Listen up! How improv can help you hear your prospects better and close more deals

Posted August 15, 2018

By Andrew Mewborn

Solutions Consultant at Outreach

This is the second post in our series on how learning improv can improve your sales skills. The first post can be found here.

When you’re in sales, it can be easy to think the most important quality is being a good talker. But as an 11-year-old kid, helping my single mom, Maria, get her X-ray business off the ground, I discovered talking is only one part of the package.

The other, even more important aspect of selling? Listening.

That’s advice my mom gave me from the get-go, as the two of us called up doctors, asking if they had any patients in need of X-rays and selling my mom’s imaging abilities. My mom would always say to me, “The number one thing you have to do while selling is listen.”

I thought I got it. When the person on the other end of the phone said, “Hey, I’m not interested,” I heard, “Don’t ever call me again!” But my mom meant something far more nuanced—years later, when I started taking improv classes, it finally made sense.

Hearing isn’t the same as being a successful listener.

Sounds like a riddle, right? But calibrating how you speak and what you say to your conversational partner can make a big difference when it comes to making the audience laugh…or closing a deal.

Improv changed how I listen to prospects on the phone, bringing me all the way back to my childhood days watching my mom pitch her X-ray business. Today, I’ll share how my framework shifted, and give you some techniques you can try out at the office.

Cool? Cool.

Why Playing with Status Works in Improv—and Sales, Too

It’s not easy to sell professional services when you’re just 11. My prepubescent voice meant that a lot of doctors had trouble taking me seriously and there were a lot of hang-ups from physicians who assumed I was pranking them.

And listening—the kind of listening that key to a successful improv scene—didn’t come easy.

My mom noticed my struggles, and had me sit beside while she “listened” on her calls. During these sessions, I noticed something odd: my mom didn’t actually say much. When she did talk, she asked a lot of questions and her reactions and responses varied depending on what the other person said. It was almost like she was playing a character—someone very different from the mom I knew.

Once I started improv, I realized what my mom was doing—she was adjusting her status to fit the person on the other end of the line.

If you’re doing improv, status is a big deal, since it’s a clue to what’s going on in a scene and helps you know what to do and say next. Characters can have high status (an older sibling, a queen) or low status (a younger sibling, the court jester). Or, to put it in terms that’ll really resonate: a sales manager is high status, while a prospective hire is low status.

When you go into a scene—or pick up the phone to call a prospect—you have to decide if you’ll be low- or high-status. And that’s only possible if you listen. There are four key things you’ll need to listen for:

  1. Who are the characters? You’ll want to understand their personality and figure out their status level.
  2. Relationships between characters: For my mom, this might mean picking up on tensions between an office manager (concerned mainly with budget) and an orthodontist (focused on timing).
  3. Objectives and problems: In an improv scene, this means understanding what the characters want to do next. For my mom—or any salesperson—it means picking up on a problem that you can help solve or an objective that you can help the person achieve.
  4. The character’s environment: Where are the characters (an office? A coffee shop?) and what’s it like? Is it busy or slow, stressful or laid back?  

When you understand those four components, you can decide how you want to enter a scene and what status you would like to portray. That’s precisely what my mom was doing every time she picked up the phone: trying to understand the landscape and calibrate her response accordingly.

And just as it worked for my mom on calls to orthodontists, that same strategy works for me as I call up prospects. I do my best to understand all the prospects involved in the deal, from relationships (between the various stakeholders and decision-makers) to their objectives to the environment they’re in.

When I can pin down each of these components, it helps me quiet down the nervous voices in my head and choose the status that’ll work best on the call. Then, I can pick up my phone, feeling ready to adjust my responses and reactions to fit characters that are sometimes a bit different from me. Of course, playing these hyper-confident and strong characters can be an uncomfortable, awkward role at times. But learning to listen and choosing my status before calls to prospects has helped me build up my own confidence, experiment, be OK with failure (it’s not always going to be a win), and release some of the need to control things.

Try These Improv Exercises to Sharpen Your Own Listening Skills

Looking to help yourself—and your team—develop listening skills? These two classic improv exercises can help you build that skill and know how to recognize another person’s status, so you can adjust your own accordingly.

Exercise #1: Rant and Define

This exercise is about reframing complaints and using a game to bring emotional

conversations to the table. Restating a rant changes the dynamic of the rant from being directed at the listener to creating a feeling of working with the listener.

Here’s how to play:

  1. One person has 90 seconds to rant about something that upsets them.
  2. The listener must encapsulate that rant in one sentence when the 90 seconds is over.

How this helps salespeople: This exercise is about listening for consensus, not listening to solve (which is typically the natural state of humans!). Your repetition helps the ranter feel heard and acknowledged. Remember, this is one of the key elements of listening: understanding a problem or objective. By summarizing the ranter’s frustrating, you’re building a partnership. Once you nail that, you’re on the same team—and together, you can solve problems (ideally with help from your product or service).

Exercise #2: Blind Poker

This exercise breaks down the unspoken status communication that happens in

everyday situations, and helps participants gain understanding of how their actions,

either verbal or non-verbal, can create a block to building a team and proper

communication. Plus, this is a great way to introduce the concept of bringing everything to the table when you arrive in a situation.

Here’s how to play:

  1. Players are given a card to place on their forehead, so that only others can see the card.
  2. They then walk around as if they are at a company party.
  3. At the end, they line up according to the way that the other participants treated them based on their status/card, i.e. if you think you have a King, you stand next to someone who has a Queen.

The largest lesson to take away is that you can always choose your status in the room, and adjust your status to achieve your intended goal.

How this helps salespeople: Before a big or nerve-wracking meeting, put an ace from a card deck in your pocket to help remind you to hold a high status.

Next up: we’ll explore the four components of an improv scene—character, relationships, objective, environment—which can be used in sales calls, meetings, presentations, and more.

If you’ve used these techniques to bump up your own sales calls, let me know. Leave a comment below or shoot me an email to

P.S. Shout out to all the mama's boys out there!


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