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On Being the Vulnerable Expert

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You can be slick or the client can be slick. It’s better it’s the client.

You can fumble and be awkward in the conversation or the client can fumble and be awkward. It’s better you are the awkward one.

You can have all the answers to the client’s questions or the client can have all the answers to your questions. It’s better to ask the questions. (Nobody has all the answers.)

Those who are not trained in selling often think of the cliches and think they must be seen to be in control, to have the answers, to have the polish. The opposite however is better. You can still be the expert by showing vulnerability. You don’t need to manufacture answers you do not have. It’s okay to say “let me think about that.”

To work on presentation skills is to apply a veneer over a rotting base. It’s not important to present well; it’s important to be present. You cannot do both.

Be your thoughtful self. Suppress the fake smile and push the conversation into the ill-lit places where people, yourself included, might feel awkward or uncomfortable. Awkward is okay. Awkward is good. It’s real. Slick is, well, slick. A thin, viscous coating.

In the creative professions, and advertising in particular, you frequently meet the person who transmits but doesn’t really receive. The person who works on style to cover a lack of substance. You could confront this person with a profound insight or a jarring fact and the enormity of your point never really sinks in, never gets past the facade. These people can never really be moved because they don’t fully hear. And they don’t hear because they’re too busy projecting – thinking about what they will say next, and wondering if they are properly communicating their authority and control.

Is this you?

You cannot effectively sell if you are focused on what you will say next or focused on communicating gravitas.

Effective selling requires a certain vulnerability. A naivety. The naive expert. As an expert you have immense knowledge in the types of problems you’re staring at, yet you approach the opportunity in front of you with the wonder of a child. You’ve seen the patterns but you’re assuming nothing, prepared to challenge your own biases. You cover familiar ground but look for the traps that always trip up the complacent.

Try leaving the deck at home, the posse back at the office, and asking probing, intelligent questions like you really want to learn, like you’re driven by the need to know. Keep asking even when the client would like to move on because if you don’t understand then you cannot help. Go to the awkward places without all the answers.

Let everyone else work on their pitch.

San Diego: September 24/25

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