How to develop improv skills to give better demos


Author: Paige Robinson

Nearly three-quarters (70.2%) of buyers wait to engage a sales rep until they have a clear understanding of their needs, according to Korn Ferry research. As a result, reps are more challenged to create value for the buyer. So, they must start by determining where the buyer is in their purchasing journey and then be flexible and adapt the conversation to meet the buyer where they are. That’s where improv skills come in, especially when giving a demo.

Nick Capozzi was driving around the western US talking about storytelling with Chris White (CW), a demo expert, and they called Chris Bogue (CB), a Second City alum, to talk about improvisational skills.

When to use improv in a demo

According to CW, you should use improv in demos, “Almost from the word go.” He suggests you should have an opening plan but look for the prospect’s first response or reaction. The goal is to get them talking. So, whatever they say, whether it’s a question or a comment, use that to guide your next statement. Follow the prospect’s lead because that’s the direction they seem to want to go. That’s why a lot of what sales reps do, is improv.

How to improvise more during a demo

The most important skill in improv is listening, according to CB. Improv is a listening game where you must play off the other person and set them up. Although standup comedy is about jokes, improv is not about jokes. Improv is about relationships and making the other person look good.

The way that CB thinks about improv, as explained to him by an improv teacher, is that you are in a scenario with another person, a prospect for example, and you must play along with their initiations. This is called the “yes and” rule.

Based on this definition of improv, whatever the prospect says, is true. You must agree with their reality. Then you add one extra step to it. So, you’re building off them, plus the last thing you said. You’re homing in on the specifics, giving them opportunities to play, and constantly finding ways to support their decisions.

No matter what they do, you always have two options—You can lean into what the other person said, or you can lean away from it. For example, in sales, you can lean in by asking for more information, or you can challenge what they said by pushing back on a point they’re making. But you must accept that what they say is true. Once you confine yourself to working off their moves and playing off them, you realize there are an infinite number of choices you can make.

Always make your move

Sometimes sales reps don’t lean into or challenge what the prospect said, according to CW. Instead, they give a neutral response, and that may be the worst thing to do. In discovery, for example, a rep will ask a question, and the prospect will give an answer. Then the sales rep will say something like “okay perfect” and move on to the next question. This leaves the prospect feeling like—why do I bother even sharing anything with you if you’re not going to go somewhere with it?

In improv, these responses are called game moves, according to CB. You make a move to initiate a game. Salespeople, especially when working off a deck, will vomit all their features out at their prospects when they should deliver the features one by one. Each piece of information is its own game move, and you need to make a move and see how the prospects respond. Because if you’re demoing five features, the prospects may only care about one of them. That is okay, you can do the entire demo about that one feature and just ignore the other four if the prospects didn’t have a reaction to them. As CW said, this is like playing a game of chess—you only make one move at a time and give your opponent, or prospect, an opportunity to make their move.  But, if you present all five features at once and don’t wait for a response to see how it plays off them, you don’t know what they value. That means you won’t be able to make the case for why they should buy.

How to add improv to your sales arsenal

So, how do you develop improv skills? CB recommends you start by reading a book like Truth in Comedy by Bill Murray’s improv teacher, Del Close. Then go see a show or, even better, take an improv class. Another option that nobody in SaaS sales does, according to CB, is hiring an improv coach. CB is a coach, and he has a whole network of trained improvisers. He recommends that sales leaders pay an improviser to play Whose line is it anyway with reps over Zoom. Literally, you could pay an improviser from Chicago $100 to play improv games with you. And it’s fun, you’ll have the time of your life, generate many ideas, and you’ll learn how to improvise.

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