Every salesperson can tell a real-life version of the “It’s the final exam and I forgot to study” nightmare. You arrive at the prospect’s offices for what you think is a routine meeting, only to find the room packed with people who want you to explain, in 20 minutes or less, why they should do business with you. Or you’re all set to recommend Product X when the buyer breaks in and says, “Whatever you do, don’t recommend Product X.” Or your technical expert wakes up on the morning of a major presentation with a 102-degree fever, and you have to wing it.
So how can you help your salespeople take high-stakes, high-stress encounters like these in stride?
Research suggests that a simple self-talk technique can help them lower their stress and improve their performance.
In an experiment, volunteers were put in a situation designed to make them feel stressed: They had to make a presentation about why they should be hired into their dream job. Without notes. In front of a panel of experts. On video. With only five minutes’ preparation.
One group of subjects was told to use first-person self-talk during the preparation. For example, they were encouraged to tell themselves, “I’m nervous but I’ll perform well.”
A second group was given similar instructions. But instead of first-person language, they were told to use second- and third-person encouragement — for example, “You’re nervous but you’ll perform well” or “Sure, Mike is nervous, and he’s going to use that energy to nail this presentation.”
In the task, this second group performed significantly better and showed less nervousness than the first.
Take a step outside your mind
So why was this subtle shift in language effective?
Researchers concluded that it allowed participants to psychologically distance themselves from the stressful task. They were able to look at the situation as an outsider, so they felt less emotional risk.
The immediate takeaway: When reps give themselves a mental pep talk, they should use second- and third-person language.
But there’s also a broader lesson that can help them manage the stress that’s inherent in sales: Take a step back.
I once had a manager, for example, who psyched himself up for major presentations by pretending he was an actor in a movie, literally playing the role of a presenter. It allowed him to look at himself from the outside in — whatever happened in the presentation was happening to the character, not to him personally. Another way to create that psychological distance is to think like your audience. The more you’re focused on the buyer’s state of mind, the less focused you are on your own.
I’ve also found that a sense of humor can help create that useful psychological distance. As another of my colleagues put it, “Take the work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.” One of the best things about sales, after all, is that mistakes are rarely fatal. No matter what happens in any given sales call, there’s almost always an opportunity to do better next time.
Source: Kross, E., et al. (2014). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(2), 304-324.
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