Bardia Shahali

@bardiashahali

How Engineers Can Persuade Like Salespeople

Salespeople get a bad rap and some of them deserve it. They’ve tainted Sales by blasting you with spammy emails only to put you through a long, boring, monologue when you agree to take a call.

But, viewing Sales with disdain is ironic. Selling is a critical part of everyone’s job and learning how to persuade like top-performing sales reps will make you an indispensable engineer. It will also help you build better products.

  • Do you want to increase the chances of landing a great engineering candidate as your next hire?
  • What about finally implementing the third-party solution you’ve been bugging your boss about for the last 12-months — the one he keeps “thinking about.”
  • Want to avoid people falling asleep in the middle of your demo during show-and-tell?

I know you’re skeptical. What does a sales guy know anyway? “If I produce high-quality work it will naturally get the attention it deserves.”

Wrong.

No one cares unless you present your ideas properly. But, don’t be afraid. There’s a simple system that can make you more persuasive:

  1. STFU;
  2. Get Them Talking Early and Often; and
  3. Don’t Jump Into the Weeds.

STFU

“The more you say the more likely you are to say something foolish.” — Robert Greene

Have you ever been in a meeting where the room goes completely silent after you make a statement? A couple of seconds go by and you begin scanning the room praying someone will break the uncomfortable silence. More seconds go by. Oh no, it’s been almost 15 seconds. Now you have to say something. Maybe repeat what you said again or go deeper into the weeds.

If there’s one tactic that will make you more effective at getting your point across, it’s to get comfortable with silence. It will feel unnatural at first, but so was the idea of topping dark chocolate with sea salt.

In my experience, it’s in these moments that you learn how your audience truly feels about what you’re saying. The questions that follow silence reveal someone’s true position. A lot of people I’ve worked with blow this opportunity by asking a question immediately after they’ve made a point. This is downright selfish. It’s like when you’re out at a restaurant and the waiter comes back thirty seconds after you’ve gotten your dish to ask you how you like your meal.

You have to give people a chance to digest the information you’re presenting. Pausing after making a critical statement not only makes you appear more confident but it allows your audience to reflect and formulate a response. Harness the power of awkward silences to your benefit. When you give people room to breathe, you’ll be rewarded with valuable information, and you’ll have a better chance of keeping your talk-to-listen ratio under control. Which brings me to my next point.

Get Them Talking Early and Often

“People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

The easiest way to make people feel good about an interaction they have with you is to let them do most of the talking. Just think of how annoying it is when you can’t get a word in with your chatty Cathy friend. If you do most of the talking, you may get a ton of head nods and walk away feeling genuinely pleased with your performance. But, guess what? It’s not about you. “How to Win Friends and Influence People” sold over 15 million copies. What was one of it’s biggest takeaways? “Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.”

But, getting your audience talking early doesn’t mean asking them to go around doing intros one-by-one. This is an awful idea and one of the classic antiquated sales techniques. Your audience’s attention level is at 70% at the beginning of your meeting, in the middle, it drops to 20% while peaking again at the end to 100%. Don’t waste that 70% window extracting the information you could have googled before the meeting. This is known as the hammock effect and is covered extensively in “Conversations that Win the Complex Sale.” We have short attention spans and demand immediate gratification. When we go into meetings — show & tells, interviews, proposal reviews — and get bombarded with a cold hard data, we tune out. Then we tune back in at the end because we’re excited to escape.

Your audience’s attention level is highest at the beginning and end of your meeting.

Get your audience engaged early by asking them an open-ended question like a variation of “What’s the main problem you’re trying to solve?” This will get them talking and help you tailor how you deliver your message. These can include:

  • What’s the most important thing you’re looking for in your next role?
  • What’s the most important feature we have to ship this quarter?
  • How would you define success for this project?

You should do this even if you know exactly what their answer is going to be (plus, nobody likes a know-it-all). You’ll be surprised when they reveal something you didn’t think of, especially if it’s the root cause when you were too busy focusing on a symptom.

For follow-up conversations, start with a quick recap of your last interaction. This can include reviewing points they wanted clarity around. Once you recite those points ask “What else would you add to that?” This is remarkably effective at empowering your audience to tell you what’s really important.

But, open-ended questions shouldn’t be exclusively reserved for the beginning of your interactions. Next time you’re wrapping up a demo or a presentation and hear someone say “that’s so cool,” don’t simply respond with “I know, right?” Instead, ask “what part of it do you find most valuable?” There’s a good chance they’ll reveal information you weren’t expecting. Plus, if you’re a good note taker, you can jot down how they describe the benefits of your feature and pass it off to your marketing team. They’ll thank you for saving them ample time in creating collateral. I’m not a good note taker so I have Zoom record all of my calls by default. This has been a game changer in how Sales collaborates with Engineering at Gravitational.

Don’t Jump Into The Weeds

Bombarding people with facts and figures is no way of getting them to come around to your way of thinking. Think about your Fox News-watching relative who thinks the concept of man-made climate change is a hoax. Do you think emailing them a peer-reviewed scientific journal will get them to finally see the light?

People are driven by emotions, not facts. That’s why prematurely jumping into the cold hard data is a horrible idea. There’s science that supports this, but here it is summed up in one sentence: People make decisions with their amygdala — the “feeling center” of the brain — but hard facts are communicated by your neocortex. You’re speaking a different language. You have to prime people to receive complex ideas otherwise they’ll zone out.

When you’re pitching ideas start high and go only as low as you need to. At the highest level, you want to share the forces that have collided to create a clear need for the feature you’ve built, or third-party solution you want to implement. The point of this is to make it clear and super crisp, why now is the time for your audience to act. If you can’t clearly explain this then it’s game over.

“We enforce your identity at the protocol layer.” That’s one way I could explain what our product Teleport does. You would turn around and walk away. Or, I could start by stating how protecting data is one of the biggest challenges facing businesses. This becomes more complex when you have a revolving door of employees and ephemeral multi-cloud infrastructure. Teleport helps you overcome this by giving people the right amount of access to your infrastructure for the right duration. Then I would go deeper into the weeds once you’ve been primed to receive more technical details.

Once you go into the weeds, there’s no coming out. People’s capacity to digest technical information is like a muscle — it atrophies when it’s overloaded. This leads to analysis paralysis and inertia. The more information you share, the more you dilute the core of your message. Plus, it’s better to leave your audience wanting more. That’s why people chant “Encore” after a rock band leaves the stage. And by a rock band, I mean rapper because no one listens to rock anymore.

Putting it All Together

Practice saying less. Walk into your next conversation with an intent to let the other side do most of the talking. Appeal to your audience’s emotions before you hit them with the cold hard facts. Not only will you elevate your ability to persuade, but also your ability to build something great. After all, it’s easier to build great products when you have the right team, the right tools, and the ability cajole people into testing your latest creation.

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