Imagine that you come to a meeting with a new prospect, and the scene you encounter is not what you expected:

  • You meet a prospect for lunch, and he spends the first 45 minutes telling you about his recent
    fishing trip.
  • Ten minutes into a meeting with a prospect, you realize that her most important business issues aren’t anything close to what you thought they’d be.
  • You show up for the big meeting, hoping to close a sale, and only one of two key decision makers
    is there.

What do you do, resist? Get upset? Try to deny the situation?

The only thing you can do: Work with what you are given.

Working with what you are given is one of the key techniques of stage improvisation, and I believe this lesson translates perfectly to sales conversations. No matter what another character says on stage, you build upon it. Or if you’re holding a prop, and it suddenly breaks, you make that part of the scene. Maybe the audience surprised you by laughing at an unexpected time, but instead of continuing in the direction you had started, you accept the audience response as a gift and chart a new course in the dialogue.

The Second City Almanac of Improvisation encourages improvisers to “ride the events of a scene the way a surfer rides a wave.”1 This is exactly what you must do to create a fluid sales conversation. No matter what curve balls or unexpected surprises arise in a meeting, the success of your conversation requires you to work with what you are given. A surfer can control his direction, but only if he uses the current to his advantage. Fight the waves, and you fall.

The Second City improvisation method teaches that denial can kill a scene. Once you say ‘no,’ you stop all momentum. Denying reality in a sales conversation does the same thing. You must realize that everything your customer says or does is true in his mind, and you must first accept his reality if you want to have any hope of shifting that reality.

I recently encountered this challenge. A few months ago, a client asked me to submit a proposal for a new project. Shortly after I gave her the proposal she told me she needed to put the project on hold for 60 – 90 days. After 90 days, we talked about moving forward with the project.

A few minutes into this conversation, I realized that she hadn’t reviewed my proposal since I submitted it and had forgotten some of its most important details. Because of this, she had lost enthusiasm for the project and said she was thinking about putting it off for a year.

What could I do, get mad at her for forgetting the details of the project? Argue with her, and tell her that she really needed to move forward with this project? Scold her?

Of course not. Her forgetfulness became the new reality.

My only choice was to work with what I was given. I had gone into the call prepared to discuss the fine points of the project and the logistics of implementation, but she wasn’t prepared for that conversation. I had to back-up, and reacquaint her with the reasons she had wanted to do this project in the first place. I needed to ditch the pitch, and improvise a new approach to the meeting.

Was I disappointed? Yes. Did I wish for another reality? Yes.Would I have received approval to start the project if I had fought her? No.

Work with what you are given. Join your customer in his reality, and you may just have a chance of escorting him to a new reality.


When you meet with people who are trying to persuade you, notice if they “go with the flow” and adapt to your reality, or if they resist the situation and try to force you into their own reality. How does this make you feel? Do you follow them or put up a defensive shield? Are you more, or less, likely to be persuaded?

How do you compare?

How well do you work with what you are given? Are you able to say, “Yes” to any situation in a sales conversation, or do you find yourself getting anxious when things aren’t going exactly like you want them to? Do you find yourself trying to muscle the situation to a new place?

Try this

One of the best places to practice this technique of working with what you are given is in social situations with your friends. Practice riding conversations with your friends the way a surfer rides a wave. Don’t be the one to start topics, and, instead, look at each thread of conversation as an opportunity to explore and navigate ideas. Use every comment or question you insert into the conversation as a chance to heighten the idea your friend has brought up. Even if a topic seems boring, and you feel tempted to change the subject, don’t. Work with it. You’ll be surprised where you’ll end up, as the conversation transforms itself to something interesting and engaging.

Next, begin practicing this in your business conversations. Have the patience to work with what you are given, resisting your anxiety and temptation to change the subject and force the conversation to the place you want it to be. If you are frustrated with the direction of a conversation, don’t become impatient or interrupt. Work with it. Play with it. Once you engage in the conversation, you will find that it is easier to navigate to a better place.

And don’t stop practicing. Denial not only kills an improvised scene on stage, it kills a business conversation, especially a business conversation in which one person wants to persuade another. Work with what you are given, and you’ll find that you give yourself success in your sales conversations.

1 Comment

  • Anshul Gupta
    May 10, 2010 - 22:34 pm

    hii Steve. I read you ebook “Encounters”. And this idea of swimming with the flow and not against it seems to be parallel to what you have written in the book itself, that, to make every moment of a conversation especial, we need to understand the importance that moment carries with it.


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