My friend Don Hutson has a career in speaking, management, and sales that spans time, geography, and industry. His client list includes over half of the Fortunate 500. He’s the CEO of U.S. Learning and has appeared on numerous national television programs. He previously served as the President of the National Speakers Association.
Given this extensive background, I wanted to talk with Don about two subjects: sales and communication.
In this first video interview, I talk to Don about sales.
What’s In and Out
He shares that closing is out while gaining commitment is in. Overcoming objections is also out replaced by dealing with concerns. Even listening is upgraded from a passive activity to power listening, requiring action.
“Let us move from the era of confrontation to the era of negotiation.” –Richard Nixon
He was waiting in the back of the room after I gave a speech. I noticed him out of the corner of my eye, a young man who obviously wanted to ask me something. If you’ve spoken to large groups, you’re used to this. Someone who has a question but didn’t get called on during the Q&A or who only wants to raise a question privately.
When I turned to him, he shifted to the other foot, his nervousness seemingly evaporating with the movement. He confidently asked a question that I have heard in various forms over the years. “Skip, you’ve been the CEO of some large companies. What do I need to do to get promoted at work?”
It’s a simple question and the answer could be extensive. There’s so much to learn about leadership that it’s almost a paralyzing question.
Fortunately, it wasn’t new to me and so I had a ready answer.
“Work harder on yourself than you do on your job.” -Jim Rohn
There really are three skills that I think help you stand out at work. When these three skills are mastered, it isn’t always apparent why the person is promoted. It just seems natural.
In other words, sales skills. Many people think of sales in the wrong way. They think of it as manipulation or “pushing something.” The greatest sales people, persuaders, and influencers are not pushing a false narrative or unethically exploiting others. They are great listeners, look for ways to help solve problems, and are genuinely interested in others.
Influence is a complex skill worthy of filling volumes of books. It is not only based on what you do, but on who you are. Helping others become influential is one of the major goals of this website. It’s my hope that regular readers will see their persuasion and influence grow over time.
“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.” -Ken Blanchard
In other words, public speaking. It may be in small groups or in large ones, but those who overcome the fear of speaking – and become good at it – are significantly more likely to see promotions than those who don’t.
When I was growing up, I spent many weekends camping with my Boy Scout Troop in pursuit of my Eagle Scout badge. One thing I remember about those trips was the campfires and the stories we told. From the scary to the hilarious, those stories created an environment as we entertained each other. No devices, no distractions, just stories.
We may live in a different time, but the power of story remains an important part of memory, of persuasion, and of leadership.
All of us love a good story. We are swept into the latest book or blockbuster film or we are enthralled by a particularly talented storyteller in our office. Those who tell a story well have our attention.
Leaders should strive to be good storytellers, painting a vivid scene and picture of what’s ahead. That’s the art of persuasion and influence. It’s also the skill of most sales leaders, who use narratives to explain a difficult concept. We are creatures who love a good story.
“At the end of the day, people follow those who know where they’re going.” -Jack Trout
You witnessed, first-hand, the power of a sales story when you purchased some art. Would you briefly share that with us?
Sure. Last summer my wife, Lisa, and I were at an art show in Cincinnati. She was on a mission to find a piece for our boys’ bathroom wall at home.
At one point we found ourselves at the booth of an underwater photographer named Chris Gug. Looking through his work, Lisa got attached to a picture that, to me, looked about as out of place as a pig in the ocean. It was a picture of a pig in the ocean! Literally. A cute little baby piglet, up to its nostrils in salt water, snout covered with sand, dog-paddling its way straight into the camera lens.
When I got my chance, I asked the seller (named Gug) what on Earth that pig was doing in the ocean. And that’s when the magic started.
He said, “Yeah, it was the craziest thing. That picture was taken in the Caribbean, just off the beach of an uninhabited Bahamian island named Big Major Cay.” He told us that years ago, a local entrepreneur brought a drove of pigs to the island to raise for bacon.
Then he said, “But, as you can see in the picture, there’s not much more than cactus on the island for them to eat. And pigs don’t much like cactus. So the pigs weren’t doing very well. But at some point, a restaurant owner on a nearby island started bringing his kitchen refuse by boat over to Big Major Cay and dumping it a few dozen yards off shore. The hungry pigs eventually learned to swim to get to the food. Each generation of pigs followed suit, and now all the pigs on the island can swim. As a result, today the island is more commonly known as Pig Island.”
Gug went on to describe how the pigs learned that approaching boats meant food, so they eagerly swim up to anyone arriving by boat. And that’s what allowed him to more easily get the close-up shot of the dog-paddling piglet. He probably didn’t even have to get out of his boat.
I handed him my credit card and said, “We’ll take it!”
Why my change of heart? The moment before he shared his story (to me at least), the photo was just a picture of a pig in the ocean, worth little more than the paper it was printed on. But two minutes later, it was no longer just a picture. It was a story—a story I would be reminded of every time I looked at it. The story turned the picture into a conversation piece—a unique combination of geography lesson, history lesson, and animal psychology lesson all in one.
In the two minutes it took Gug to tell us that story, the value of that picture increased immensely. It’s the kind of story that I now refer to as a “value-adding” story because it literally makes what you’re selling more valuable to the buyer.
“Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.” –John Barth
I could probably give you dozens of reasons, but here are my favorite 5.
Storytelling speaks to the part of the brain where decisions are actually made– Human beings make subconscious, emotional, and sometimes irrational decisions in one place in the brain and then justify those decisions rationally and logically in another place. So if you’re trying to influence buyers’ decisions, using facts and rational arguments alone isn’t enough. You need to influence them emotionally, and stories are your best vehicle to do that.
Stories are more memorable– Lots of studies show that facts are easier to remember if they’re embedded in a story than if they’re just given to you in a list. And you can prove that to yourself right now. All of you reading this know that by this time tomorrow you won’t remember this list of 5 things. But you will remember the story of Pig Island. And next week, next month, or next year, you’ll be able to tell the Pig Island story and get most of the facts right. But you won’t remember any of the 5 things in this list.
Stories can increase the value of the product you’re selling– as you saw in the Pig Island story.
Stories are contagious– When’s the last time you heard someone say, “Wow! You’ll never believe the PowerPoint presentation I just saw!” Never. But they do say that about a great story.
Storytelling gives you a chance to be original– Most buyers have seen every pitch, tactic, and closing line in the book. They’ve heard them from you, your competitors, and the last three people who had your job. Storytelling gives you a chance to go “off script” and say something they won’t hear from anyone else.
Many people may think, “Oh sure, a sales person should be a good story teller.” But you turn that around and say it’s more important to have a buyer tell their story. I love that. Tell us more about that.
I figure if you don’t hear their stories first, how will you know which of your stories to tell?
A colleague of ours, Mike Weinberg, says it this way: “You wouldn’t trust a physician who walked into the examining room, spent an hour telling you how great he was, and then wrote a prescription, would you?” Of course not. Then why would a buyer accept the recommendation of a salesperson who did the same thing?
What separates effective communicators from truly successful persuaders?
Since I read hundreds of books each year, I am always talking about them. Some books are quickly forgotten and others stay with you. And then there are a few books that are so extraordinary that they merit a second read and deserve a prominent place on your closest shelf. Not to impress, but to be there when you need to refer to an idea or refresh your mind.
“Every battle is won before it is fought.” -Sun Tzu
The book I’m talking about in this post is in that rare category. The author, Dr. Robert Cialdini, is best known for his groundbreaking work, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, which is a perennial bestseller. It’s so good that it’s become part of our collective thinking. From social media to sales to leadership techniques, it’s a classic.
You spent time infiltrating the training programs of numerous companies. What was the biggest surprise for you during this time?
You’re right. As a kind of secret agent, I once infiltrated the training programs of a broad range of professions dedicated to getting us to say yes. In these programs, advanced trainees were often allowed to accompany and observe an old pro who was conducting business. I always jumped at those opportunities because I wanted to see if I could register, not just what practitioners in general did to succeed, but what the best of them did. One such practice quickly surfaced that shook my assumptions. I’d expected that the aces of their professions would spend more time than the inferior performers developing the specifics of their requests—the clarity, logic, and desirable features of them. That’s not what I found.
Research: high achievers spend more time than others preparing before making a request.
The highest achievers spent more time crafting what they did and said before making a request. They set about their mission as skilled gardeners who know that even the finest seeds will not take root in poorly prepared ground. Much more than their less effective colleagues, they didn’t rely merely on the merits of an offer to get it accepted; they recognized that the psychological frame in which an appeal is first placed can carry equal or even greater weight. So, before sending their message, they arranged to make their audience sympathetic to it.
Surprising findings from Dr. Cialdini:
You are more likely to choose a French wine if you’ve just been exposed to French music.
You are more inclined to buy inexpensive furniture if the website wallpaper is covered in pennies.
You will likely be more careful if you just viewed a picture of Rodin’s The Thinker.
You are more likely to feel someone is warmer if they have just handed you hot chocolate.
You are more likely to purchase a popular item if you start to watch a scary movie.
How Seating Arrangements Influence Your Perception
Let’s talk about our point of view. Even the subtle change of seating arrangements or the view of the camera changes everything. What are some implications of this finding?
Imagine you are in a café enjoying a cup of coffee and, at the table directly in front of you, a man and woman are deciding which movie to see that evening. After a few minutes they settle on one of the options and set off to the theater. As they leave, you notice that one of your friends had been sitting at the table behind them. Your friend sees you, joins you, and remarks on the couple’s movie conversation, saying, “It’s always just one person who drives the decision in those kinds of debates, isn’t it?” You laugh and nod because you noticed that, although he was trying to be nice, it was clearly the man of the couple who determined the movie choice. Your amusement disappears, though, when your friend continues, “She sounded sweet, but she just pushed until she got her way.”
Dr. Shelley Taylor, a social psychologist at UCLA, knows why you and your friend could have heard the same conversation but come to opposite judgments about who produced the end result. It was a small accident of seating arrangements: You were positioned to observe the exchange over the shoulder of the woman, making the man more visible and salient, while your friend had the reverse point of view. Taylor and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments in which observers watched and listened to conversations that had been carefully scripted so neither discussion partner contributed more than the other. Some observers watched from a perspective that allowed them to see the back of one or another discussant and the face of the second; other observers’ perspectives allowed them to see both faces equally (from the side). All the observers were then asked to judge who had more influence in the discussion over its tone, content, and direction. The outcomes were always the same: These ratings of responsibility corresponded with the visibility of the discussants’ faces. Whoever’s face was more visible was judged to be the more influential.
This means that, if we can get people to direct their visual attention to a person, product, or event, it will immediately seem more influential to them. People believe that, if they’ve paid special attention to an item, it must be influential enough to warrant that attention. But that’s not true because attention can be channeled to an item by factors unrelated to its significance, such as distinctive colors, which nonetheless increase observers’ estimation of the item’s significance.
Research: directing visual attention can influence perceptions.
I love the personal example you share about the geography of influence. When you wrote on campus, it was radically different than when you wrote at home. It immediately resonated with me, too, because I’ve seen styles change when writing at a courthouse, in a corporate office, or at home. Based on your research, to maximize effectiveness, what recommendations would you share?
When I began writing my first book for a general audience, I was on a leave of absence at a university other than my own. Of course, I filled my campus office there with my professional books, journals, articles, and files. In town, I’d leased an apartment and would try to work on the book from a desk there, too. But the environment around that desk was importantly different from that of my campus office–newspapers, magazines, tabletops, and television shows took the place of scientific publications, textbooks, filing cabinets, and conversations with colleagues.
Writing in those separate places produced an effect I didn’t anticipate and didn’t even notice: The work I’d done at home was miles better than what I’d done at the university because it was decidedly more appropriate for the general audience I’d envisioned. Surprised, I wondered how it could be that despite a clear grasp of my desired market, I couldn’t write for it properly while in my university office. Only in retrospect was the answer obvious. Anytime I lifted or turned my head, the sightlines from my on-campus desk brought me into contact with cues linked to an academic approach and its specialized vocabulary, grammar, and style of communication.
Research: what you say or do immediately before the appeal affects success.
It didn’t matter what I knew (somewhere in my head) about the traits and preferences of my intended readers. There were few cues in that environment to spur me to think routinely and automatically of those individuals as I wrote. From my desk at home, though, the cues were matched to the task. There, I could harmonize with my audience much more successfully. So here’s my recommendation for leaders: When writing for any particular audience—clients, colleagues, employees—put a photo of a typical member of the audience in the corner of your computer screen as you write. That photo will be an automatic, unconscious reminder of your audience and their communication styles, which will allow you to write in a way that is aligned with those styles. I do that regularly now, and it works for me.
Writing Tip: put a photo of a typical audience member on the corner of your screen.