To help you sell, ask don't tell

Steve Hall


My brain is bursting!

(This article originally appeared in LinkedIn here)

I'm currently half way through "Pre-suasion", the brilliant new book by Robert Cialdini, author of the equally brilliant "Influence" and my sales brain is teeming with new ideas as a result.

I've found so many fabulous things I can use to help my clients that it's hard to pick out just one or two, but I'm going to anyway. Because there are two concepts in particular that are amazingly powerful yet easy to apply.

The first is so simple it's laughable, yet I've rarely if ever seen it used in sales. But you know it well and you've almost certainly used it many times to help you remember things and to implant ideas in your brain - just as you could use it to implant your ideas in your customers' brains.

It's so powerful it can trigger instant recall in you decades after you first experienced it.

It's so subconsciously pervasive that it help someone faced with overwhelming evidence of guilt to escape conviction in one of the highest profile murder charges in our lifetime.

And I've used it today to get you to read this article. In fact, I've used both of these concepts already. So what are they?

The first is - rhyme.

If you've read the book, seen the telemovie or followed the case, you'll know that one of the most compelling factors that help O J Simpson escape jail for the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown-Simpson in 1994 was the simple rhyme "If it does not fit, you must acquit".

After a trial lasting eight months and filled with masses of evidence - most of it devastating for Simpson's case - the verdict hung on the fact that a glove found at the murder scene didn't appear to fit Simpson. Faced with a mass of complex details, the jury clung to this simple, rhythmic mnemonic - and they did acquit.

OJ SimpsonOn a more personal note, if your childhood was like mine (far from certain, of course) you may remember the number of days in a month by reciting something like:

Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November; All the rest have thirty-one, Excepting February alone: Which has twenty-eight, that's fine, Till leap year gives it twenty-nine.

Or if you studied English history, you'll know the fate of Henry VIII's wives by the rhyme

Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived

Even if you've never heard of these I'm sure there will be many things from your childhood that you remember using some kind of rhyme. And if you've read this far, you'll have been prompted to read the article by the rhyming heading:

To Help You Sell, Ask Don't Tell

Put simply, rhyme makes things memorable and sets you apart.

To help this post, oh reader fair,

Be seen more oft, please Like and Share

And if you make your Comments wise

Your insights will reach many eyes

Your Likes & Shares & Comments true

Help me - so ask and I'll help you

(I used that rather appalling poem to encourage people to "like" and share my article on LinkedIn and comment on it, if you'd like to do that pop over to LinkedIn by clicking here. It's easier than logging in and commenting on it here.)

So as my headline and this article are about sales, how can this concept, and the other one I've alluded to, help us to sell? One answer is in the headline itself.

Ask don't tell

Numerous articles have been written (including by me) stating that sales people should talk less and listen more and that the person who asks the questions controls the conversation.

In fact one of the most widely used sales methodologies, SPIN selling, is based almost entirely around asking different kinds of questions. And listening to the answers.

And yet in the heat of the moment, many sales people can't resist launching into their pitch and overwhelming their prospect with dialogue.

This was brought home to me graphically when I worked with some of the top sales people in one of the largest software companies in the world.

I would attend phone meetings I'd organised between these very experienced sales people and senior executives in their targeted accounts. We would also have a very fast typist (remember them) listening in and the typist would transcribe the conversation as a record of what happened as well as to help me debrief the sales people.

Invariably, when we analysed the call, the sales people would start by asking questions but very soon the blocks of dialogue from the sales people were two or three times as long as those from the prospect.

The difference was stark - in spite of their best intentions, the sales people talked to much and listened too little. They just got carried away with enthusiasm and forgot to shut up and listen.

Now I have a very simple way for my clients to remember the importance of listening - a rhyme. Once they hear "To help you sell, ask don't tell" it will become part of their unconscious approach and will help them to listen more and talk less.

And even though you're not my client (yet) you're welcome to use it too.

The mystery concept

I referred to two concepts but so far I've only mentioned one, so at this stage the other is a mystery. It's something that Albert Einstein called "the most beautiful thing we can experience" and also "the source of all true science and art"

If you're becoming impatient to find out what it is, it's already worked its magic on you - because the other concept is mystery.

According to Robert Cialdini we have an inner compulsion to achieve closure and a mystery, even a minor one like "what's this second concept he keeps talking about?intrigues us and compels us to discover the answer.


That's why Agatha Christie books and movies and shows like Midsomer Murders are so popular - it isn't the acting, the writing or the plot, it's the need to find out what happened.

How can we apply this in sales? In many ways - but one key one is "don't tell your prospect too much too soon".

Many sales people overwhelm their prospects with too much information and collateral - white papers, case studies, brochures - far too early.

When I go in to an initial sales meeting I only take three things - a pen, a piece of paper to take notes on and my brain. That removes the temptation for me to give too much away too soon and allows me to do what I should be doing - asking intelligent questions and listening.

What are intelligent questions? That's a mystery to be explored in another article.


If you find this article interesting, useful, thought-provoking and/or helpful and you'd like to help it to reach a larger audience you can "like" it and share it with your connections on LinkedIn. And if you find it controversial, annoying or stimulating you can comment on it there and I'll respond.

If you sell to senior executives, if you are a senior executive or if you help people who sell to senior executives please join my LinkedIn group, Executive Sales Coaching

And if you are based in Sydney, Australia and need an Executive Sales Coach to help you develop your career and to help you to sell more, drop me a line at [email protected]

Steve Hall is an executive coach and an executive sales coach. He helps his senior executive clients to be more productive, more focused and to have more time for the things that really matter and he helps sales executives to sell more and to build relationships at a higher level. He is a member of Sales Masterminds Australasia and is based in Sydney, Australia.

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