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Quotable Podcast Episode #77: Mental Preparation Is Key to Sales Success, with Dan McGinn

Host: Kevin Micalizzi
Almost everyone is capable of achieving more than they are now. So what’s holding you back from the next level of sales success? Join Daniel McGinn, Senior Editor, Harvard Business Review, and author of Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed as he shows how great mental preparation leads to great sales interactions. By moving to a new emotional space, you can decrease anxiety, boost your confidence, and turn the dial up on your performance.

I go into it with a plan, not just for the substance of what I'm doing, but for managing the emotions that go along with these high-stakes performances.”

Daniel McGinn | Senior Editor, Harvard Business Review

Episode Transcript

Daniel McGinn: You don’t want to be sitting in a waiting room before your big meeting being nervous and having no plan for how to deal with it. You want to have a set of techniques and a checklist you go through the same way an athlete does, so that you can manage those emotions before you go into that meeting.

[Music plays]

Kevin Micalizzi: Welcome to the Quotable Podcast. Today we’re speaking with Daniel McGinn, Senior Editor, Harvard Business Review, and the author of “Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed.” We’re going to dig in to what you can be doing to improve your performance, whether it’s on that phone call, speaking to a group of 100, or having the best possible customer meeting you can. Let’s jump into it.

So, Dan, thank you so much for joining me today.

McGinn: Thank you.

Micalizzi: I’ve been thinking about this. I grew up as a musician, and a lot of the conversations we had once you got past the basics were really about the mental preparation. I know it’s incredibly common in sports. And you’ve gone through and done a lot of research in this space pertaining especially to sales. So, I’m curious, what have you found?

McGinn: So, the idea here is that you can have all the right technical skills to be a great salesperson. You can know how to qualify. You can know how to move to a close. You can know how to read their body language or negotiate. But, if you’re getting nervous and you’re not controlling your emotions because you have a lot riding on this sales call, you’re not going to perform at your best.

Technical knowledge and practice isn’t enough unless you have a game plan to deal with the emotional piece of this. So, that’s what this book is about. It’s figuring out the techniques that work for you to put yourself in the right emotional space before you go into an important sales kind of performance event.

Micalizzi: For our listeners who aren’t familiar with you, would you share a little bit about who you are and the perspective you’re bringing to this?

McGinn: Sure. I’m a Senior Editor at Harvard Business Review where I edit management content on a variety of subjects, but I do almost all of our sales focused reporting and editing. Before this I was at Newsweek, I was a business reporter at Newsweek for 17 years. I’ve reported on a wide range of topics. I’ve written a couple of books.

And I became interested in this topic because way back in high school I was an athlete and I became interested in what the coaches would do to us before the games to try to get us psyched up and amped up and to get that adrenaline flowing. And when I got into a job where I see a lot of academic research, I wanted to see, hey, what’s the actual science of this apart from what your football coach was trying to do to you in high school?

Micalizzi: It sounds like part of this is pep talk and part of it is overcoming stage fright.

McGinn: Those are both absolutely elements of it, if you think back to, you know, anybody who played high school sports, especially a power-focused sport like football or wrestling where getting that energy level up is a big part of what you do before you compete. Back then, I had a very simplistic view of what it meant to get psyched up. I thought it was just like turning a light switch on and getting your body energized with adrenaline.

Now I think about it much more nuanced. I think about managing your confidence levels, trying to get your confidence level cranked up about as high as it can go. I think about anxiety, so trying to minimize that anxiety as much as you can. And then trying to get the energy at the right level appropriate to what you’re doing.

If you’re about to go into a one-on-one meeting, that’s a very different kind of energy you need than if you’re about to speak to a room full with 100 people. And being cognizant of that and trying to find ways to manage those three things — anxiety, confidence, and energy — that’s what I think about when I think about the techniques you do before you go into the room.

Micalizzi: Now, I know a lot of techniques and approaches that we can use, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to really apply them to every call, to every customer meeting, to every conversation. What do you recommend for figuring out where best to apply this? I mean, obviously, if you’re speaking to 100, 1,000 people, you really have to be ready and be in that right frame of mind.

But, when you’re talking about going through the course of your day, and the sheer volume of what you have to tackle, how do you recommend approaching that?

McGinn: The first thing I would do is try to self-assess. So, think about what’s holding you back in a sales call? Is it that you’re anxious and nervous about the outcome, or is it more that you lack confidence and you’re not presenting yourself well enough? So, I would first try to figure out whether you want to use techniques that are focused on the anxiety or focused on the confidence.

In my experience, many people deal with the confidence piece of it a little bit more. So, some of the things you can do to feel more confident before you go into a sales call, one of the strategies people use is sort of a greatest hits kind of strategy. Athletes will use this a lot. So, we’ve all seen highlight reels of sports moments on ESPN, and I’ve met athletes who actually have somebody make their own highlight reels of them, and they’ll watch it before games.

If you’re in sales, you should try to do the same thing with your imagination. You know, very vividly recall your best moments as a salesperson, your personal greatest hits, and then find a way to very vividly visualize them before you step into the room. So, that’s one thing.

There’s a whole chapter in the book on the use of music. A lot of people will choose songs that get them very upbeat and confident and motivated. And especially for people who are driving between sales calls, you know, sure you can listen to the radio, you can listen to a podcast like this one which is great for enhancing your technical knowledge, and I definitely would recommend that.

But in those last 10 minutes before you pull up to the client’s site, maybe you want to turn on a special playlist of songs that you know make you feel upbeat, energized, and confident. So, those are a couple of very simple things you can do.

Micalizzi: So, kind of checking the trophy wall and then really almost holding your own pep rally as you arrive there.

McGinn: Yeah. Some of these things can sound a little silly, but they can be very effective. I talked to a salesperson a couple of months ago. We started talking about what he does before his important calls. Most of his first contact with clients take place on the telephone and, at that point, it’s not so much about identifying their needs or talking solutions, it’s much more about building rapport, and being likable, and getting that foot in the door.

And one of the things he did, he sounded a little bit sheepish and he was a little embarrassed to tell me about this, but in his office he keeps a crown that was given to him when he was voted the king of the high school prom. And he’ll actually put that on for a minute or two before his calls.

He says, you know, it’s not about me remembering my glory days, it’s about the fact — he’d actually moved high schools as a junior, so he’d only been at the school for about a year when his prom came up.

And he says, “That crown is a visual, tactile reminder to me that I have an amazing ability to very quickly build rapport and form relationships with people and to be likeable. That’s the main thing I’m trying to do in my first contact with a client, is build that relationship. And that crown, it sort of helps me put my game face on. It reminds me, hey, you’ve been very successful at this in the past. In five minutes, you’re going to pick up that phone and you’re going to be successful about it again.”

So, people can come up with these little hacks, these techniques that can just sort of tweak their mood and make them a little bit more confident and that can make a difference.

Micalizzi: You really, in the case of the salesman with the crown, you’re really getting yourself into the right frame of mind. I know you talk about motivators as well, internal, external, how you get yourself into that right space. I’m curious, have you found that there are ways of motivating yourself that are common across the board? Or is it always a very personal choice?

McGinn: Well, there are certainly similarities and, sort of, buckets you can group things into. But, yes, it’s definitely, there’s a personal element to this. What works for  you might not work for me. Let me give you a couple of examples.

So, superstition and lucky objects are one thing that can actually be very useful for certain kinds of people. And there’s actually scientific studies that show that these things can make a difference. There are surveys that show that a majority of college students, when they go into to take an exam at the end of the semester, they have a lucky pen or a lucky piece of clothing, or something that they feel gives them a boost of confidence.

There are studies that show that people who are golfers who are told that they’re putting with a golf club that was used by a professional, famous golfer, they tend to putt a little better. They think that this club must have some magic powers that rub off on them. And across sort of different fields you’ll see people who have some sort of an object that is useful to them.

When I was writing the book I actually sent an email away to Malcolm Gladwell, the famous writer, and I showed him one of these studies and I asked him [for] a new computer keyboard that he would use for three months and then send it back to me. And he agreed. So I wrote this book on a computer that used to be used by Malcolm Gladwell because it made me feel a little bit more confident.

You know, I don’t use it every day at work because that would kind of wear it out, but when I have a particularly high-stakes assignment for Harvard Business Review where I work, I pull out my special keyboard and, you know, it’s like putting on that special outfit before you go to that important call.

So, trying to sort of find these ways to harness this power … You know, if you’re not good at sales, or if you don’t know the techniques, or if you don’t close very well, none of these things is going to fix that. This is about taking somebody who is already in good shape and well-prepared and just finding a way to turn that dial incrementally the same way an athlete has nights when they’re more on than other nights. That’s what we’re trying to do here.

Micalizzi: You’re essentially taking it from just competence to peak performance.

McGinn: Yeah. One of the most interesting days I spent when I was reporting on the book was at the Juilliard School in New York City where many of the world’s top classical musicians learn their craft. And they actually offer an entire semester-long course there on how to deal with the anxiety of going into auditions because that’s such an important part of what you do as a musician.

And basically the theory there is most of these kids have been playing violin or cello, or whatever it is, they’ve been playing it since they were 2 or 3 years old. So, it’s not like they haven’t practiced, and it’s not like they’re not very good at their instrument — because you don’t get into Juilliard unless you’re excellent at your instrument.

But what this course recognizes is, it doesn’t matter how great a violin player you are. If you get nervous, your hands get sweaty, and your fingers are sliding around on the strings. Or, if you’re playing a wind instrument, your nervousness manifests itself as shallow breathing, which is what adrenaline does to people.

You know, you need to come up with a strategy because this anxiety that you face can actually — it’s like a tax. It taxes away all that you should be getting from your practice. So, this isn’t a replacement, it’s not a replacement for skill. It’s something that can help ensure that nervousness, lack of confidence, lack of energy, don’t make that practice, you know, now give you the expected return you should get when you’re in that high-stakes moment.

Micalizzi: We’ve talked about using these approaches with face-to-face, phone calls, that kind of thing. In your research did you find that, with all the electronic communication that sales reps are using now, and seems to be increasing every day, did you find that there were opportunities to apply these same techniques with electronic communication?

McGinn: I think you can divide electronic communication into a few different forms, and some of these techniques are more useful than others. So, you know, if you think about emailing or texting or any kind of asynchronous, non-visual kind of electronic communication, I think you’re less likely to see nerves or confidence become an issue then. Because, you know, if you’re crafting an email to a client, you can think about it, you can edit yourself, you’re not really on the spot. To me, that’s a lower pressure kind of communication.

Whereas, if you’re on camera, you know, if you’re sort of doing the equivalent of a Skype or a video conference call, I actually think that’s harder than face-to-face because the camera creates a sense of stress and anxiety for a lot of people. If you go back to the Juilliard example that I gave earlier, one of the things that the professor in that class that I visited does is, if he wants to make the students extra nervous, he brings out a big camera and he tells them that he’s taping the performance.

And a lot of times he doesn’t even really turn it on. He just puts it there and tells them he’s using it. Because the simple presence of a camera tends to make people nervous. And I think especially if you’re in a video conference kind of situation, that can be a little bit more nerve-racking than face-to-face. You worry if the technology is going to fail you. So, it can create an extra sense of pressure and these techniques can help in that situation.

Micalizzi: Yeah. It almost sounds like you’re desensitizing yourself to the presence of that camera.

McGinn: Stage fright is an interesting phenomenon and there’s been a lot or research on it, s lot of techniques people use to try to become less self-conscious about. Some of it is sort of mind-body, some it is sort of psychological anxiety-reduction techniques.

I also ran into people, frankly, who were using pharmaceuticals for it. There’s a chapter in the book that looks at the use of beta blockers, which are a drug I didn’t even know about when I started reporting the book. But I kept running into people who were saying, you know, I used to get really nervous when I had to public speak. You know, my voice would tremble, I would sweat, I would blink a lot.

I talked to my doctor about it. He prescribed these beta blockers which are actually a cardiac drug, but they’ve been repurposed over the years. They make your body less reactive to adrenalin. So, a lot of those physical sensations that you get, the dry mouth, the rapid heartbeat that you get if you’re anxious on a stage — a lot of that dissipates with beta blockers.

So, you know, in extreme examples, if nothing else works for a person, there’s actually medicine that can sort of help you with some of these symptoms.

Micalizzi: Definitely sounds like more extreme cases. Now, I know some of the folks I’ve worked with over the years, whether it’s for performance, or just prepping for even calls, they were very much into meditating and trying to quiet their mind.

How have you found people who are successful at using these approaches, how have you found they identified what works for them? Like, where do you start?

McGinn: So, I think some of it is trial and error. There’s a wide variety of techniques discussed in the book. And it’s like any kind of buffet, you have to try something a couple of times and see if it works for you.

I do think that trying to identify whether too much anxiety or too little confidence is more of the problem. That can help separate out some of the techniques that are going to be more useful than others. So, what happens once you find the right techniques? Well, you tend to be a little bit more focuses. You tend to feel, you know, you go into it with a plan.

One of the things I say is that the worst thing you can do if you’re going into a high-stakes performance environment is be out there sitting in the waiting room just being nervous.

You know, if you watch Tom Brady before the Super Bowl, or if you watch Michael Phelps before the Olympic swim events, they have a plan. They’ve been taught what to do. They listen to certain music, they do certain body movements, they’re thinking certain thoughts. You need to have a plan like that, too. Don’t just sit there being nervous. That’s only going to make the situation worse.

Have something, sort of a checklist of things that you can do that are constructive that help you tame that anxiety, that help you boost that confidence, and boost that energy level so that you’re in the right place when you go into the room.

Micalizzi: So, I know you talked about the Malcolm Gladwell keyboard. Do you have others that you use that others might find they want to try?

McGinn: I don’t have other objects like tools. I’m a writer, so keyboard is a very important tool for me. The one thing I do do — and I don’t have a prom king crown because, frankly, I was not the king of my high school prom unfortunately — but I do, when I work, I have an office that I write from that I rent in my town. The walls of that office have some of the best stories I’ve written on them.

And you know, I’ve won a couple of awards. You know, it’s not like anybody’s in there so it’s not like it’s a bragging kind of thing or a show off-y kind of thing, but I try to keep in my line of sight when I’m working visual reminders of the fact that I’ve been successful in the past.

Before I write a really hard story, sometimes I’ll actually sit down and just take five minutes and go back to a very successful story I wrote a few years ago and just read the beginning of it. And the point of that is just to remind me, hey, you know, you were very successful in doing this same task a while back. Now you’re sitting down this afternoon to do it again. It puts me in the frame of mind to sort of focus on success. It’s kind of a priming kind of device.

So, I think the more people can find objects and tools and visual stimulation that does that for them, the better off they’re going to be.

Micalizzi: I think that self-doubt is just so common. Even if you’ve done it before, the next time you look at that blank sheet of paper, or you’re about to pick up that phone, that self-doubt creeps in.

McGinn: Yeah, no question. I think in a sales environment in particular, the other thing that plays a big role in this is the role of the sales manager. A lot of the techniques in the book are individual. They’re things you’re doing inside your own mind before you go into a sales call. But the sales manager certainly, like an athletic coach, or like a military general before troops go into battle, they have the power of words. They have the pep talk.

There’s a whole chapter in the book where I actually started out, I spent the last day of the sales month at Yelp, which has a big sales organization. Most of their revenue comes from advertising. And they’re very strategic in terms of what the leader gets up and says that morning. They sell two to three times as much on the last day of the month as they do the rest of the month.

So, the power of that pep talk, and the kind of emotional strings she’s trying to pull in her reps before they get on the phone on that last day, you have to be very intentional about that.

And there’s actually a full science to it. There’s certain notes that you try to hit in those talks that are supposed to help the people feel that confidence, feel that energy, feel that sense of mission.

Micalizzi: I would say our audience is split almost 50/50 between managers and leaders, and the practitioners. So, the individual reps. For the managers and leaders who are listening in, where would you recommend they start in trying to figure out what that right tone is?

McGinn: So, there’s three elements to a pep talk that you’re supposed to include every time in order to increase its effectiveness. Number one, there’s direction giving. The actual X’s and O’s of what you think they should be doing that day. You know, if you’re in a sales environment it’s the specific techniques that you want to use in terms of what the closing language might be like, or how you’re going to drive the negotiation. That’s the sort of nuts and bolts of the task at hand.

The second one is what they call empathy-making language. So, the leader wants to show a personal level of concern for the people who he’s talking to or she’s talking to. You want to acknowledge that what you’re asking them to do is hard. Acknowledge that you recognize the sacrifice they’re making. You want to say thank you. So, empathy is about building the strength of the tie between the sales manager and the sales rep.

And then the third part is meaning making. Trying to give the task at hand maybe a little bit more sort of epic sweep than it might have otherwise. So, at Yelp, when the sales manager gets up at the end of the month there, she gave certainly some specific directions, she did a lot of empathy kind of language. But then she also talked about the fact that when you hit your number, this is not just about you, this is about this office being successful.

This is about us being able to grow as a team so that we can hire more good people to sit alongside you. This is about building the company to where we want it to be. So, she’s trying to connect that single phone call that the rep is making with the overall mission of the company and how it’s making the world a better place. It’s separating that small task and making it build up larger importance in people’s minds.

Micalizzi: Yeah, it makes that phone call have a much greater emotional impact.

McGinn: It does. And it’s one of a whole number of techniques they use at Yelp. There’s certainly rituals there. When somebody successfully closes a sale, they run to the front of the room, they have a big sales gong, they ring the gong, everybody cheers. It’s a very highly caffeinated place. There’s a lot of Red Bull being drunk on afternoons there to keep everybody’s energy level high.

There’s a lot of specific techniques they use there. You know, if they’re calling an auto mechanic, they’re using a different kind of playbook than if they’re calling a pizza place because the dynamics of how a Yelp ad or a Yelp review affects those two businesses is very different, so that gets into the specific direction giving.

Micalizzi: I want to go back to the science and the research that you focused on. I know there are a lot of folks who don’t buy in to the rituals. I would almost say they’d call them superstitions. A lot of folks have them around sports teams and things like that. And there are folks who just do not see the world that way. What have you found in terms of the effectiveness of using these techniques? Like, for a doubter who’s listening in.

McGinn: Sure. So, there is a wide body of academic research, most of it in sports psychology, that looks at what they call the preperformance routine. That’s kind of the buzzword. And the preperformance routine is defined as how someone does a series of thoughts and actions the same way every time before they perform.

So, if you look at a golfer or a high diver, they’ll often, you know, there’s a big pause before they actually do what they do, and they do it the same way every time. People who have that kind of a routine do perform better. The science shows that — there’s no way to prove why they’re doing better, but there’s basically two theories.

Number one is that our bodies really crave repetition and ritual. You know, we like the fact that we have turkey on Thanksgiving. There’s something about things being predictable that eases our anxiety. So, if you’re up on a high dive at the Olympics and you’re doing a series of actions the same way every time just as you did in practice, it helps reduce that anxiety a little bit.

The other thing that the theory is, that when you’re in a nervous-making situation, if you have a ritual, even if it’s something silly — you know, there’s baseball players that will scratch letters in the dirt with the back of the bat before they go up to the plate — scientifically, does that make any difference? Well, no, it shouldn’t. But if the alternative is that they’re just going to sit there and worry about striking out, that’s going to hurt their performance. So, if these rituals can distract you from negative thoughts, that can have a positive impact as well.

Micalizzi: I know I’m one of those people, I would consider myself an extrovert. I speak fairly comfortably in most situations. But for some reason, every time I try and go pick up that phone to make a call to someone I don’t know well, there’s a certain amount of nerves, certain amount of stage fright. What would you recommend?

McGinn: One of the techniques that comes out of the research is called emotional reappraisal. It’s a very subtle technique but there’s actually solid science behind it. So, let’s imagine that I was in your office and you were about to make one of these calls and you turned to me and said, Dan, I’m really anxious about this. I’m worried it’s not going to go well.

For me the typical advice, and what most people would say in that situation is, oh, don’t be nervous. It’s going to be okay, don’t be nervous. That’s sort of the most … or, calm down. You know, everything is going to be okay. Be calm, or don’t be nervous. That’s sort of the universal advice people get in that situation.

The problem is it doesn’t work. You’re fighting biology. Your body’s in kind of a fight-or-flight response at that moment and there’s nothing you can do to be calm. So, what emotional reappraisal suggests is, instead of trying to tell yourself that you’re not nervous, you try to reframe it as excitement. Which is still a very highly agitated state of being, but it’s a more positive manifestation of it.

So, instead of thinking about, you know, I’m nervous, think about, you know, this phone call is a great opportunity for me. I am excited about it. You know, instead of thinking about what can go wrong, think about what can go right during that. Don’t try to squelch your body’s physical reactions to the nervousness, try to position them as a positive reaction to this exciting opportunity. That’s one of the things you might try doing.

Micalizzi: Let me ask you, we talked a little bit about what managers can do. Are there other techniques that teams could use to help address some of these issues so that it’s not always a rep out there trying to go it on their own?

McGinn: So, there’s research that looks at not just individuals who do rituals before they perform, but whole groups of people that do rituals together. If you watch concert documentaries, or biographies of musicians like VH1 used to do, you’ll often see that bands backstage will often hold hands, or chant, or do something together before they go onstage together.

On Broadway, I talked with a Broadway company that, it was in a theatrical production, and their director would actually make the lead actors play this game with throwing balls around and chanting before the show. There’s research that shows that teams that do something together, whether it’s clapping exercises, or singing a song, or doing something that sort of brings them together as a group, they tend to perform better than people who are just off on their own before a team event.

So, especially if you’re selling in a team kind of environment, if you can come up with a five-minute exercise for that team before you go into the room, there’s a good chance that it’s going to help you feel a little bit closer, a little bit more cohesive, a little bit more bonded with the group.

I think that’s why you see — you see it certainly in sports teams, you see in military situations, teams will often do something together before it’s time to perform. I think that’s something that can work in business as well.

Micalizzi: I love that. You’re really taking it to the next level. You’re not just helping to prep yourself for that particular scenario, but you’re also strengthening the relationship.

McGinn: Yeah. One of the actresses from the Broadway show put it to me this way. She said, you know, when I went to drama school, I was taught backstage to do yoga, to do breathing exercises, and to listen to certain kinds of music on my own. She said it worked pretty well for me, but it’s a very solitary, almost isolated kind of thing.

When I did that, I then find myself out on the stage in front of 1,000 people interacting with somebody that I hadn’t even said hello to that night because the other actor was off in his corner doing his yoga exercises. She’s like, you know, there’s something about the idea that we should be bonding together before we’re in this sort of interactive environment rather than just off with our headphones on doing our own thing.

So, I think it does make sense that if you’re in a team performance environment, bonding with the team for those last few minutes makes a lot of sense.

Micalizzi: Definitely. So, I want to ask you our lightning-round question. If you could take all the knowledge and experience you have now, go back to the beginning of your career and give yourself one piece of advice, what would you tell yourself?

McGinn: I would probably focus on — you know, I think every career has moments that are more important than others. You know, those high-stakes moments, job interview situation for instance. Instead of sitting out in that waiting room and being nervous worrying about it. I would go into it with a plan.

I would know that I’m going to listen to these three songs in the car on the way there because they make me feel good. I would have a technique to help make me feel more confident. Basically, I would go into it with a plan not just for the substance of what I’m doing, but for managing the emotions that go along with these high-stakes performances.

And I think, you know, it wouldn’t make a night-and-day difference, but it made a 5% or a 10% difference, that can be enough to make me more successful.

Micalizzi: Definitely a significant difference. Dan, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today.

McGinn: Thank you. This was a great conversation.

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