HUGH CULVER

The Salesperson in You

Updated to Business on May 3, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
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“Never mistake a quantity of calls for a quality of salesmanship.” – David Ogilvy

The speaker before me is brilliant. 

They are an encyclopedia of knowledge, spilling out facts, statistics, and convincing arguments. Slide after slide delivered brilliant graphs and bullet lists that would make a university professor proud.

I’m in the audience, waiting for my slot in the agenda, furiously taking notes. And I’m thinking this is great stuff! 

At some point, I notice a person next to me pick up their phone. Next, I see someone to my left doodling on their lunchtime napkin. I glance around the conference room, and spot more people distracted. I think “This is a tough crowd!”

I’m up next. Undeterred by what I’ve seen, I launch into my speech.

I see smiles, people are leaning in, and laughing on cue. As I move through my material I briefly wonder what happened to the tough crowd. The audience appears enthusiastic – I see them taking notes, and leaving their phones on the table. I close to a standing ovation, my client is thrilled, and people line up to buy my book.

Here’s the difference between the morning speaker and me. They were telling – showing us how much they knew, while I was selling – showing how much I cared. If you want to influence and persuade an audience, you need to sell your solution.

You are always selling

Every presentation is different. It could be a keynote speech to a live audience, an online webinar, or a one-on-one sales call. And every presenter has a different approach. Some employ lots of facts, building convincing arguments, others are gifted storytellers, while still others ask lots of questions and are great listeners.

When it comes to getting results, only one skill makes the most difference. Selling.

A bad rap

Selling gets a bad rap—we think of pitch artists flogging cheap earrings on HSN or Alec Baldwin’s ABC lecture in Glengarry Glen Ross. Meanwhile, widely-admired influencers like Oprah, Obama, and Branson are simply talented and charismatic.

They are all selling.

Selling isn’t about pushing products on unsuspecting victims. Selling, Dan Pink writes in To Sell is Human, is about “improving another’s life and, in turn, improving the world.” When you offer a solution to an ongoing, painful problem, you aren’t pushing anything – you are improving another’s life

Selling starts by pointing a spotlight at a problem and offering a path forward to a better, brighter future. Your audience hasn’t been there—they have resistance. Your role is to help them step over that resistance and start on their journey, often holding their hand, and reminding them that now is the time to travel.

Five rules for selling

In my next book Closing the Gap, I have 10 rules for delivering the perfect presentation and persuading an audience to buy. 

Here are the first five.

1. Start with the problem

Every audience has a gap between current reality (where they are at in life, work, money, love, health, habits, etc.) and future reality (where they want to be) – that is their ‘problem.’ They might not talk about it, or add it to a to-do list, but they live with the pain it gives them. If you want people to buy your solution, you need to start with the problem. “Always make the gap,” writes presentation expert Nancy Duarte, “as big as possible.” 

2. Close the gap

Your value is measured by how effectively you help your audience close their gap in leadership, health, relationships, money, or needlepoint. They might laugh at your jokes, participate in exercises – even take notes. But, unless they do at least one thing differently tomorrow, you are relegated to entertainment. Action always speaks more (and pays better) than words.

3. Be likable

It may seem obvious, but people are more likely to be influenced and persuaded by someone they like. “If people like you,” writes famed salesman Zig Ziglar ”they’ll listen to you.” Start by uncovering common areas, like education, family status, or past experiences (travel, work, hobbies.) Be generous with compliments, gifts of appreciation, and acts of kindness. Being likable goes a long way to shorten the distance to a sale.

4. Less is better

Actors like Paul Newman, Sean Connery, and Helen Mirren are brilliant at delivering every line of their script as if it is a complete story. They know less is best and how a simple statement, well delivered will always outmuscle lots of little attempts to make a point. Your audience will only remember a very small percentage of your message. Know what that is and make it count.

5. Teach with stories

Stories are irresistible—they are “built into the human plan,” writes Margaret Atwood. People remember stories six to seven times more than facts, statistics, bullet points, or clumsy acronyms that spell out “LEADERSHIP.” When you tell a story your audience leans in as a movie of characters, scenery, and drama develops in their mind. Best of all, stories can open an otherwise impenetrable door for your solution to walk through. Become a storyteller.

I never thought of myself as a salesperson. 

In tourism, my partners and I wanted to solve the problem of safe, reliable access to some of the most remote places on earth. In my keynotes, I shine a spotlight on a problem my audience needs to fix and then hand them the tools. With these posts, I ask for a few minutes of readers’ time in return for a moment to reflect on opportunities that might be overlooked.

So, I guess I’m a salesperson after all.

If you made it this far, you might as well read these:

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Lemonade stand by John Angel on Unsplash