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3 Sales Tricks from Improv Theater Every Salesperson Needs to Know

Here’s how you can use lessons from improv theater to thrive in your new hybrid role
by Sarah Moriarty | Mar 24 2015
Bestselling writer Daniel H. Pink says that almost every job has become a sales job.

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Like actors in a theater, salespeople of yore used to rely on scripts: Each sales call was expected to follow a set course that had been formulated to drum up customers and revenue. In some companies, even salespeople’s body language was pre-determined. Today’s dynamic and complex sales environment, however, demands a more versatile approach than a robotic protocol reading.

Unscripted improvisational theater—improv—reinvented classical theater by focusing on free-flow and cultivating chemistry between actors, and the same elements help in making a sale today. Here’s how to bring the magic of improv to your sales game.

Listen for offers

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One basic tenet of improv is listening for offers. Often we are so focused on what we want to say next that we only half-listen to others. For example, surveys have shown that doctors usually interrupt their patients within the first 18 seconds of them speaking, before they’ve even fully described their ailment. This can lead to false diagnoses or worse. Improv, on the other hand, emphasizes that actors should listen to others, attentive and ready to work with what the other person offers.

Say you’re trying to sell a subscription to your food delivery service. As you describe the offerings you can feel you listener get on board, but later he wistfully declines, citing low funds until the next finance round is in. You could hang up and say thank you for your time, or you could ask when that round closes and offer a week’s free trial leading up to the date. Here, you show your potential customer that you’re really listening to his concerns and dedicated to working together.

Create win-wins

Another key lesson from improv is to always make your partner look good. Improv actors have long understood that if they help their colleagues on stage, the end result is far more impressive than if everyone were to focus only on him- or herself. This same idea was popularized in the business sphere as “win-win.” Moving people is not a zero-sum game, so try to find solutions that benefit both sides rather than just pushing your own agenda.

In discussion with a buying manager, for example, you might emphasize you’ve heard prices on your product will rise next quarter. You could go on to intimate that making a decision now, before that price hike, would make the buying manager look good to her own boss, too. Making it known you’re an ally in making her look like a star builds confidence, rapport, and ultimately, sales, and you both end up happy.

Never say never

Finally, the last improv component is the notorious “yes, and….” Answering your customers’ ideas with these words and improvising further, rather than saying “no,” or “yes, but…,” creates an optimistic mood and allows you to incorporate multiple viewpoints, moving the conversation forward in a constructive and productive way.

Improv is about flow—and so is sales

The key to a good improv show is to involve the audience—and the actors—in a kinetic, flowing chemistry, where events lead naturally into each other. A good sales conversation is like that. But, contrary to traditional sales strategy, there is no ideal script.

Rather, good sales is a give and take, and requires awareness of and sensitivity to your clients’ needs. So next time you find yourself talking to a potential client, remember Pink’s three tips: listen for offers, create win-wins, and never say never.

Daniel H. Pink’s To Sell Is Human shows how, with a little flow, everyone can be a salesperson. You can also read the book’s key insights on Blinkist – it’ll only take 13 minutes!

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