I'm traveling with a bunch of friends in Poland, and last night I managed to steal an hour in the lobby bar of the Radisson Blu Hotel in Kracow to work on the final manuscript of my new book, Ditch the Pitch. The book describes how persuasion in business is most effective when you ditch your pitch and improvise an approach that is best suited to the person you are trying to persuade, at the moment you are trying to persuade them.
A friend came by, and we started talking about the book. This friend is a very accomplished financial executive, with an admirable track record of raising large amounts of funds for private equity investments. He is a very successful salesperson.
“But I believe I need to be prepared when I have a meeting with a potential investor. How can I improvise?”
“How often do you take an investor through a PowerPoint deck, start to finish?” I asked.
“Never,” he responded.
“How often do you tell the investor everything you planned to tell him?”
I always prepare before I need to persuade someone. But I see the preparation as a toolbox, not as a script. Clearly, this is what my friend is doing as well. He knows his stuff, but he adapts his approach to each specific situation as a persuasive conversation progresses. In other words, he improvises.
Improvisation is one of the most important things you need to do to persuade others.
- Let's say you are a salesperson, and I am a potential customer. If you pre-script your sales pitch before our meeting, what are the odds that your pitch includes the exact story that will motivate me to say yes?
- Let's say you are a company owner in need of an expanded credit line, and I am your banker. What are the odds that a rational argument you prepare ahead of time is exactly the best argument to get me to say yes?
- Let's say you are a plant manager, and I am a member of our company's capital expense allocation committee. If you prepare a well-reasoned PowerPoint deck ahead of time, and present it to us, what are the odds that this presentation will be exactly what we need to hear in order to approve your request?
In all cases, the odds are low. How can you possibly know the best way to persuade me unless you understand me?
Even if we have a deep, ongoing relationship, and we speak often, how can you possibly know exactly what I'm thinking, or how I'm feeling, on the day you want to persuade me?
And how do you think it will sound to me if you recite a prepared script, and it doesn't resonate with me? As Amy Winehouse sings in “Stronger Than Me,” “Sounds as if you're reading from some other tired script.”
To persuade, you must be prepared to improvise.
The more I learn about this topic, the more I am convinced that developing this talent — the talent to improvise — is one of the best things any of us can do to be more successful. Everyone reading this article is engaged in work that requires some degree of persuasion in order to create success. Fortunately, improvisation is something all of us are well-suited to do, as I've written in a few previous articles (Look to the sidebar for some links).
Mick Napier, founder of Chicago's Annoyance Theater, says,“Improvisation is the art of not knowing what you're going to do or say and being completely okay with that.” A major theme for me this year, as we're getting ready to publish Ditch the Pitch, is helping people learn how to be “completely okay with that.” When you develop the confidence to improvise in your persuasive conversations, you will find yourself getting what you want, much more often than you were before.