rule than the exception, this should sound very familiar to you!

As a salesperson, how many times have you walked into a situation with a thread-bare plot (an "information-gathering" meeting), unsure of what obstacles may confront you (a new decision maker, a competitor's price cut, a revised budget) or unclear about your client's goals or needs? How many times have you left a meeting and as you pulled out of the parking lot thought, "I should have said ....blah, blah !"

Sellers can learn important skills from Improv performers, like how to quickly establish a relationship, adapt to change and collaborate on creative solutions. But there is more to improv than just spitting out the first thing that comes to mind. Certain commonly adhered to rules that keep the action moving forward in improv can be applied to the sales process to keep the sale moving forward.

With the rules of the sales game changing daily now is the time to acquire skills that will help you sell on your toes, ready to react spontaneously and skillfully to the unexpected. Learning the Rules of Improv can mean the difference between a laugh and a groan on stage, but in sales, it can mean the difference between winning and losing the sale.
Here are the first three Rules of Improv that you can start using today:

1. Know Your Material.
Sounds obvious but this critical step is often overlooked in our rush to get in front of a prospective client. Before you can improvise your presentation or pitch, you must know it inside and out, forwards and backwards. You must know WHAT you're saying, and you must know WHY you're saying it (Hint: "My manager told me to" is not a good enough reason!) And you must be able to say it in variable lengths of time: thirty seconds, five minutes, fifteen minutes. So practice your sales script. Read it out loud to the dog. Rap it to your roommate. Know it so well that if you were interrupted you could pick it up at any point without losing your place.
2. Fire the Editor
Nothing kills creativity faster than self-judgment. As adults we learn to edit ourselves, but often our internal editor turns into our harshest critic. We overthink everything. We talk ourselves out of action for fear of looking foolish or making a mistake. It's critical to give that little editor in your head the afternoon off when you're trying to think on your feet. Explore all possible options without prejudice. Trust your first instinct. Don't let your editor kill the seed of a good idea before it has time to sprout.
3. Be in the Moment
Audience suggestions, new scene partners, changing story lines, all of these factors force improv performers to be in the moment. Just as they must react to every new development, so must you react to what is happening "right now" with your prospect. Anticipating a response or thinking about what you should have said two seconds ago takes you out of the moment. Focusing on the present moment creates a heightened awareness. You're actively listening and responding. Everything is fresh and new; you are making discoveries and adapting to things as they change. This doesn't mean that you aren't prepared, but rather that you are able to let go of your plans and adjust accordingly as the situation evolves. So stop. Pause. Take in the moment. You'll be amazed at what you may have otherwise missed in your rush to get through your presentation.

By adding the Rules of Improv to your sales repertoire, you will be able to react confidently and skillfully to almost anything thrown at you-except perhaps the odd tomato.
Look for more "must-have" Rules of Improv in part two of this article.
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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, start a sales conversation at  or connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

Enjoy this article? Sign up to get ColoradoBiz Exclusives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not represent ColoradoBiz magazine. Comments on articles will be removed if they include personal attacks.

Readers Respond

This is an excellent article. I read this a week ago when it first posted, and I have been especially applying Rule #3 since reading it. It is good advice whether in a sales situation or any other setting. By Darian Feedmoi on 2010 12 14
Great article! Working in Automation Sales over the years I am always looking for new ideas to improve on proactive selling techniques. This definitely puts a new perspective on some needed skills. I will be looking forward to your future articles and your book. Thanks Julie. By Rich Weekly on 2010 12 08
With my life's career(s) focused around sales in one aspect or another, Julie's article provides interesting and original insight. I've read many books on improving sales techniques through the years, and never have I heard of blending the rules of improv with the tactics of sales. Great article; fresh ideas. Thanks, Julie, for bringing new sales techniques to light. I look forward to your upcoming book! By Penny Vesel on 2010 12 08

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