Improv In Selling


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Readers might be a little surprised about the concept of Improv In Selling. Some would reflect on how overly scripted sales conversations are. We are trained to follow the script, not deviating, even if that’s not what the customer cares about.

Others would laugh at the concept of improv, saying that sales people are always winging it, shooting from the lip. They would excuse this, suggesting, “we’ve been involved in 100s to 1000s of calls, we can handle everything.” And, usually, they fail.

Some would be somewhere in between, suggesting we have to follow the process and never deviate. So while we aren’t scripted, there is a very strict process we have to comply with the process.

But high performing sales people, are masters of high impact improv in connecting effectively with their customers.

This morning, I was talking to an old friend. We worked together about 25 years ago. He was a sales executive (working with my wife). While we worked with different companies, we talked about business frequently.

We were catching up and he started talking about his passion for music. One of his passions is teaching children music, another passion is performing with a jazz band that is, largely improv. We talked about how he was trying to marry those passions helping children feel free enough to be improvisational when they play in groups.

We discussed what it takes to be successful in improv, whether in music, comedy, drama, or selling. I asked him what it took to be successful in improv. Some of his comments were striking, particularly when you think about the application to selling:

  1. The greatest improv performers are masters of the structure, process, and science of what they do. For example, he teaches his students the structure of music, the elements of great composition, how to read music, how to play music with others, how to take direction.
  2. He teaches them a lot of the science of creating music versus noise.
  3. His student practice and practice–not at improv, but at performing the music as it’s written on the sheet. They master that. He said that until his students mastered the basic mechanics of performing well and at the highest level possible, there was no way they could successfully improvise.
  4. We talked about improvisation itself. He said the most important skill was listening–listening to the others you are playing with. As I’ve alluded to, in great improvisational music, it’s not every performer doing their own thing and we have a cacophony of noise. It’s musicians listening to each other, playing in a way that complements and builds on what the others are doing.
  5. He went on to discuss successful collaborations in improvised music is about the total performance, not the performance of individuals. It’s how each person adds to what they others are doing, building on it. While there are some solos, the result of a great improv leverages everyone, such that the sum of each performance creates a greater experience than any individual performance.
  6. I reflected on some of the other commentaries on improvisation. Many of our most celebrated actors and comedians were part of Second City or similar comedy improv group. Studying their approach to improv is there a structure and process underlying great comedy improv.
  7. Improv actors are masters of the basics of performance, acting, and comedy. They know how to create great comedy as individuals, but they know they can create greater comedy with a group.
  8. It is intensely collaborative. They build the performance through a simple structure of “Yes, and….” They add new information at every interaction. They don’t block because blocking stops the conversation. They build each other up through the improv, they have a greater impact together than separately. They constantly adapt and change. As the situation changes, they adapt to the situation and the present moment, not to what they have always done before. They show up, they are present and actively engaged.
  9. They aren’t afraid to make mistakes, they can learn, adapt, and recover from those mistakes.
  10. Improv is not aimless, wandering, or random. It is goal oriented, whether producing a great piece of music, a great performance, connecting with and moving an audience, improv is done for a purpose and achieving a goal.
  11. In all these conversations, another thing became clear, to be successful in improv, you have to care, not just about what you are doing, but what you and your improv partners are doing and the audience experience.
  12. A foundation to great improv is shared trust.

I’ll stop here, there’s a lot more around improv, one of the best books I’ve read is Improv Wisdom by Patricia Madson.

Great selling is a lot like great improv. While a basic engagement process underlies all our engagement strategies, great sellers are nimble, they don’t abandon the process, but they adapt the process to the situation, the customer, and the specific context of the customer.

Great sellers are masters of the basics and fundamentals of selling, value creation, and their customers’ businesses/markets/industries. This knowledge is fundamental to their ability to adapt and build meaning in their engagement process.

Great sellers don’t focus just on their goals, but on they and their customers achieving their shared goals. They know their success is based on the customers’ success.

Great sellers listen, engage, adapt. They build the conversation, meaning and value for the people they work with.

Great sellers build and strengthen their colleagues and customers in the engagement process.

Great improv, whether in the arts or in business and selling requires deep expertise, constant practice, constant learning, deep listening, and caring for those with whom you are “performing.”

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


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