Imagine you have just started a meeting with a prospective customer. What is she thinking about?
Chances are, most of her focus is on you. At this point, she’s more interested in trying to figure out who you are and what you are like than she is in thinking about the details of your product. This is only natural; we are social animals, and we are wired to read other people as we meet them.
What do you want your customer to be thinking about you?
Most business people don’t give this enough thought. Sure, they dress nicely for meetings with new customers, and are polite and sociable. But they don’t give conscious thought to the character they want to portray.
As with all lessons about ditching the pitch, we can learn much from stage improvisation about how to create fresh, spontaneous conversations our customers care about. Matt Hovde, director of The Second City mainstage shows and artistic director of the Second City Training Center in Chicago, encourages his improvising actors to establish their characters early in a scene:
“Because from the moment the scene starts, the audience is desperately trying to answer questions that pop into their heads. They’re wondering, ‘Who is she?’ ‘What is she like?’ ‘What is happening?’ Once they answer some of those questions, they relax and enjoy what’s happening. Eventually, if actors haven’t answered any questions about who they are or what’s happening, the audience gives up.”
Recognizing that your customer is asking those same questions as a meeting gets underway, it’s important to establish your character quickly, just as Matt teaches his actors.
How to Establish Your Character
Matt teaches his actors to “go in with a point of view, because that’s what a character really is.” Matt is telling these actors to be more than a person; he is telling them to be an interesting person who makes clear what he believes and demonstrates what he perceives. Beth Lepley, an improv actor based in Los Angeles, described it to me this way:
“If the character you decide to play in an improv scene is a five year-old, don’t just be a typical five year-old whining ‘mom.’ Try being an intelligent five year-old who sees right through his mom’s intentions.”
Think of characters from popular culture or literature — whether it’s Stewie onFamily Guy or Hamlet, what’s going on in the character’s mind tells us everything about that character’s personality.
A point of view says a lot about a character and, similarly, your point of view says a lot about who you are. You can demonstrate a lot about yourself to your customer, answering those inevitable questions about who you are by the way you respond to your customer’s comments and share your observations about her situation. Imagine the difference in her assessment of you if you share thoughtful opinions and observations about her situation instead of focusing your energy on describing your product. If you let her get to know you, she will become more interested in getting to know your product.