You have a meeting or an important discussion coming up. What is your real objective? If it has anything to do with selling, how can you maximize the likelihood of success?
And just to be clear, your objective almost certainly does have something to do with selling. As Daniel Pink argues in his latest book, To Sell is Human, we're constantly trying to influence behavior -- a.k.a. selling. We may not be selling cars, but we are likely on a daily basis to be pushing ideas (e.g., a pitch for a campaign or strategic project), telling about our capabilities and track-record (e.g., for a job) or projecting our values (e.g., in everyday leadership and mentorship).
Whether you are selling something soft or hard, you need to start by understanding two basic things:
The buck stops where?
Think hard about who the real decision-maker, or set of decision-makers, is, and who the influencers are. We rarely are in front of a sole decision-maker who can make the call then and there -- the person that Bill Bain, founder of the strategic advisory firm Bain and Company, used to call the "M.A.N," in that he or she has the money, the authority and the need (please forgive any gender bias for the benefit of the mnemonic). Instead, we more often find ourselves in a situation where multiple people have input into the decision and we need help getting to all of them. In sales parlance, your key point of contact at an organization is often referred to as your "champion" -- the influencer who will sell your cause on your behalf. Even if there is a M.A.N., she'll usually still want to get the "buy-in" of other stakeholders. So know where the buck stops, and who can bring the buck there.
What approval or validating process is required for a definitive decision?
This can be as formal as extended due diligence (in the case of a company seeking funding) or as informal, but equally as critical, as a conversation around the dinner table that evening with a spouse or family (in the case of a job opportunity). Understanding who your champion will speak to next is essential. Knowing which pitch points will resonate most with that audience (what I call the "next audience") will dramatically increase the chances of a positive outcome. Try to map the influencer graph of each next audience, and understand where they'll come into play in the process, their level of influence, and what message points matter most to them.
Once you have a good idea of the chain of "whos" that matter in the decision process, it is time to focus on the "what." This is the fun part, and it's easier because it just involves giving the answer you want, and packaging it for that next audience.
Yes, it should be you who is packaging that answer.
Because you know what you bring to the table more than any champion or next audience could, you want to make sure that your key message points are described accurately and in the best light. Unfortunately, what usually happens is a bit like the childhood game telephone -- in which messages get muddled, and often completely turned around, as they are whispered from ear to ear. To avoid this, help the person who will champion your cause. Give them what they need, and package it for them!
This might mean anything from simply summarizing the meeting points in a quick follow-up note that they can forward (see below) to helping them craft a more formal memo or presentation. Determine which form factor fits the situation best. For example, will they be writing an investment memorandum, or will it be a conversation about a job over drinks or dinner? For the investment memo, provide the structure for the memo and key bullet points. If you're trying to recruit someone for a job, help them help themselves and their spouse with a one-page, side-by-side comparison of the current position and its pros and cons, versus the new position -- with a compensation comparison included, of course. It'll show that you care, and that you are serious about them as a prospect or candidate. Not to mention that when you provide a framework or materials for that next audience, it speeds up the decision process.
It's crucial to package the answer simply and powerfully.
One best practice already mentioned is the incredibly simple but powerful tactic of following up a meeting with an email along the lines of: "I appreciated our time together, and thought that the following summary might be helpful for you to share with others that you want to bring into your decision-making process." Just this one practice alone can measurably increase your close rate.
But most important in packaging the answer is to keep in mind that the best summaries are simple and memorable. When you can explain something in a simple and memorable fashion, it means you have internalized it. This should be your litmus test. Have you reduced the message to its simplest essence and most memorable form? Can you explain it without any reference to materials?
Take again Bill Bain's mnemonic of trying to get to the M.A.N. -- the money, the authority, and the need. This was a "packaging" of common sense that everyone knows, but few would or could put so simply and so memorably. There is power in memorable frameworks, which is why taking accountability for structuring your communication for that next audience is so important. Don't oversell, but focus on framing the top two to three points, and then being clear about the specific "ask."
Do all of this in the way a great teacher thinks about imparting knowledge -- going beyond just communicating information, to finding ways to do so that she's sure her students will get and remember.
This post was originally published online for Harvard Business Review.