More thoughts on Ditching the Pitch

One of the problems with sales pitches is that you need to presuppose what will happen at a later time. You create your story, begin to tell it to your customer, and then hope that the story makes sense as the future unfolds.

The beauty of an improvised sales conversation is that you don’t need to guess whether your story will stay relevant in the future, because you don’t write the story until the future arrives.

In a sales conversation, you and your customer create the story of the sale together, through a fluid, mutually-affirming process that looks a lot like stage improvisation as pioneered by organizations like The Second City. Actors improvising a scene on stage create the story of a scene on the fly, as they listen to each other, affirm what each other says, and react in a way that builds a story, one step at a time. Yet, when it’s done well, there is never a point where the actors look like they don’t know what the story is. They always look comfortable and confident.

How do they do this? While watching some remarkable improv at the iO Chicago Theater, I was struck with the clearest way to describe this: They write the story backwards.

Here’s what I mean by this: As details appear in the scene, it’s not always clear how those details will play into the emerging story. But as the scene unfolds, the actors make sense of the emerging story by referring back to previously-unconnected ideas and tying them into the story. In one scene, two actors appeared on stage, and one said, “You’ve got to stop acting like this. Start thinking of how it affects the kids.” The second said, “Hey Sharon, you know my work keeps me on the road a lot, and tempts me to act a bit wild.” “I should have never married a rock star,” Sharon retorted, “They make bad fathers.”

Notice how, in this very simple start of a scene, the actors wrote the story backwards. The first line of dialogue established that one character was acting badly, and that it was affecting his kids. When it was delivered, that line was not part of a story, but it gave the actors the idea to turn one of the characters into a touring rock star. Once this was established, the previously-disconnected idea of the first line made sense, retroactively.

As the scene continued, the actors continued to “write the story backwards.” We knew that the rock star had behaved badly, and that it had affected his kids, but we still didn’t know what he had done. Another actor entered from the side, perfectly playing a teenager disgusted and embarrassed by a parent. The rock star went up to her, put his around her, and started singing a song about the wild life of a drug-crazed, groupie-chasing rock band. Now, well after it was established, we could make even better sense of the first line of the scene.

This is exactly how you can “write the story backwards” in a sales conversation, except I suggest that you don’t act like a rock star singing about the hedonism of the road. Let’s explore how it works.

Let’s imagine you are an insurance broker (I know that’s hard to imagine for many of you, but, play along with me.) You’re meeting with a prospective client, and as the conversation unfolds you begin to learn a number of things about his business. He believes that some of his employees are stealing items from the warehouse. His best-selling product is highly flammable if not handled properly. He has a warehouse in South Florida that has flooded three times during severe storms and once lost a roof in a hurricane. He has a factory where numerous workers have slipped and fallen, creating many worker’s compensation claims.

As he tells you these things, you’re not yet sure how they will fit into your eventual sales story. (But you’re certainly getting excited by the fact that this guy needs lots of insurance!) However, as your conversation continues, you will be able to tie back to these issues and weave them into your evolving story well after they appeared in the conversation. When it’s time to discuss product liability insurance, you will be able to include the tale of his flammable product, as though it had always been part of your story. You will be able to create a story about how he can reduce risks in his business that connects back to the story of his slippery factory floor. In short, you will be able to write the story backwards by lacing in items that were previously floating on their own.

Stage improvisers and other comedians call it a “callback” when a reference is made to something that was said or that happened earlier. As I wrote in this blog post, audiences love callbacks. Callbacks create a continuity that helps establish a story, making it easier for an audience to understand what’s going on.

The same thing happens with your customer. When you write the story backwards, and tie in things that were not connected before, your customer will be much more likely to understand and appreciate the story you are creating. Like with the actors on the stage, it will seem like the story has always been there. He will be more comfortable, more engaged… more likely to buy.

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