A story in Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller Blink follows an improv comedy troupe. In it, we find out they are not the bunch of zany, impulsive goofballs you might expect. 

They are actually quite serious about their craft. Turns out that it takes practice, defined structure and clear agreements to flawlessly execute a spontaneous comedic moment. 

“The critical lesson of improv—spontaneity—isn’t random,” Gladwell writes. “How good people’s decisions are under the fast-moving, high-stress conditions is a function of training and rules and rehearsal.”

Sales is about facilitating a series of conversations. A good facilitator, like a good performer, is always balancing structure and spontaneity to ensure the most meaningful interaction with the audience. As in improv, if you have the right guiding principles and stick to them, you and the prospect are free to have a more enjoyable interaction.

Here are three rules to live by to ensure you’re making the most of your prospect conversations.

Always have an upfront frame. The beginning of every prospecting conversation should clarify the intent, set expectations and put the prospect at ease. This can be accomplished quickly with simple statements like: “Before we launch into things, I wanted to make sure we’re all on the same page. My intent is do a quick recap of our last conversation and what I heard you say was most important about XYZ. Then I’ll drill down a bit deeper and see if there might be some ways we could help. I prefer to make this a two-way discussion and not a sales pitch. By the end, we should have a pretty good idea if there’s reason to continue talking. I have us scheduled until 4 o’clock—does that still work for everyone? Anything you want to add or make sure we talk about?”

The above might seem elementary and obvious, but if you see yourself more as a facilitator of conversations, the little things make a big difference. 

Drill deeper. Early on, get answers to questions such as: Why change? Why now? And who else cares? Consider it your job to create an environment that disarms prospects and makes them comfortable telling you the truth. Once you’ve done that, don’t rest on your laurels because your prospects may still give vague answers to your questions. Don’t let them off the hook. Even if you think you know what they mean, ask them to clarify. Sometimes prospects need you to help them think clearly.

See the end coming. How often have you been in a meeting where the time got away from you and before you know it your prospect stands up, shakes your hand and promises, “We’ll get back to you”? The last part of effective facilitation is to see the end coming and call it out before the prospect does. This is hard because we can’t shut up or we get excited that things are going well and don’t want to interrupt the flow. The end of the conversation is where your prospect gets squirrely and even the best conversation can fall into the vortex of procrastination and fear. 

Acknowledge that you have a few minutes left. If you are certain things are going well then suggest something like, “It seems like we have reason enough to keep talking. If we’re on the same page, what I find works best is for us to include Stan and Jane next time and schedule a follow up for next week.”

Then shut up and see what happens. If you are not so sure, you might say, “At this point we have a couple of options. We can move forward and include Stan and Jane in the conversation, or if timing is just not right, we can agree to end things for now.” Then shut up.

The most important part is to see the end coming, make a suggestion and then shut up. You’ve come this far, make sure you don’t waste it all by leaving without a clear understanding of the next step you have agreed upon. A good facilitator is as focused on the end of the conversation as the beginning. Stay disciplined through the end. 

If you have some clear structure and agreements for your conversations, you and your prospect will be freed up to engage in a more meaningful way. You worked hard to get this valuable conversation, make sure you get the most out of it.

Being disciplined about the “little things” matters. Continue to hone your craft, not as a salesperson or even a consultant, but as a facilitator. How does that sound?

I’m just sayin’.