June 24

Can you handle the truth? A sales lesson from actors on taking feedback


Hardly anyone likes being told that the way they’re doing something isn’t working.  For salespeople and performers alike, there’s a certain vulnerability that comes with stepping into the spotlight and taking feedback.  Feedback can feel like a personal attack if not handled properly, but just like any other competitive performance, there is rarely improvement without it.

As a presentation coach, I honor the courage that it takes for each salesperson to put themselves out there when I give feedback.  But taking feedback is only half the equation.  It’s how salespeople handle that feedback that ultimately determines their success.

Two Ways Not to Take Feedback

I’ve noticed that salespeople who struggle with taking feedback fall into one of two camps.  The first explain (often in great detail) why they made a certain choice, what they were taught or read, or what they meant to do and why it should be working. The second tend to shut down, mentally and physically. They stop listening, and while they may smile and nod their heads, we both know that at the end of the day, they are not going to change a thing.

Early in my sales career, I fell into the first category, that is until I had an acting experience that forever changed the way I receive and give feedback.

A Sales Lesson from Actors on Taking Feedback

I was rehearsing for one of my first plays, and the scene called for me to be over-the-moon with happiness.  So I summed up all my inner joy and blurted out my lines. The director stopped me after a few sentences. “You don’t seem that happy,” he said.  I bristled.  Of course I was happy, I explained. I felt happy. I was trying to show I was happy!  The more experienced actors turned away as I broke the cardinal rule of never arguing with the director.  But I forged on, confident because the truth was on my side.  When I was finished the director delivered a single line that was equally true:

“It doesn’t matter what you think you’re doing or what you’re trying to do,” he said, “It’s not coming across to the audience, and that’s all that matters.”

My defenses started to melt as I opened myself up to the idea that maybe…just maybe, he was right.  Under the circumstances, how I felt was irrelevant and my perception of how I came across to others was perhaps flawed. Only once I let go of my strongly held position was I able to be receptive to his suggestions of how to access the emotion he was looking for in the scene.

This sales lesson stuck with me as a salesperson and as a presentation coach. When you sign up to be in the public eye, whether it’s as a performer or a salesperson, how you feel about your performance can not be the true measure of your success. It’s how your audience feels that really matters.  And the consequences of not making your audience feel a desired way can be fairly significant. In sales it can be the difference between winning and losing a deal.

Sometimes salespeople tell me that doing something different feels “uncomfortable,” or “unnatural” to which I emphatically agree.  Yes, breaking out of old habits and trying something new is often uncomfortable.  Does that mean you shouldn’t do them?  In most areas of their lives, people recognize that change requires a period of discomfort as they make the adjustments necessary to perform a task or reach a goal more effectively. Yet for some reason, those same people want to argue for their old ways when it comes to how they communicate in business. Even when it’s obvious those ways aren’t working.

“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.” Richard Bach

The actors who couldn’t handle constructive feedback well rarely moved into more or larger roles, and while I only have my own experience to base this on, I believe the same holds true for salespeople.

Can you handle the truth? Of course, not all feedback is valid or delivered appropriately.  Ultimately you need to consider the source, the motivation and the number of times you’ve heard it.  If it’s a trusted source and/or you tend to get the same feedback repeatedly (“You don’t seem like you’re that into it,” or “you tend to talk a little fast”) it’s probably time to let go of your story line and listen.

You can handle the truth.

P.S. If you’re ready for coaching on your presentation or demo, I have a  limited number of private sessions available.  Contact me for a free consultation here. 

Photo courtesy of: wreckandsalvagePR 
Shep Smith vs. Jack Nicholson on Torture



Coaching, Feedback, Presentation coach, presentation skills

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