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Tell, Don't Sell: How to get what you want at work

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I had a great conversation with an IT leader in Australia this week. She was doing good work, but she was feeling increasingly frustrated by people in her team. She couldn't work out  why she never seemed to be able to get her requests over the line.

"I do all the right things!" she told me. "I do my research, I put my business case together, and I put a lot of effort into my presentations."

Despite all of her effort, she was struggling to get the resources and people she needed , while everyone around her seemed to be hiring for new positions that weren't half as important.

She asked for some tips on her presenting technique, so she could be more convincing - but she was surprised at what I had to say... I told her to stop trying to persuade her bosses of what she needed.

One of my mentors, Peter Cook, talks about the importance of conviction selling. Pete reckons that the way you turn up, energetically, is even more important than what you're trying to sell - and he's right.

In this article on tricky conversations, I talk about the concept of reactance. In brief: we don't want to be persuaded. In fact, we so badly don't want to be persuaded that we have a physiological reaction! When we feel as though someone's trying to get us to do something, or change our mind, we put up immediate barriers.

So if we can't overtly persuade, when that's exactly what we're trying to do... how do we get our proposals over the line?


Shore up your conviction

Conviction is more effective than persuasion, every time. Make sure that before you walk into any conversation or presentation, you wholeheartedly believe in the value of what you're proposing. If you don't believe it, nobody else can either.


Ask powerful questions

Sales is a conversation. How can you expect anyone to be interested in you, if you aren't interested in them? For every message or point you make, you should ask at least one question. Asking people to reach inside their own thoughts and experiences connects them more meaningfully to your content and enables them to bring their ideas to the table. 


Make it sticky

There's a reason why taglines exist - they work. They're memorable and easy to digest, and they feel as though they make more sense. Or, as the Heath Brothers put it in their great book Made to Stick - they're "sticky!"

How can you sum up your main idea in an easy to remember line or catch-phrase? 

Here's some examples:

- A diamond is forever

- If you wouldn't buy it, don't sell it

- Leaders are readers

- Have an attitude of gratitude

- Tell, don't sell (yep, the title of this article!)

According to the Heath Brothers, a 'sticky' idea has six things going for it:

1. Simplicity

Less is often more. Rather than overwhelming people with slides, information and facts, stick to one key idea and reinforce it repeatedly.

Confusing your audience with technical details, complicated charts and jargon doesn't make you look smart or credible, it just makes people feel bored, annoyed or stupid. Make your thinking as easy to understand as possible.

2. Unexpectedness

Capturing people's attention isn't easy. They're distracted by a million things, they're probably checking their phone under the desk and they don't want to be in your meeting. Make it memorable by surprising them. That might mean tabling a controversial opinion, a surprising fact, or telling your story in an interesting way - use music, a live prop, or bring a personal interest into the mix. Don't be gimmicky, but do disrupt expectations in some way.

3. Concreteness

Don't get lost in the abstract or cliche. Terms like diversity, high-performance and collaboration all mean different things in people's heads, and they don't connect. If you want to talk about "driving business growth", be more specific and say instead "Expanding this team could drive an additional $1 million in revenue over two years." If you want to talk about "breaking down siloes" instead say "If customer service and sales work better together, everybody wins."

4. Credibility

Trust is earned, not given. I'm disappointed this only comes in at number four on the Heath Brothers list, because in my experience, it's number one. Your conviction is critical here - we trust the opinion of experts when they tell us what we need. When a surgeon tells us we need surgery and outlines the risks, they don't pull out a Powerpoint to convince us. They speak calmly and assuredly from their zone of expertise, and wait for our questions. This is the vibe our IT leader needs for her presentations - conviction, not persuasion. Less selly, more surgeon.

5. Emotional Connection

Why should they care? It doesn't matter how good your idea is, if you can't make people care about it. The easiest way to someone's emotions is drawing a clear, direct link between your ideas and their reality. Invoke a sense of want, excitement, fear or understanding by putting yourself in the shoes of your audience. What do they need? What are they worried about? Speak directly to those concerns and you're onto a winner.

6. Stories

Like it or not, persuasion is a feelings game - and you can't change feelings with facts. What you can do is tell a story that connects with people. Talk about experiences you've had with customers, highlight the experiences of your staff members, or draw on the stories and parables told by others. Don't bash them over the head with the moral or key message, and watch your audience start to do the work for you.

Check out this great white paper by Gabrielle Dolan for more on the power of stories at work.


Get more help

Most of us are spending more time in meetings and workshops than ever, trying to convince people to change, or to buy into our thinking. Overall, we do a bad job of it - our meetings are boring, ineffective and fail to drive action outside the room.

If you're looking for more help with your meetings and workshops, and you want to be an action-driving superstar, check out Meetings that Matter.  It's the only facilitation training that teaches you how to lead strategic conversations that get things moving outside the meeting room.