Learn how to communicate with clarity – six keys to influencing others without using manipulation.
How many a dispute could have been deflated into a single paragraph if the disputants had dared to define their terms?
Salespeople spend their lives communicating concepts to decision-makers who want to improve their understanding, so they can do what they get paid to do – make decisions. The best salespeople ask questions first, so they can learn which concepts to communicate, which is why I put the chapter on interviewing prospects before this one. But, if you’re going to close a deal, you must eventually be able to clearly describe the who, what, when, where, why and how of the stuff you sell.
Remember, in Chapter 2, I explained that decision-makers fear that salespeople will waste their valuable time? This fear comes from real-world experience with salespeople who fail to communicate the message the decision-makers want to hear. This failure most often occurs when the salesperson doesn’t ask questions before offering solutions and/or doesn’t know how to offer those solutions clearly and succinctly.
In this chapter, I’ll describe six keys to communicating your message clearly, and explain how the concepts apply to selling situations. But before I do, I must manage expectations just a bit.
While I’ll explain the concepts so you’ll understand what to do and how to do it, whether or not it will come naturally to you depends on your personal strengths. People who are creative puzzle solvers, for instance, will be better at one aspect, while people who excel at task implementation will be better at others.
Despite a lack of natural talent in any single area, however, you can improve that area if you practice the techniques over time. But, to do that, you must be willing to suffer a bit of transitional pain, because some of the exercises can be a tad uncomfortable in the early stages of your learning curve. Your best bet is to create as comfortable an environment as you can when practicing those techniques, before putting them to the test in sales situations. (This is the same idea as in the last chapter, when I asked you to practice interviewing on a significant other, before doing so in a sales situation.)
Now that expectations are set, let’s get to the keys to clear communication.
Key 1: KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid)
Fortunately for me, it is quite simple to prove the importance of KISS:
- If your message is simple, more people will understand it.
- If your message is simple, those people will understand it sooner.
- If your message is simple, those people will remember it longer.
More people understanding your message sooner and remembering it longer – sounds like a recipe for closing deals to me!
Simple Doesn’t Mean Dumb
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein
I’ve discussed the KISS message with many groups over the years, and inevitably someone raises a hand and asks, “But don’t executives prefer to work with people who are as smart, or smarter, than they are? Won’t talking in simple terms make you seem dumb?”
Yes, decision-makers surround themselves with smart people, because if there’s one thing they all know, it’s that they don’t know everything. Along those lines, they prefer to choose companies whose salespeople demonstrate the type of intelligence that instills confidence in their decisions. After all, regardless of the product or feature being sold, decision-makers know that, somewhere along the line, a problem will occur, so they want to be sure they’re working with people who will create smart solutions.
Where I disagree with many people is on how you go about demonstrating your intelligence. Given a choice between someone who uses big words and talks in “marketese,” and another who boils the most complex subjects down to easy-to-understand terms, which would you think is more intelligent and understands the subject better?
Bottom line, a clear sign of intelligence is the ability to communicate complex messages clearly, because that not only proves you know the message itself, it proves you can pass that message on to others.
Exercise: Learning How To KISS
A great KISS exercise is to find an e-mail you recently sent to someone who asked you a question. Look for one where the subject was complex, and the answer was at least four or five paragraphs – perhaps 500 words. Find an online resource for establishing the grade level of what you wrote.
After you “grade” your response, rewrite it. But this time, explain the concept as though you were standing in front of a third-grade class. First, summarize the question itself, so they’ll understand. Then, give your answer using words with which they’re familiar and terms that aren’t industry jargon or buzzwords. Remember to explain the concept in simple terms; don’t “talk down” to your audience.
When you’re done, run the new version through the same grading tool and compare. The goal is to explain the concept fully while dropping the complexity of the language by a few grades. Then, the next time someone asks you a question, shoot for third-grade terms, and see what type of reaction you get.
Key 2: Searching For Bottom Lines
In accounting, a bottom line is what you draw just above the final total. It’s what separates the detail from what is often the most important number on the page. At tax time, for instance, the bottom line is typically how much you owe, or how much the IRS owes you.
In sales, the bottom lines are the most significant issues that will cause the prospect to buy, or not buy, from you. In Honest Selling, you spend your life looking for bottom lines with prospects, because, when you find them, the sales process often ends – one way or the other.
Remember the story of the bird that got trapped in my fireplace? Remember how the bird and I both wanted the same thing – we both wanted the bird out of my house? And remember how, once I realized that we both wanted the same thing, it was easy to get what we both wanted? Well the really fun part about searching for bottom lines with prospects is that prospects want to know the bottom lines just as much as you do. So, if you focus on finding bottom lines with prospects, what ordinarily might be an adversarial sales process typically becomes a collaborative search for the same thing, because it’s something you both want. Once you identify the bottom lines, it becomes fairly easy to find mutually beneficial ways to do business, or to find the showstoppers if they exist.
Another wonderful thing about searching for bottom lines is that you often find them in places you would never have expected, had you not sought them out.
In 1998 I closed a $40,000 engagement at a bank. The CFO gave me the typical reasons his bank wanted to hire us, but, when we finally got the conversation to the bottom line, he said, “I’m tired of missing my son’s ballgames to manage this project.” Once I learned that was a bottom-line issue for him, I assured him that, if he hired us, I’d be the one working evenings, and he’d have time to watch his son play ball. (I even put that as an objective in the proposal I sent him to sign.) When the CEO learned that ours was the highest bid submitted, he told the CFO to fire us and pick someone cheaper. I found out on the first day of the engagement that the CFO refused to do so and spent four hours arguing his point, until the CEO gave in. When I asked him why he fought so hard to keep us on the project, he said, “Because you’re the only one who promised me I’d make my son’s games.” I addressed his bottom line.
In Times Of Controversy
Even in situations where controversy is rampant and collaboration is not likely, bottom lines can often close an argument abruptly, because, once you find them, little is left to discuss. Think about any argument you’ve had, and you’ll probably see how most of the topics discussed had little to do with the true issues at hand.
I recently visited a dermatologist I’ve been seeing for 28 years, just to make sure no moles were about to become problems. About a month later, after the charges had gone through my insurance company’s process, I received the bill from the doctor and noticed it included “new patient” charges, as though I had been a first-time patient. Since I figured this was a clerical error, I contacted the doctor’s administration person to let her know the charges were in error. I was abruptly told, “No mistake was made.”
Turned out, HIPAA rules allowed doctors to use the new-patient classification whenever it’s been more than three years since the patient’s last visit; however, HIPAA does not say that a doctor must do this. I expected to be charged for a normal office visit, since no new-patient services had been rendered – regardless of the classification recorded on the bill. Having been a 28-year patient who had referred perhaps 50 people to this doctor over the years, I found the excess charge to be somewhat outrageous, so I refused to pay it.
During the many letters we exchanged in our argument over the bill, the doctor’s assistant spent most of her time quoting policy, and arguing that the rules required her to charge me the new-patient fee. She supported her claim with highlighted copies of HIPAA regulations, and even told me that reclassifying the charge would be “insurance fraud” that would “potentially result in severe fines, sanctions, loss of medical license, and/or imprisonment.” In the end, the doctor himself put in a letter that “all doctors do this” and refused to change the bill.
I, on the other hand, spent most of my energy trying to convince the assistant, and finally the doctor himself, that it was bad customer service to charge higher fees when no new-patient services were rendered. I also told them they were risking losing a lifetime customer. I tried to explain that I didn’t expect them to reclassify the charge – I had no problem with their doing whatever HIPAA required – but that I simply wanted the final bill from their office to me to reflect a standard visit amount.
In case you haven’t guessed yet, the back-and-forth exchanges got us nowhere, because we weren’t discussing bottom lines. Once this lightbulb finally turned on for me, I thought through the situation in search of my bottom line – the one and only issue that crystallized my reason for refusing to pay this bill. Then I sent a final letter, which, after my “Dear Dr.” salutation, began with the following two paragraphs:
“How would you feel if all auto mechanics collaborated to charge you extra if you didn’t have them change your oil on their collectively imposed schedule? How would you feel if gas stations plotted to charge you an extra dollar a gallon, because you didn’t drive what they felt were the appropriate number of miles each week? How ticked off would you be if cable, satellite and dish providers schemed to charge you higher rates, because you didn’t watch their preset number of hours of TV?
“Just as these companies would be wrong to conspire to charge extra to people who change their own oil, conserve gasoline and do something better with their time than watch TV, medical practitioners are dead wrong in their collective attempt to charge me and everyone else extra for being healthy.”
The bottom line for me was I was being charged extra for accomplishing on my own – being healthy – what the doctor gets paid to help me accomplish, and that just plain ticked me off. So instead of arguing about superficial issues, I stated my bottom line. (The bill was subsequently canceled.)
I love bottom lines because they bring conversations to conclusion faster – a sale is made or lost quickly, leaving me time to work to find other bottom lines.
In your next sales situation, practice looking for the bottom line. Use the Visceral Trust interview process to search for the simple explanation that sums up the primary results that must be produced, the main ways results will be measured and the most important effect that accomplishing the objectives will achieve. When you think you found it, ask something like, “So if I understand you correctly, the bottom line is […], right?”
Before I move on to the next communication key, I want to make one last point about bottom lines. In sales situations, it is always better to search for the prospect’s bottom-line business issues before you search for showstoppers that might keep you from closing the deal. The process of searching for bottom-line business issues creates a collaborative relationship and establishes you as someone the decision-maker will likely trust, and want on his or her team. Once that type of relationship is created, what might previously have been considered a showstopper may now have softened to only “an issue” that you and the decision-maker can resolve. And oftentimes, it’s the decision-maker who works hard to resolve the issue, because he or she wants you on the team.
Key 3: You’re Not “Talking” To Me – Writing Your Way To The Sale
Cindy, my wife, is a professional copyeditor. She has a double major in speech and English, a minor in writing and 23 years of professional experience improving the copy other people create – mine included. Without fail, whenever Cindy doesn’t understand something I’ve written, she circles it and writes in the margin: “You’re not ‘talking’ to me.”
To achieve success at selling, it is important to be able to write well, because much of your communication with prospects will be through e-mail messages, voice-mail messages (that you should script in advance), proposals, business letters, and so forth. Yet, when I ask salespeople about their writing abilities, the majority say, “I don’t write well.” Of course, that’s not a very in-depth answer, so I interview them until we get to their bottom-line issues, which always seem to be: “I know what I want to say, but I can’t figure out how to put it in writing.”
Stop and think for a minute about the implication of that statement. In no way does it communicate a lack of intelligence or a lack of knowledge. The disconnect isn’t in their understanding of the subject matter, it’s in their ability to put it in writing. But this bottom-line issue is actually the solution, not the problem.
If you know what to say, but can’t figure out how to put it in writing, then stop trying to put it in writing and just say it instead.
What someone says in a conversation is almost always different from what he or she would write – but that doesn’t have to be so. The key to great writing is to leverage the skill you’ve been developing your entire life – the ability to talk in a conversational manner. Whenever Cindy tells me I’m not “talking” to her, she means that I stopped communicating in a conversational manner, and started using industry buzzwords, acronyms or “marketese.” As funny as this may sound, whenever I’m writing a lot, like now as I write this book, I know at the end of the day how well I’ve done, because the quality of what I wrote is directly proportional to how sore my jaw is. (I sort of mouth every word I type!)
I won’t say that anyone can become a great writer overnight just by “talking” to people instead of writing to them. But I am convinced that people can dramatically improve the quality of what they write if they stop writing and start “talking” instead.
Keeping Up With Your Brain
People often struggle to write well, because they can’t write as fast as they think. So as they write (or type), their brains wander ahead to the next thing they want to say, and the message loses coherence. This problem is also common with reading, because your brain is much faster at absorbing information than your eyes are at reading words on a page. That’s why you might find yourself at the bottom of a page without any clue as to what you just read.
Fortunately this problem does not typically exist when people talk – quite the opposite, in fact. Think about the last time you were in a meeting with, say, five to 10 people. When someone asked you a question, what happened when you answered the question to the group?
Did you pause for several minutes to formulate your answer? Did you begin speaking and then stop, rewind what you said and restate it again “more clearly”? Did you even really know in advance what words were going to come out of your mouth before you began to speak? Of course you didn’t, because that’s not how people communicate when talking.
You most likely answered the question on the fly – you knew the answer, so you started talking, with full confidence that, when you were finished, you would have said everything you needed to communicate the message. You “talked” to them, and the result was a simple, probably eloquent, transfer of knowledge to the entire group.
The secret to great writing is to write the way you talk. If your most eloquent communication comes from answering questions verbally, then it stands to reason that your most eloquent writing will come from doing the same thing.
This is an exercise for learning to write like you talk – on the fly and in simple terms. For this exercise, you will need a timer – something or someone who can time you for five minutes. You will also need an empty pad of paper and pen, or a blank computer document in which you can type. And you should be in a quiet environment with no distractions. Silence your phone, computer calendar and e-mail – anything that might interrupt you during this exercise.
You are going to create a work of fiction as fast as you possibly can. You’ll be given three words – two nouns and a verb – and, within 10 seconds of reading those words, you’ll start writing, and you won’t stop until the five minutes are up.
The rules you must follow are simple:
Prepare your environment and timer before you read the three words. Get completely ready to start writing.
Within 10 seconds of reading the three words, you must start writing.
The first word you write must be one of the three you are given. It is okay to use a variation of the word, such as adding “ly” to the end of “slow,” to get “slowly.” But one of the three must be the first word on the page.
The other two words must be in the first paragraph and within the first three sentences you write.
What you are practicing is the ability to speed-write – to write as fast as you think. To do that you must never second-guess what enters your brain. If one of the words is “flower,” and the first thing that crosses your mind is “Flowers cost too much,” then that’s what you should write – don’t worry that you may have nothing else to say after complaining about the cost of flowers, because it is highly unlikely that will happen. I’m requiring you to begin your story with one of the three key words, because that will force your brain to concentrate on the meat of your story instantly, instead of pausing to “set up the story.”
Remember, this is an exercise, not a test. There is no wrong answer – your story will be what it is, and it will be right every time, provided you don’t second-guess what your brain tells you to write. Also, if you’re typing, you should avoid using the backspace key entirely. For now, don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, and so forth. Just type as fast as you possibly can, and write whatever thoughts cross your mind.
If you go full-tilt, not stopping or pausing for anything (and depending on your speed), you’ll end up with between 250 and 350 words in your story.
Okay, get your environment set up. Then, once you’re ready, read the next paragraph to get your two nouns and one verb for your exercise.
* * * * * * * *
For those of you who kept on reading instead of actually doing the exercise, you can do it anytime you want just by asking a friend to give you three new words – two nouns and a verb. But your words for this exercise are: clown, refrigerator, play.
The Power Of Answering Questions
Earlier I asked you to imagine answering a question in a meeting and described how talking in that type of environment will often produce eloquent content that clearly communicates a message. Then I had you do the writing exercise (surely you’ve done it by now) as a way to learn to write as fast as you think. If you struggled with the exercise and need to repeat it, do so as often as you can, until you get comfortable writing fast – having someone give you different words each time, of course. Only then should you tackle this next exercise and move one step closer to becoming a great writer.
The next step is to combine the two concepts – answering a question by writing as fast as you can – so that your writing will be more eloquent and easier to understand. The same rules apply as before, only this time what you write won’t be fiction. You’ll be answering a question you’ve no doubt contemplated in your quest to become the best salesperson possible.
Exercise: Bottom-Line Goals
Get set up for your next writing exercise (eliminate distractions, be ready at your desk or computer, etc.). When you’re ready, go to the next paragraph for the question you must answer. Once you read that question, write the first three “power words” that come to mind – three words that must be in your answer – then within 10 seconds of writing your power words, start writing your answer, with one of those power words being the first you write.
Your question: What does “success” mean to you?
Who’da Thunk It?
Credibility can be established very quickly with large numbers of people through great writing, because most people think you need special talent to write well. As you’ve learned, that ain’t necessarily so. So if you’ve never written an article in your life, now is the time to accept the challenge and see how good a writer you actually are. If you already use articles to convey your message, then try using this technique to improve the quality of what you write, and to improve your ability to communicate your message in KISS terms.
Exercise: Article Outline
Our next exercise is to use speed-writing to create an article that is good enough to become part of your marketing material. Here are the steps you’ll take:
Brainstorm a list of 10 possible article titles that you believe your prospects would love to read – it doesn’t matter whether you know much about those subjects at all. I suggest you get a group of colleagues together to help, because two heads are better than one, five heads are better than two, etc. (Tip: People are more prone to want either how-to articles or articles that discuss the mistakes they should avoid.)
Remember the law of supply and demand? If people don’t want your stuff, you’re in trouble, right? Well, the same holds true for an article. Unless people want the information, they will never take the time to read what you write. So, once you have your list of possible titles, e-mail that list to at least 100 people who fit your prospect profile. Tell them you’re thinking of writing an article, and ask them something like, “Of these 10 titles, which article would you most like to read?” (The title of this book was selected using that process.)
After your title is chosen, figure out how many words the article should have. If you want to get it published in a local magazine or paper, see how big the publication’s articles are. Once you’ve determined the word count, divide that number by the average number of words you can write or type in a five-minute speed-writing session. That answer becomes the number of questions you will answer in your article. (For example, I can average about 300 words in five minutes, so a 1,500-word article of mine will almost always answer five primary questions. This section of the book started as the question: “How would someone who never wrote an article before create something worthy of publication?”)
Once you know the number of questions you must answer, craft those questions. (I brainstorm to create twice as many questions as I need, then filter out the ones that don’t fit.)
After the questions are chosen, arrange them in the most logical order, based on the message you want to convey.
For each question, figure out three power words that will be in your first paragraph. (My three key words for this section of the book were “challenge,” “credibility” and “talent.”)
Congratulations, you just created an outline that will allow you to produce an article that your prospects want to read and that publishers may want to publish. To actually write the article, get set up for the set of five-minute drills, answering each of your questions using the power words you devised.
I suggest you write the entire article – answering one question for five minutes, then moving straight to the next. After answering all your questions, go back over each answer and make whatever minor changes are required. Then figure out what must be added or removed to make the content flow well from one section to the next.
Once your article is written and “cleaned up,” change your questions into headings for each section. If you plan to get the article published, look at the newspaper or magazine to see whether you can find a common format for section titles. If, for instance, a magazine often prints section headings as questions, then your job is already done.
Quality Vs. Quantity
How “cleaned up” is “cleaned up,” and where do you draw the lines?
Once my outline is prepared, it takes me about 45 minutes to write a 2,000-word article to the point that the content is 90 percent as good as it could be at communicating the message I want to convey. It takes me at least another five hours to improve the article content to maybe 98 percent of what I’d consider perfect. Since the improvement would be perceptible to only me, I once made the choice that, if I’m going to spend six hours writing, I’d rather produce content for six articles at 90 percent perfect than one article at 98 percent perfect. My thinking was that the higher volume of work would have a more positive impact on my credibility than the quality of one article’s content, so that’s the path I took.
I absolutely am not saying this is the right path for you. I’m just saying you should look at this time-vs.-outcome decision logically and choose your path on purpose.
While my copyeditor is the president of her own company, she is also my wife. So, I get really good rates – “If you’ll do the grocery shopping today, I’ll have time to copyedit your article” – but I sometimes get pushed to the back burner by clients who pay by check. So on occasion, I’ve had to copyedit my own work to get it published on schedule.
I have learned from Cindy that writing and copyediting are two completely different talents – one is mostly a right-brained skill, while the other is entirely left-brained – so the very best writers typically make the most grammatical mistakes. I’ve also learned that people tend to read perfection into what they write – your brain “sees” what you intended to type and not what you actually put on the page, which causes errors to be completely missed. So, while copyediting your own material is a good first step, it’s not good enough, because errors in grammar, punctuation, typos and so forth cause readers to “stumble” as they absorb the information you’ve shared. Stumbles cause a decrease in understanding. A decrease in understanding diminishes value. If you don’t deliver value you won’t establish credibility. Without credibility, the number of sales opportunities declines.
While there are many things you’ll write that don’t require professional editing, the really important stuff does. So always have a professional go over your most important material before you share it.
Ongoing Practice And Application
Repetition is the key to learning any new technique, so, to become fluent in the skill of writing, you must continue to practice. After you’ve practiced by doing the exercises in this book, you should be good enough to begin using the technique in your everyday sales life. Try to turn everything you write – cold-call offers, cold-letters, proposals, etc. – into questions that you answer, and see whether you can write better content faster.
Learn to write well, and your goal to achieve success at selling will be easier to reach, because you’ll have mastered one of the skills needed to establish yourself as an expert in your field. Remember, credibility is crucial to becoming the top business producer at your company, and great writing will give you a huge boost in credibility.
Key 4: Using Stories To Make Your Points
It was Thursday, February 8, 1979, when I started a graveyard shift that would change my life. I was 19 and working at a local gas station to make ends meet. (The construction trade was slow – especially in weather that cold.)
The first few hours of the Thursday graveyard shift were some of the toughest hours of the week, because traffic was too light for two attendants, but too heavy for only one. Still, by 2:30 a.m. Friday, the local bars were closed, and most of the drunks had long since gone home or had been arrested for driving drunk through St. Louis’ First Police District.
So there I sat, huddled inside the small Clark station trying to stay warm, when Jim Williams, a coworker, stopped by to see how things were going.
Do you remember Lou Ferrigno from the old television series “The Hulk”? Add about six inches and dye Lou’s hair red – and that was “Big Jim” Williams. Standing next to this guy could bruise the ego of just about any 19-year-old male, and I was certainly no exception. Still, it was great to have some company, so I invited Jim in to kill some coffee and time.
Clark Oil stations were typically small – four to six pumps, a very small store, a tiny office and two bathrooms. The station where I worked had a rectangular lot, with the building at an angle on one corner. The street at our station ran parallel to one long side of the lot, and our only two entrances were positioned at either end of that long side. We had three gas islands with two pumps each, so I could service no more than six cars at a time. And, on the end of the island closest to the station was our cigarette cabinet, where we kept the single packs.
In 1979 most stations offered full-service only, so I spent most of my time pumping gas, checking oil and getting products for customers. At 10 below zero, this meant being dressed for warmth, and I certainly had that covered (pun intended). My long underwear, corduroy pants, several layers of shirts, coat, hat, gloves and huge winter boots probably weighed 30 pounds.
Jim and I were sitting inside, drinking our coffee and telling lies, when a station wagon pulled onto the lot and past the island with the cigarette cabinet. The driver was a white male, about 24 years old, and a female passenger was shadowed beside him in the front seat.
I approached the driver’s door and asked, “Can I help you?”
“Two Kools,” the guy replied, so I headed to the cigarette cabinet, grabbed two packs and hustled back to the car.
Before I handed the guy his cigarettes, I said, “A dollar six,” and waited for him to hand me his money. He stuck a five out the window and started talking to his girlfriend, so I took the money from his hand.
“HEY! Don’t GRAB money out of MY hand,” he YELLED!
To which I quickly replied, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
But no apology from me was going to cut it – this guy wanted a problem, and he was going to create one whether I liked it or not.
I don’t remember exactly what got said during the next 15 seconds of back-and-forth argument, but I do know that, about two apologies later, I hit my limit, threw his five bucks back in his car and told him to “Get the #$&@ off my lot.” Unfortunately he didn’t take too kindly to my instruction, and instead got out of his car for a fight.
My senses tuned in. My fists clenched. Every muscle in my body tightened. My ears even popped from the adrenaline, as I took two steps back to brace for the fight that was about to erupt.
Then, at the exact moment I would have expected this guy to throw his first punch, he lowered his arms and slumped his shoulders, almost like a kid who just learned Santa wasn’t coming this year. The fight literally melted out of him right before my eyes. Then he said, “You guys always stick together,” and he quickly jumped back in his car and was gone.
Talk about a roller coaster of emotions in only 20 seconds! I was absolutely puzzled by his curious behavior, until I turned to head back to the station, and – WHAM! – I ran headfirst into Big Jim – all six feet and eight inches of him.
Because most of the muscles in my body were still tensed, running into Jim was like hitting a brick wall going 60, and it caught me so off guard, I fell backwards right on my butt. If it hadn’t been so darn funny, and only five seconds after what could have been a nasty fight, I probably would have been embarrassed. But the Grinch-like grin that spread across Big Jim’s face was more than I could bear, and the emotions of the last 30 seconds came pouring out in a burst of uncontrollable laughter. I was laughing so hard, in fact, that I couldn’t get up without Jim’s help – which he was more than happy to give.
Still laughing, we headed back into the warmth of the station and picked up right where we had left off minutes earlier – only this time, I had a new story to tell. After about the fifth time of telling Jim what had gotten said outside, the same station wagon pulled back onto the lot – but this time something was different.
Instead of driving, the guy was in the passenger seat, and his girlfriend was behind the wheel. They pulled into the station as close to the road as possible, facing the exit, about 50 feet from the building. The passenger side of the car was facing me, and the guy’s window was halfway down.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up, as I wondered what was going on. If you can imagine how a rabbit must feel the moment it believes it’s been spotted by a fox, that’s how I felt as I sized up the situation. But unlike that rabbit, I let my naiveté reign and decided that it was better to just sell the guy his cigarettes and let him go on his way.
As I walked out of the station, I heard him yell, “Pack of Kools,” so I turned to my left and headed for the cigarette cabinet on the end of the closest pump island. Because of the angle of the lot, the position of the island and where they had stopped their car, the guy was in my peripheral vision. As I reached for the cabinet, my eye caught a flash of light, and I turned my head to have a look. He had opened his car door, and the lights from the station had reflected in the glass of the half-open, moving car window.
If you’ve never stared down the barrel of a 12-gauge shotgun held by someone who wants to kill you, then you can’t possibly understand how your mind will turn everything into slow motion. I know that it couldn’t have been even three seconds from the moment I saw the gun to the moment he pulled the trigger, but I swear it seemed like two minutes.
As I turned to run, I saw my car only a few feet away. Jump in the car! No! I can’t! My keys are in the station, and the car’s locked! By the time I took my first full step, I saw the railroad tracks. Run to the tracks! No! Idiot! You’re wearing 30 pounds of clothes and you’ll never outrun his gun! The bathrooms! They have huge metal doors! If you can get in the bathroom, he’ll never get you there!
Then, during my second step, now toward the station, my brain screamed, “John Wayne would zigzag!”
I swear to everything I hold dear that John Wayne actually saved my life that night. I immediately changed directions and did a state-of-the-art John Wayne zigzag to the right.
Only two steps later – left, right – I heard the blast of the gun and felt a searing pain in my left hand. Two of the pellets hit their mark, while the rest of the pattern flashed only inches from my left hip. And, still in slow motion, I saw the full pattern of pellets spread across the pavement and spray the bottom of the Coke machine 20 feet in front of me.
It’s actually too late to make a long story short, but you already know the most important part of the ending – because I’m still alive to tell the tale. I made it into the bathroom, and the guy never fired another shot – I think the noise probably woke him up to reality. And, despite the searing pain, one pellet had only raised a blood blister as it grazed my little finger, while the other had actually bounced off the palm of my hand.
Since it all happened so fast, Big Jim barely had time to jump in the back office and call the police – I could hear him talking through the heating duct and was glad to know the cops were on their way. Thankfully, they caught the guy a few miles from the station, and I got the chance to testify against him in court about three months later. He did time in the state penitentiary for first-degree assault, so justice was served.
But it’s the moral of the story that has yet to be told – the lesson I learned that changed me forever: The hair on the back of your neck is there for a reason. Whenever it stands up, stop and listen to what it’s telling you, because your instincts will always be right.
When was the last time you instinctively knew a prospect was going to be a real pain-in-the-butt but signed him up anyway?
When was the last time you knew in your gut that a prospect was never going to hire you, despite all her promises to the contrary, but you kept sending information, leaving voice-mail and following up in the hopes that maybe “one more call” would close the deal?
The best salespeople know that their instincts are their best and most reliable tools. They not only listen when their instincts tell them something’s afoot, they use real-world experiences to hone those instincts over time.
My Point About Stories
I know it was a long story, and I appreciate the time you took to read it. But my point, and my question for you, is this: If I had simply told you to listen to your instincts, instead of telling you my story, would you have remembered to follow those instincts the next time your hair stands up on the back of your neck? Would you have remembered to walk away from pain-in-the-butt prospects, instead of signing them up as clients? Would you have remembered to abandon the effort as soon as you recognized a prospect was never going to buy?
Stories convey points clearly, and in a way that is easy to understand and remember, because they connect on a visceral level. And it’s that visceral connection that makes them so powerful a communication tool.
Exercise – Tell Me Your Story
You took the time to listen to my story, now will you take the time to tell me yours? You can find me on LinkedIn or reach me through this website’s contact page. Great stories happen every day – they aren’t always as traumatic as getting shot, but often have lessons nonetheless. You have lessons you can teach me, and I love to learn. So if you decide to write a story that makes a point, I am serious when I say that I want to hear it.
Key 5: The Power Of Analogies
Over the years, as I learned and applied the concepts I just explained, a curious thing began occurring. As I got better at explaining complex subjects in simple terms, identifying bottom-line issues, writing the way I talk and adding stories to convey my ideas, I found that I began using more and more analogies to make my point.
But when I thought it through – looking for those darn bottom lines again – I realized that analogies themselves are actually nothing more than a practical application of the first four keys to clear communication:
KISS: Analogies contain subject matter that is simple, and easy to understand.
Bottom Lines: Analogies rarely require additional questioning to be understood.
“Talk” To Me: Analogies are mostly conversational.
Stories: Analogies are quite often very short stories.
Just like in nature, where the acorn, earth, water and sun combine to eventually produce the tall oak tree, in all self-improvement there is a natural progression from learning individual concepts to combining those concepts into a profound result.
If KISS, bottom lines, “talking” and stories are the acorn, earth, water and sun, then analogizes are the oak tree.
The next time you get the chance to listen to a master presenter – be it a motivational speaker, the CEO at your company or a skilled comedian – listen closely for analogies, and watch the reactions they create in the audience. Look around the room, and pay particular attention to the way heads nod in understanding whenever an analogy is used.
Analogies bring a point home more clearly, simply and powerfully than almost any other communication tool, so it’s something you should strive to master in your quest to achieve success at selling. But before you say, “That’s great, but I’m not that creative,” stop and realize that analogies don’t always have to be off-subject to work.
If you’re an experienced salesperson, then you probably have dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of customer or client stories you can tell. I’ll bet that at least 90 percent of the situations you’ll encounter with a new customer have already occurred in your past. Instead of using acorns and trees to develop your analogies, simply look to your past and use real-world situations.
As you interview new prospects, pay particular attention to issues they raise that are similar to those of other clients. As you search for bottom lines, see whether you can detect patterns that are familiar. When a prospect explains a specific pain, look to see whether the pain is similar to that of a past client, because most of the time it will be. Then draw the analogy and ask your prospect whether your explanation fits the bill: “What you’re describing sounds just like a problem we solved for ABC Corp last year. In their case, the problem was actually caused by a lack of training. Is it possible that’s the case here?”
Analogies can eliminate confusion better than just about any other communication tool, learn to use them often, and your path to success will be shorter than you may think.
Key 6: Be Consistent In Your Message
Knowing what not to do is often as important as knowing what to do. As you increase your ability to communicate your message clearly, you will begin to establish your personal brand in bottom-line terms. (A bottom-line element of Honest Selling, for example, is the collaboration model of sales.) To build credibility over time, you must be diligent in your effort to keep the bottom-line issues as consistent as you possibly can.
Keep in mind that I’m not saying you shouldn’t grow, change or adopt new ideas – of course you should – because that which doesn’t grow dies. In fact, one of my very favorite sayings is, “I can’t believe how ‘stupid’ I was just two weeks ago,” because it illustrates that I’m open to new ideas and willing to have my thinking challenged. I actually consider it a personal challenge and goal to abandon one false belief in favor of one true belief each and every day!
Surface change is good – and I’ll be the first to admit when something I previously believed becomes obsolete (ask me about my belief regarding the rotation of the moon and I’ll show you what I mean) – but foundations should remain consistent over time.
Creating Bottom-Line Consistency
As you proceed through the rest of this book, you will be learning how to organize your thinking and your ideas, including creating a strategy to establish your personal brand. During the effort, strive to create bottom-line statements to which you will adhere, both in terms of describing what you sell and how you sell it. For example, one of my bottom-line statements is that there is no room for manipulation in sales.
I strongly suggest you create a single document of these statements, so you’ll have a benchmark against which you can measure your message for consistency. Then, after you write an article, for example, you can read the statements and see whether you’ve muddied the waters, or, in the worst case, completely abandoned one of your bottom lines.
The [Your Name Here] Sales System: Communication
In your mission to communicate with others, you have a choice:
You can agree with the concept that anything written or spoken that is unambiguous and comprehensible is ideal for the purpose of bringing to light your erudite discernment of the matter at hand.
You can decide that simple and clear communication is the best way to quickly show how smart you are.
If you choose pomposity, I’m afraid I can’t help you much. But if you prefer simplicity, then
The [Your Name Here] Sales System should be measured against the following keys to communication:
KISS: Are your messages simple, clear, easy to understand and easy to remember?
Bottom Lines: Do you continually strive to define the bottom lines in what you sell and how you sell it, and the results it produces for your customers or clients?
“Talk” To Me: Does your written material “talk” to the reader in a conversational manner that can be easily understood?
Stories: Have you developed stories to convey your message?
Analogies: Are you increasing your skills at using analogies to make your point?
Consistency: Do you have a mechanism for describing your message so you can remain consistent with that message over time?
Bottom line, you can’t influence others if they don’t understand your message.