“While each actor’s in-the-moment response may not be the best idea, it is always at least a bridge to the best idea.” 
– Tom Yorton, president, Second City Communications

It is impossible for everything you say in a sales conversation to be the best thing you could possibly say. Similarly, everything your customer says in a sales conversation cannot the best thing you want your customer to say. However, as Tom Yorton’s quote teaches us, every idea can be a bridge to the best idea.

As part of the research for my new book, Ditch the Pitch, I just finished a one-week stage improvisation immersion class at The Second City in Chicago. My book will take concepts from stage and music improvisation and apply them to sales, encouraging us to ditch the pitch and create sales conversations. (Yes, this is proving to be a fun book to write.)

As I watched my 13 fellow students learn the basics of improvisation through the week, under the tutelage of Second City Training Center teacher Jessica Rogers, I really came to understand the truth of Tom’s point: Every idea can be a bridge to the best idea. Today I’d like to focus on why this idea is so powerful, and how it can apply to sales conversations.

The most brilliant moments throughout our improv immersion week were not just the clever lines that poured spontaneously from my classmates (and, believe me, there were plenty of those), but the way people took crazy ideas from their scene partners and used them to get to a new, exciting place.

Here’s an example: Two of my classmates, Mary and Elise, were improvising a scene, playing two women that were stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. In the first few lines they showed their fear that they might not be rescued. Then, Mary said to Elise, “If we don’t make it out of here, it will be too bad that you may never make it to Europe to start your job as an international goose hunter.”

Mary’s line came out of nowhere. On first reflection, you might think that this crazy idea of establishing Elise as a would-be international goose hunter could confuse the scene. But that’s not what happened. Mary and Elise ran with the idea, and pretty soon they were talking about how their shipwreck might be the cause of worldwide goose overpopulation. They had the rest of the class cracking up.

Here’s another example from my week of improv immersion: At one point, a classmate and I were asked to improvise a scene in which we were playing a brother and sister chopping wood. I started the scene by saying, “I love it when mom and dad take us out to the country. This is going to be a lot of fun.” My classmate, Kelly, responded, “Ever since mom and dad got back together, they’re trying to force us to do all of these things together a family.”

Kelly had suddenly offered the idea that our mom and dad had been going through marital problems and were trying to patch up their relationship. Was this the best possible idea for Kelly to bring into the scene? Probably not; I’m sure there were other things she could have said. But was it a bridge to great ideas? Yes. Once Kelly had established that our mom and dad’s marriage was in trouble, our scene had fuel and a clear direction. We were able to show me as a kid eager to please his parents and help their relationship, while Kelly was able to develop her character as a teen terribly resentful of what her parents were putting her through.

This principle that every idea is a bridge to the best idea can be very liberating in a sales conversation. You’ll drive yourself nuts if you worry that everything you say, or that your customer says, must be the perfect thing to say. But if you focus on the flow of the conversation and how every moment in the sales conversation is a bridge to a better place, you can free yourself up to work towards that better place.

Let’s say that, during a sales conversation, your customer says something that you think is not smart or insightful. Or, he says something that shows a lack of interest in the key points you want to interest him in. These responses, while not the responses you would most prefer, give you insights into the best path to get where you want to be. Now you are in a better position to say something that will interest him and get closer to the best idea.

Or, what if you say something that is not up to your normal level of pith and insight? Should you panic? Should you end the meeting and go home? No! Look at your unfortunate comment as a bridge to the next place you want to be.It may not be the best bridge you want to be on, but since you’re already on this bridge with no way to turn back, you might as well accept the fact that you have to cross it.

Don’t get hung up on saying the “right thing.” Instead, be totally obsessed with finding things to say that advance the conversation with your customer. Don’t force brilliance, just create the right conditions for it, and be patient as you await the arrival of brilliance. Then, you will surprise yourself when you make a wonderful comment you hadn’t expected.Everything you say, or that your customer says, is a bridge to brilliance.


Pay attention in conversations, especially those at work. Are people always trying to get out the best possible one-liner that captures a brilliant idea, or are they willing to use each comment as a path to the best idea? What is the effect of either scenario? How well does use of the “bridge to the best idea” propel conversations forward?

How do you compare?

What about you? How well are you willing to see each comment in a conversation as a bridge to the best idea? Are you frustrated by comments in conversations that aren’t perfect, or are you able to see them as paths to brilliance? Are you patient, or do you try to force a conversation to its apex before its time?

Try this

In conversations throughout the next week, at work and in your personal life, try to see everything other people say as bridges to the future of the conversation. Accept everything that is said, even if it isn’t what you wanted the other person to say. Recognize that they’ve said it, and that there is no turning back. Conversational bridges only go one way.

And, if you are engaged in sales conversations throughout the week, be especially aware of trying this idea. Everything you or your customer says is a bridge to the best idea.

1 Comment

  • Flanked
    Jul 20, 2010 - 15:43 pm

    I enjoyed playing with this idea (and remembering some hilarious improv). This can be found right at the heart of innovation and entrepreneurship; like Tom Peter’s says, ‘innovation is trying more things than the other guy’. When you try, you probably won’t find the idea you were searching for but I bet you get closer!

    Booking my next trip to the comedy club. 🙂

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