I’ve lived a double life for a while. For the past few years, I’ve been balancing a full-time day job with being an improviser in my free time. As I guess is inevitable, there’s been some blurring of the borders. And as it happens, improv is enormously helpful in the business world, and in particular sales. A career in sales pretty much guarantees that you will need to be able to listen intently, think quickly, and brace for the occasional deluge of customer lunacy (just kidding, love you guys). Being able to keep on your toes and react to those situations that can very easily spiral into crudstorms if you are not careful will keep you from getting bogged down or locking up in the face of adversity.
I started doing improv intermittently when I was about 15. What started as an outlet for awkward teenage Taylor to not be as awkward or teenage became a full fledged whatever-the-healthy-version-of-an-obsession is. All of the glory and laurels of theatre, with none of the rehearsals and memorization! Huzzah! This preoccupation led me to Chicago post-college, where I fried chicken fingers and washed daiquiri glasses at the legendary Second City. Success! After a few years of knocking around the near-tundra conditions of the Windy City, I moved back down to the muggy climes of Atlanta and weaseled my way into Dad’s Garage, where they have foolishly allow me to stay to this day. I have also been performing with local improv group “Witless Protection” for the past two years (look us up on that Facebook thing!). All the while, I have worked in various jobs that require customer service, most of which have been sales-oriented.
While improv is used by quite a few comedy theaters of esteem as a tool to write and hone written material or as a pretty darn nifty form of performance on it’s own (it makes its own gravy), it can be much more than that, even off-stage. The corporate world is rife with stories of improv workshops bringing together project teams into a cohesive whole, trouble-shooting a new selling strategy, or teaching Bob in Accounting how to come out of his shell. Great breakthrough, Bob.
So, what is this witchery? It’s quite simple. One of the cardinal rules of improv is to listen closely to everything your partners are saying (and not saying). Your customers are your partners. Listen to what they are telling you, it may be more than they realize. You may end up satisfying them in ways they never imagined (that came out wrong, but you get my point). Be flexible, and realize that you may not know what you’re going to say until you’re saying it, and that’s ok. If you aren’t confident dealing with pushy customers, pretend that you are someone that is. This brings me to another important rule in improvisation: to find the point of view and wants of the character you have decided to play, and act in a manner that is truthful to this person. Selling is acting, and improv is acting without a script. Joanne may be a wallflower at parties, but from 9-5 she is a smooth and confident retail warrior who can traverse the jungle of online sales without breaking a sweat. Know who you are, what you want, and know that not knowing exactly what will happen next is not the worst thing that can happen to you (that label is reserved for being eaten by bears).
If you feel as though you aren’t confident speaking off-the-cuff or dealing with unpredictable situations, I would heartily recommend taking an improv class. It will teach your mind to work in new ways and you may even end up rich and famous (results not guaranteed). At the very least, you’ll likely improve your selling technique and probably make some new friends. Improvisers make good bar buddies. Happy selling!
Photo by Mike Hillman