Persuasive communication - Sales

Curious, Imaginative and Paranoid

Don’t let the headline fool you, this is not another article about Charlie Sheen. Whether you’re selling a product or an idea, your effectiveness depends on deep knowledge of your “customers”, innovative ideas and extensive preparation. That’s why I‘ve found over my career that the following three personal qualities are indispensable and should be carefully nurtured: curiosity, imagination and paranoia.

Curiosity. Persuasion is about the other person, so the best persuaders approach their task from an outside-in perspective: from the point of view of the person(s) they are trying to persuade. They seek to know as much as possible about their drives, desires, wants and needs. They pay close attention to their preferred communication and thinking styles and adapt accordingly. This sounds easy but is actually quite hard to do, because our own needs and concerns can so easily override our best intentions.

Curiosity is the quality that prompts you to follow a thread in the conversation which is intriguing and which may or may not lead to a deeper insight about the person. It makes it easy to listen to the other person when you’re tempted to talk about yourself. It drives you to learn as much as possible about your own topic and position, and to keep learning over a lifetime. Curiosity sees disagreement as a chance to learn, to explore a different point of view. It can be useful in negotiations, by prompting you to look beyond the other side’s positions and examine their true interests.

Curiosity makes it easy for you to ask the “stupid questions” that many people avoid because they want to look smart. In their book Blur, Kovach and Rosenstiel point to the example of Homer Bigart, a journalist during the Vietnam War who employed a method called “portable ignorance”, which simply meant asking a ton of simple questions, following the thread of the answers until he knew more about the situation than anyone else.

The risk of curiosity is that it can be a vice if it’s simply pursued for its own sake. To avoid this, you need to balance curiosity with imagination.

Imagination. Curiosity asks why; Imagination asks why not? It’s what makes the connection between what you learn and how you apply it to create a compelling scenario for your client. Once you have the big picture and fine-grained detail that curiosity provides, you must be able to make improbable connections and imagine new possibilities, so that you can give back value.

In sales differentiation is the key to avoiding a price war, and imagination is the mother of differentiation. As a practical matter, if you ask your customer a ton of questions and then simply begin talking about your standard solutions, how do you think they will feel? They need to feel they are getting something from answering all your questions. If the essence of consultative selling is providing ideas your customers have not thought of themselves, then imagination lets you move beyond a me-too, commoditized approach.

Computers are getting smarter and more human-like all the time, but I doubt they will ever match the human capacity for imagination. One thing computers will never be able to duplicate is empathy. Empathy is a form of imagination that is useful in persuasion, and fortunately, as new research shows, thinking of others may actually increase your creativity.

When you’re dealing with competing interests, imagination is what enables you to figure out ways to growth the pie or even bake a whole new pie rather than arguing over the size of the slices to be shared.

Paranoia. This one sounds negative, but I believe that as long as it’s not overdone a touch of paranoia goes a long way to ensuring your success as a persuader. As Andy Grove said, “only the paranoid survive.” Business is too fast-paced and competition too global for anyone to get complacent.

Paranoia is the fuel of extraordinary preparation. I know people who have risen to great heights in organizations far ahead of their peers because they relentlessly prepare for meetings and conversations, so that they are the best informed person in the room.

Paranoia makes a salesperson get one more reference or read one more analyst’s report about their customer. When I coach opportunity plans, I reserve my strongest questioning for those salespeople who think they have the sale locked down. The sale is never over until the buyer’s check clears. The worst thing that paranoia can do to you is make you put in a little extra time, but it’s better to do it and not need it than to need it and not do it. Overconfidence has killed more sales than bad breath.

Paranoia forces presenters to double-check their facts, or get just a little more backup material. Paradoxically, more information may increase your confidence without actually improving your accuracy, so you have to become even more unsure of yourself[1]. Whenever you’re sure about something, remind yourself of the research that indicates that those who have the least competence or knowledge are most apt to overestimate their ability.[2] It reminds you to line up your supporters and shape the conditions for success, giving you the confidence that success is practically assured before you walk into that meeting—but keeping you from stepping over line into overconfidence.


[1] Various studies involving clinical psychologists, physicians and eyewitness court testimony cited in Don’t Believe Everything You Think, by Thomas Kida, pages 193-195.

[2] If you want to know more, a fascinating book is Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes, by Belsky and Gilovich.

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