Think Out Loud

By Heather Baldwin

Imagine yourself in the middle of giving a presentation and the customer is telling you something important about his business. You nod, make eye contact and respond at all the right moments. So why, as he wraps up his explanation, do you get the sinking feeling that you’ve missed something? It’s because you didn’t turn off the internal distractions and save your thinking for after the customer had finished. And now you’re about to blow the presentation.

External distractions are easy to ignore; it’s the internal ones that can get you into trouble every time, points out Charles Green, a consultant, speaker and author of Trust-Based Selling (McGraw Hill, 2006). It’s easy to hit the “B” key to blank out your PowerPoint slides, to relinquish your note cards and to step away from your computer so that you are not physically distracted. What is harder is stopping yourself from thinking about what you’re going to say when the customer is finished. Especially if you’re in the middle of a big presentation and all eyes are on you and you feel pressure to say something smart, something convincing and something that’s right on target.

So how do you get rid of the internal distractions? You do two things, says Green:

  1. When you’re supposed to be listening, pay attention.
  2. When you’re supposed to be thinking, do so out loud.

In the first step simply pay attention to what the customer is saying. Listen with no thought about what comes after he’s finished. Once he’s done, begin your thinking process, but think out loud. Here’s an example. The customer has just finished talking and you, having paid attention, might say something like, “Okay, well now, let me think out loud with you about what you’ve just told me. You’re saying that despite the on-time delivery guarantees I’ve just shown you, you’re nervous about being dependent on just one supplier because this product is so critical to your production. So does that mean you’ll consider multiple sourcing? Do you do that already in your other lines of business? Or does it mean – no, wait, you only have one supplier in the office area, right? So, then, help me understand….” And so on, says Green.

Thinking out loud during your presentation has two advantages. First, it leaves your mind free to pay attention to what’s being said. Second, it’s a powerful way to collaborate with the customer. “If you’re willing to think out loud – to share the very formation of your thoughts – then it sends a signal that you have nothing to hide; that you are being completely transparent,” says Green. “It increases intimacy, a key component in the trust equation. It allows the customer to add to or to freely correct your thoughts, and it invites the customer to participate.”

The big concern sales people tend to voice about this tactic is that they might, in the middle of a big presentation, sound inarticulate or say something that shows they misunderstood. But therein lies the power of this technique. By thinking out loud, the customer will recognize you are taking some risks – and that you’ve managed the risk. “When you view it that way, it’s not a risk. It’s actually a technique of risk management!” Green concludes. “A small amount of emotional discomfort now buys you protection against much larger discomfort down the road.”