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Yes, And: What Improv Taught Me About Prospecting

by Carolyn Nangle | Jul 1, 2020 1:00:00 PM

prospecting-connect-callsI’ve never been a person who’s particularly good on my feet. I feel much more comfortable in situations where I can draft a response and edit it a few times before sending it off. This meant developing the skills to make effective outbound calls was some of the most uncomfortable growth I’ve ever experienced. 

A lot of what I’ve learned reminds me of my days as a theatre kid. It’s important to note that I was a painfully shy kid. At some point, though, inspired by the performances of Broadway shows I’d seen, I decided to join a summer theatre camp. Much to my parents’ surprise, I loved it. I actually enjoyed being on stage and performing. 

However, the one thing I truly hated was improv. I froze in every scene. I felt like my brain would just shut down. An overthinker by nature, I can recall very few times in my life when I’ve been utterly devoid of coherent thought. Theatre improv games stick out as a glaring example.

When I reflect on my experience as an SDR the last two years, it reminds me of those days when I’d freeze up, unable to respond to the prompt I’d been given. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve come a long way. I don’t completely blank every time I’m on the phone with a prospect, and I’ve learned how to have a meaningful conversation (Doug, our CEO, even tells me I’m pretty good at it). 

Making calls, especially connect calls, reminds me of the things I learned about improv, but struggled to apply. So much of what I do is about thinking on my feet. I never know what kind of person is going to pick up the phone. I don’t know what they’re going to say, or if they’ll be willing to talk. I don’t know in advance who’s going to hang up before I can even get my name out. Each call, each conversation is a new scene, and I’ve worked really hard on thinking and adapting each time in order to move the conversation forward.

More often than not, the issues I run into stem straight back to my tendency to overthink. One of the biggest things I get stuck on when I’m prospecting is this fear that the person I’m talking to knows more than I do. It’s something that, sometimes, causes me to freeze on a call when a prospect says something unexpected. I often find myself stuttering, afraid that the person on the other end of the phone will see through me, and they’ll know that I don’t know everything about what I’m talking about. I’m so focused on moving the conversation forward, and convincing everyone, including myself, that I’m the person the prospect wants to talk to.

I remember sitting on a discovery call once with Doug. I was so impressed with how much he knew about the field we were discussing. Doug had an answer to everything. When the prospect would respond, he’d always say “that doesn’t surprise me.” Of course, I thought. He’s not surprised because he knows a lot more than I do. Once the call had ended, we debriefed. “Carolyn, did I sound like I knew what I was talking about in there?” He asked. I told him that he did. “I actually knew very little about what was happening,” he confessed. Doug explained that, when he’s at the inquiry stage, he does something he calls Always Assume Health (he just released a podcast on Imagine’s Sales Genius Network that goes into detail about this idea). 

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In the inquiry stage, it’s essentially our job to listen to our prospect and create “a safe place” for them to share their thoughts and feelings. One of the best ways to create this is to approach things from the mindset that they don’t have a problem. 

That’s often what the prospect thinks: that everything is fine. And, when there is a problem, when we act as if there’s not, we build credibility with them and enhance trust. This means that, even if I’m surprised by something a prospect says, I’m going to agree with them and ask more questions. 

The inquiry stage is not the time to jump to solving problems, it’s the time to explore and understand them. Always assuming health gives us the opportunity to align with the prospect and continue our inquiry, until we both understand the problem.

Always Assume Health is not unlike another principle of improv, something called “Yes, and.” This is the idea that, whatever your partner in a scene says, you don’t deny it. You agree and build on the idea in order to move the scene forward. Once a suggestion in a scene is shut down or refuted, there’s no way for the scene to go but backward. 

Just like Always Assume Health, insisting that there’s a problem that the prospect doesn’t see is a good way to end a conversation. That’s not to say you shouldn’t challenge a prospect with your questions, but the idea is to move the conversation forward until the prospect sees what you see. In the same way, “Yes, and” teaches us to agree with the suggestions and use them to progress the scene.  In my sales role, it comes down to shifting the mindset from “set a meeting, do a demo, solve the problem,” to “have a conversation.”

I think a lot of the fun in prospecting comes with the realization that there’s a lot of freedom in calling a complete stranger. If they tell you to mess off and hang up, then it’s over. There are no hard feelings. You get to move on. The same is true when you perform onstage. You can’t carry the weight of one subpar performance into the next performance. You have to just move on to the next one with a little more experience and knowledge than you had the time before. 

I like to think I’ve grown a lot in my role as an SDR. I know I have. Each time I set out with a new play, I bring along new knowledge, new learnings. The trick I’m still trying to master is to keep the learnings, but let go of the failures. Like improv, I started weighed down by a lot of insecurity about what I was capable of doing. Now I’m doing something that I never thought I’d be able to do. But I’m doing it every day, and getting better as I go. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even sign up for an improv class or two.

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