Did you ever notice that some people are able to respond to situations with the perfect comment or action? What enables them to be so quick on their feet?

Although it’s tempting to say that intelligence is what helps people be quick on their feet, I don’t think this is the primary reason. I believe that people who are quick on their feet focus on “input before output.” Their in-the-moment responses (their output) are based on what they observe or hear (their input.)

Being quick on your feet is critical when you are persuading another person, whether you are in a selling situation or in another setting where you are trying to get someone to say “yes.” You can never predict everything you need to learn about your customer and her situation; you need to ditch the pitch and be flexible based on what you listen and observe as your conversation unfolds.

This leads us to Ditch the Pitch Habit #1, Think Input Before Output. Let’s explore this habit, and how to use it to make yourself a better persuader.

Let’s face it, most people look at sales and other forms of persuasion more as processes of telling and convincing than as processes of listening and observing. They rehearse their pitches and create their PowerPoint presentations, then work diligently to tell their customers everything they planned to tell them. This is not an effective way to sell, because the odds that a preconceived persuasion plan will be right for the customer you are trying to persuade, at the moment you are trying to persuade her, are about one in a billion. To ditch the pitch, we first need to shift our mindset from output-driven to input-driven.

Believe the answer will be there

Nearly every improvisational actor or musician I have interviewed while writing Ditch the Pitch told me that listening, observing and paying attention are the key factors that enable them to improvise. As author and spiritual teacher Ram Dass said, “the next message you need is right where you are.” Yes,ditching the pitch might seem a little bit scary, but the best antidote for this fear is to trust your skills of perception.

Here are three practices that will help you become better atthinking input before output, no matter how good you already are at this habit.

Practice: Be alert

My biggest sales fear: I’ll be meeting with a prospective client, hoping to make a sale, and my mind will wander for a minute. Suddenly I’ll hear this prospect say, “And that is the most important issue facing our business. You show me how to fix this, Steve, and you’ll be worth your weight in gold to us.”

Fortunately, this hasn’t happened yet, but it could. Like all of us, I have many things to think about, and many distractions in my life. 100% attention during a persuasive conversation is critical for success.

When you are persuading, shut out all possible distractions. If you are on the phone, don’t look at your email or web browser. If you are in a busy place, such as a restaurant, try to shut out all extraneous noise. If you are distracted by other things going on in your life or work, do your best to put those issues aside while you are with your customer. Put yourself in a mood of curiosity and wonder, genuinely interested in learning things about your customer that you didn’t previously know. And remember what Ram Dass said: the next message is right where you are.

Practice: Say less to notice more

Every moment you are speaking in a persuasive conversation is a moment you are not listening to your customer. You are listening to yourself.

My goal when a persuasive conversation starts is to get the other person talking more than me. I learned this concept in my twenties from my boss at MTI Vacations, Bob Pancoast. We were constantly trying to persuade airlines to sell us seats at a discount and hotels to sell us rooms at great prices so we could sell lots of vacations to Las Vegas, Hawaii, Florida and the Caribbean. Bob taught me to focus on encouraging the other person to talk and then to sit patiently, listening for clues to how to get the airline or hotel executive to say yes.

When you say less, you will notice more. And you will keep your customer more engaged.

Practice: Turn down your analytic brain

As I wrote in an earlier article, Don’t Think So Much, thinking too much can kill spontaneity. Don’t overanalyze everything that happens, because when you get inside your head, you won’t be paying attention to what’s going on around you. Yes, it’s impossible to completely turn down your analytic brain, but you can keep it at a “low hum” in the background while you arethinking input before output.

Like all habits, practice helps us get better, a little at a time. Focus on these ideas, and steadily improve your ability to focus on input before output.

In our next issue. we’ll explore Ditch the Pitch Habit #2: Size Up the Scene.


  • David Most
    May 29, 2013 - 14:54 pm

    Hi Steve,

    I really enjoyed your article this week it is exactly what we needed to hear. There are so many of my associates who are quickly becoming distracted thinking about the next step and the next thing instead of asking good questions and listening to peoples needs. I am trying to dig into the emotional side of their needs as well so that when they are giving information back to their clients they are speaking not only to their logical side but their emotional side. Thank you for this entry and I as always looking forward to more of your insight in the future.

  • Steve Yastrow
    May 29, 2013 - 23:58 pm

    Thanks David. Since you sell a highly-personalized product, input before output is especially critical.

    You make a good point about playing to the customer’s emotional side, in addition to their logical side. I think this is one of the many inputs you can glean from a customer: the right blend of logical and emotional to best engage this customer, at this moment.


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