The Improvisation Instinct

On Steve's Mind: a Newsletter

After a few years of research, concept development and writing, my new book, Ditch the Pitch, is nearly complete, and will be published in November of this year. The book outlines a number of Ditch the Pitch Habits that can help people tear up their sales pitches and persuade with a much more spontaneous, fresh, improvised approach.

In a series of articles, starting with the next issue of this newsletter, I will begin to introduce readers to the Ditch the Pitch Habits, which you can start implementing right away. In preparation for that series, let's focus today's article on the most important underlying principle of Ditch the Pitch: Improvisation. When you get rid of your pre-planned sales pitch, it is your ability to improvise that helps you succeed.

In previous newsletter articles, including Improvise Your Success and You Are An Awesome ImproviserI have described how improvisation is actually more natural for people than speaking from a pre-written sales pitch or presentation. Our species evolved to improvise. Just about every situation humans face every day has some sort of novelty in it. Those who were best equipped to improvise were the most likely to survive and pass on the knack for improvisation to their offspring.

I'm in the middle of a very interesting book by scientist Steven Pinker called The Language Instinct. The book starts with these two sentences:

As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the natural world. For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape the events in each other's brains with exquisite precision.

Pinker is, of course, talking about our ability to use language. He argues against the conventional wisdom that language is largely a cultural invention and, instead, shows how it is a “distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains.” As with any evolved trait, such as brain size, upright posture or opposable thumbs, language ability developed in gradual steps. This ability included, of course, not only the ability to “shape the events in each other's brains with exquisite precision” but also to understand the communication of others and respond to it. In each generation, those individuals best equipped, through variation or mutation, to use language were more likely to survive and have offspring. As more generations passed, and human language ability kept improving, the bar was continually raised, always favoring those with the highest-level, most cutting-edge language skills.

Think about that for a second: In prehistoric human communities, the best conversationalists had the best chance of survival. Being able to talk, listen and respond was not just a “nice to have” trait. It was a trait that helped you live and pass on your genes.

Let's take this a step further. In describing this ability for language, Pinker references a principle brought forth by linguist Noam Chomsky: “Virtually every sentence that a person utters or understands is a brand-new combination of words, appearing for the first time in the history of the universe.” Using language is not a set of pre-programmed responses to external stimuli, it is a highly-advanced capability to improvise something new every time we speak, to understand these new things when others say them, and to improvise an instant response to what we hear.

So you are all the proud descendants not only of the best conversationalists, but of the best improvisers. Congratulations. Your ancestors were the lucky ones who had the best language skills, and the best ability to create new ideas that had never before been said “in the history of the universe.”

Now, ask yourself this: Am I using this natural human ability to improvise when I try to persuade people as part of my job, or am I relying instead on sales pitches, presentation books, PowerPoint slides and pre-determined communication strategies? Am I adequately using my capability, evolved over thousands of generations, to ditch the pitch?

Are you?

If you aren't, your fellow human beings will notice it. People have not only have the capability to improvise complex conversations, they also have the ability to spot a sales pitch a mile away, as I wrote about in my last newsletter, Detecting the PitchYou may cut yourself some slack if you decide not to ditch the pitch. But other members of our species won't. If you resort to a pitch, they will resist your attempts to persuade.

Go ahead. Ditch the Pitch.

Steve Yastrow

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