Improv is a form of comedy that revels in off-the-cuff honesty. I started taking Improv classes as a substitute for toastmasters to practice public speaking and got completely addicted because it’s the complete opposite of a stale, pre-rehearsed performance; it’s zany and free-flowing. Instead of gavels and podiums, Improv delivered imagination and laughter. And, there’s a lot that it can do for your confidence and to help you loosen up, but the benefits don’t end there. Improv can make you more dynamic, more positive, easier for clients to understand, a better teammate, and, in so many words, a much better sales rep.
Curious what Improv is like? Here’s an exercise to get you acquainted—when I give you a word, look away and think of the first seven adjectives that come to mind.
Here it comes–the word: Company
How’d it go? It probably got difficult near the end because your brain ran out of pre-prepared responses. This is because you have a workplace filter that tells you to think before you speak. There’s definitely a time and a place for that, but Improv is about removing that filter and learning to say the first things that come to mind. Typically, after the fifth adjective, your subconscious starts spitting out answers that skip the filter and come straight from the heart. It can be hilarious because it’s so disruptively honest.
Seem difficult? It’s really not and it just requires practicing the rules of Improv. Adopt these five rules at work and see how free-thinking comedy can make you a more effective salesperson:
Rule #1: “Yes, and…”
Always accept and incorporate suggestions. Don’t say “No,” say “Yes!” and add on to whatever was said. In Improv, if someone hands you an imaginary lobster, you take it and start cooking. Even if you don’t like the lobster, say yes anyways and then redirect the story. This forces things to keep moving in a positive direction.
Results as a salesperson: You’ll become more positive. You’ll realize how often people at work offend each other and create unnecessary friction with the powerful word “No.” You will suddenly find yourself equipped with “Yes,” which will empower people with your willingness to hear them out. Even if you disagree with someone, you can use “Yes, and…” to take it in another direction or politely educate them on the facts. You’ll transform into someone that everybody wants to share with, which will make you great at getting things done within and outside your company.
Rule #2: Contribute something
This is about adding value and not being a drag. Someone who says “What do we do now?” puts all of the responsibility on their Improv partner to decide what happens next. Don’t be that guy. Take some responsibility by suggesting something. Instead of emailing prospects “When is a good time to meet?” go ahead and suggest times that work for you. If you see a teammate failing for words on stage, you jump in and save them. It’s all about helping each other out and making each other look good, which, in the end, helps you develop an acute situational awareness.
Results as a salesperson: You’ll become a better teammate. You’ll find yourself to be much more perceptive to group dynamics. You’ll hear other salespeople having tough phone calls and you’ll jump to the whiteboard and write helpful advice or support. You’ll see guest speakers at your all-hands meeting ask a question to a silent audience and you’ll be the one to raise your hand and save them. You’ll find yourself being an all-around team player and high-functioning workplace contributor, and clients and teammates will trust you to have answers.
Rule #3: Don’t try too hard
When you try really hard to be funny, you lose your humor because you stop being genuine. If you’re genuine, the funny situations will arise naturally. If you’ve ever seen a comedian not getting any laughs and felt embarrassed for them, you know exactly what it looks like when someone is trying too hard to foist “funny” upon their audience. One of my favorite Improv scenes ever involved a skit where three characters were killed off in quick succession, each in a more fantastic way, and instead of the fourth following them with a yet even more dramatic exit, she simply sat there and said, “Well, that escalated quickly” and the audience died laughing. That’s the sort of “call it like it is” honesty that happens when you stop trying so hard.
Not trying too hard is also the surest possible antidote to the scourge of modern business: corporate-speak. This is dense language that’s full of buzzwords like “action-oriented, results-positive, or fire-drill.” It’s fake, and people can sense it. With Improv, you’ll become more concrete in your word choice—tell it like it is and people will love you for it.
Results as a salesperson: You’ll be easier to relate to. At work, you’ll stop trying to have all of the answers and being everyone to everybody. You’ll allow some of your personality to show. When you don’t know an answer, you won’t fake it but instead tell the client that you’ll get back to them. And you’ll stop responding to everything with “Awesome,” which many salespeople do by default. Many things are not awesome, so be honest. By not trying to appear infallible, you’ll be more human and relatable. Clients will find you to be a breath of fresh air to talk to and someone that they can confide in, which will put you in a great position when the sales cycle becomes competitive and they start sharing what your competitors are telling them.
Rule #4: Make your partner look good
In Improv, you can be anyone–any character that the scene calls for. Often, you need to be someone who is the weirdo, the side attraction, the foil for your counterpart to react to. Sometimes you’ll be the helpful hunchback, the crazed mistress, or the illiterate gold miner. And the crazy thing is that you don’t know any of this going into the scene. And that’s totally fine, because magic happens when you become comfortable not knowing your role and focusing on helping other find theirs.
Results as a salesperson: You’ll become more dynamic. It’s often said that the recipe for disappointment is having expectations and Improv will teach you to have none. You will become dynamic and effective no matter what is thrown at you. When your “sure-deal” for the month calls and says they’re buying from a competitor, you laugh and talk them out of it. When a consultant unexpectedly joins your call and throws in a wrench, you artfully deflect it. It makes you a dynamic powerhouse who is unwilling to accept failure and you’ll get better at closing deals in the eleventh hour.
Rule #5: Tell a story
This is where you start tying all the loose ends together into a plot. In Improv, you start with nothing but as you give each other names, jealousies, and back-stories, a captivating drama unfolds. In sales, you also start with a blank slate and develop the story that your client needs to hear. Through the discovery process, you may learn that they feel burned by a previous vendor, are a fast-moving company, or that support is their number one priority. You have all the pieces you need to craft your demo so that it shows how your service meets all of these needs. Tell the story that you’ve uncovered.
Results as a salesperson: You’ll sell more value. Improv will help you evolve into a value-statement ninja. Because you’ve become attuned to picking up on details and nuances on-stage and at high speed, you’ll start to hear and retain vastly more details about your sales prospects. You’ll pick up on where people are from, whether they have kids, what they’re interested in, and you’ll find yourself breathlessly tying all of the features of your product or service back to their specific pains. “Carol, this software comes with stellar support. As a parent, you of course understand the importance of having someone there 24/7 in case something goes wrong—we take the same approach here.” The result is that you’ll have a much easier time positioning yourself against your competitors and will win your deals much faster.
See now, was that so hard? Start practicing these rules and you’ll see immediate effects. Improv loosens you up to perform better in all environments. It gives you the ability to occasionally turn off your workplace filter and just say what you mean, diffuse tension, and build trust. It will make you quicker on your feet and generally more capable of navigating the sales role. I highly recommend checking out what this free-thinking comedy can do for your sales career.
Do you actively practice any of these principles at work? What positive effects have you seen?