When I get ready to talk to people, I spend two thirds of the time thinking what they want to hear and one third thinking about what I want to say. – Abraham Lincoln
I’m 42 posts and 51,000 words into this Listen book project – and it’s getting to the point where I need to wrap up.
This has been a less thought through approach than my first book project – and but a structure has emerged over the course of writing.
There’s a three part order to what you need to do – prepare to listen, collect and take notes on what you hear, and make sense of it all.
And we’re in the closing stages of the sense-making stage, where what you need to do is talk through your understanding of the situation and what you can do to improve it.
Seeing the big picture
Think of it like taking a long walk and finally getting to the top of a hill.
You’ve had a conversation with a client, talked through what’s in their mind and taken the time to explore and clarify their situation, constraints and needs.
You can now see the landscape – get a rich and full and wide picture of what is going on.
Now it’s time to add your bit, your point of view, your advice.
But, you have to make sure that you do this at the right time.
Wait. Wait. Hold it.
The single biggest challenge you will face when talking things through with a client is stopping yourself from jumping in too soon.
Think back to your last client discussion or, better still, watch a colleague in action the next time you have a meeting.
There’s you, your client and perhaps your star salesperson.
I can think of many, many first meetings where the salesperson, the person leading the presentation, opens up their deck and then talks, non-stop, for 45 minutes.
Let’s take all those meetings and put them to one side – we’re not going to learn much from them.
A better approach is to get into what the client is interested in as quickly as possible, and the way you do that is by getting them to talk as much as possible.
So, you ask questions, ask for clarifications and, at some point, they will describe a problem they’re facing and talk about why what they’ve already done hasn’t worked and you will know the answer and you will know exactly what to do and you will be unable to stop jumping in and saying something like “Have you tried doing this?”
Now, the next time this happens try and watch the client’s reaction.
They’re in full flow, describing a problem, talking through this thing that’s been a pain, really venting a little, letting themselves go.
And then you jump in with this point – this thing that’s your solution.
When you watch them closely, it’s like they’ve just run into a brick wall.
They’re going in one direction and your intervention throws them off – they stop in mid-flow, collect their thoughts, try to think about what you’ve said and, because people are usually polite, stop talking about their problem and try to address your solution instead.
You might not know it yet, but you’ve just increased the amount of time it’s going to take you to make that sale.
Instead, sit on your hands, pinch yourself, do anything but blurt out your solution.
This really hard to do – it’s like Wellington at Waterloo, saying hold, hold, hold.
Wait until you can see the whites of their eyes.
When is it the right time?
You need to wait until the speaker has exhausted themselves, when they’ve talked it all through, laid it out.
Any questions you ask should encourage them to continue, to draw them out, to get them to explain things more clearly.
And it’s when they’re done, when they have unburdened themselves – only then will they look at you expectantly and welcome your ideas on the matter.
Practically, I find this takes around an hour.
You need to allow that much time for a prospect to get through what they’re thinking and now you’re in a position where they’re open to hearing what you have to say.
In the next half hour, you can pull the strands together – describe what they’ve said to you, what the problems appear to be and the kind of approach you’ve taken to solving them in the past.
I’ve described my own method for doing this in this paper – and you will need to develop your own approach.
If you’re the kind of person that can keep everything in your head and talk it through, then great.
I need paper and pens and all the help I can get – either with a whiteboard or preferably with software.
But, however you do it, you’ll find that if you wait until your prospect is ready to hear rather than jumping in when they’re still talking, you’ll have a much better reception.
Because you’ve waited until you can see everything before you start talking about possible routes through the landscape, the discussion becomes one of what approach to take rather than whether you’ve got the right viewpoint.
The point is to agree the route to take
What happens at this stage is that you and your prospect agree what the plan is – what the path through the problem looks like it might be.
That’s what you should aim for at this point in your discussion – you’ve listened, seen the big picture, added your thoughts and proposed a way that the situation can be improved.
If you’ve followed the steps and taken your time your prospect should now be nodding and agreeing that, in principle, this is the way forward.
There are often two next steps.
One is that you’ve agreed that this is the approach to take but you need to get others to buy into it as well.
And the other is agreeing the commercials of the approach, what’s going to go into your proposal and how it will be judged.
At this stage you know what needs to be done – but still need to work out how.
I’ve already written about presentations for persuasion in other sections of this blog, so I might spend a post pulling those together, seeing if I can use that material to fill out a chapter on presentation approaches.
But the very next thing to talk about is how to construct a proposal that has a good chance of being signed off.
Let’s talk about that in the next post.