As I write this post, it’s still not clear how the New England Patriots ended up with 11 out of 12 underinflated footballs in the AFC championship game. Was it the coach? The quarterback? Was it really a lowly locker-room attendant, as the latest leaked reports suggest? Or was that story planted?
I don’t know whodunit, but I have my suspicions.
And therein lies a lesson for salespeople.
I don’t know Tom Brady or Bill Belichick or the locker-room guy. I’ve never hung out with them, lent them money or done business with them. So how do I decide whether they’re stand-up guys or a bunch of liars and cheats?
If you think about it, the salesperson who’s prospecting for new customers faces the exact same communications challenge as Brady, Belichick et al. Prospects know very little about a salesperson they’ve just met for the first time. And one of the first questions they’ll ask themselves is, “Is this person worthy of my trust?”
I recently ran across some research done at Southern Methodist University in the 1990s, which sheds some light on how people make that decision. In the study, researchers showed snippets of videotaped monologues to observers and asked the observers to rate the speakers on their trustworthiness.
The researchers learned, first, that people make those decisions very quickly. Each video snippet was about a minute and a half, and that was plenty of time for observers to draw a conclusion. They also learned that these judgments were highly consistent from one observer to the next. Without any training or prompting or discussion among themselves, most observers agreed on who could be trusted and who couldn’t.
What creates trust?
So what did the speakers who inspired trust do differently from less-trustworthy ones? The researchers identified several factors, but the most important was speaking simply.
Researchers measured this factor by counting the number of “unique words” in each video snippet. People who speak simply use a limited vocabulary of everyday words over and over. Those who fill their speech with jargon, fillers and qualifiers end up with a higher unique word count, and are perceived as anxious, uncertain or dishonest.
Which brings us back to Bill Belichick.
Here’s part of his explanation of how the Patriot’s footballs might have gone soft:
“Now, we all know that air pressure is a function of the atmospheric conditions. So, if there’s activity in the ball relative to the rubbing process, I think that explains why when we gave them to the officials and the officials put it at 12.5 if that’s in fact what they did, that once the ball reached its equilibrium state, it probably was closer to 11.5.”
Call me suspicious, but all that wordiness doesn’t inspire me to trust the coach. It sounds like he’s threading his way through a minefield. Air pressure is a function of atmospheric conditions? Activity in the ball relative to the rubbing process? What does all that even mean?
What might have been more convincing was simple language, with simple words used over and over: “I didn’t deflate those footballs. As far as I know, nobody in this organization deflated the footballs. The cold weather might have done it.”
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Teach salespeople to speak simply
Unfortunately, salespeople like to talk a lot, and too many of them think that jargon and high-falutin’ words make them sound smart and capable. In fact, the opposite is true. The researchers found that wordiness not only makes you seem evasive; it also makes you seem less competent. True experts tell it like it is.
Buyers don’t want to hear, “All things being equal and assuming conditions remain largely in line with current expectations, you can expect to see a 6% increase in revenues, beginning over the course of 60 to 90 days.” That makes you sound like a fraud, or that you’re hedging your bets because you’re not sure you can deliver. Buyers trust straight talk: “You can expect revenues to go up 6%, and you can expect to see these results in a couple of months.”
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