Devil’s Advocate

By Heather Baldwin

Your national sales meeting is coming up and you’re wrestling with a challenge: How do you deal with the large number title changes, department changes and layoffs that have been part of recent reorganizations – and your frustrated and nervous sales reps? Do you address the reorganizations at the meeting? Avoid them, for fear they will derail the main purpose of the meeting? Mention them in passing with a funny one-liner?

Richard Carlstrom, president and executive producer of San Mateo, California-based Carlstrom Productions, once worked with an organization grappling with this very challenge. His solution: Tackle the issue head-on using a business theater technique called devil’s advocate, which is great for delivering tough messages, changing behaviors and influencing skeptical audiences. The devil’s advocate character can be an animated character on a screen, a robotic figure or an actor posing as an employee. Either way, the person’s job is to humorously pose to the executive at the podium the tough questions that are on the minds of audience members. “The person is an advocate for the audience’s point of view,” says Carlstrom.

In the case of the company prone to reorganizations, for example, an actor playing the role of a sales rep came on stage to interrupt the speaker. After a few lines of banter, the actor raised the key concern with a line that went something like: Every week it seems like I’m in a new department or report to a new sales manager or have a new title. I need to have my business cards printed with Velcro letters!

The line got a big laugh and opened the door for the speaker to address the issue and explain how the company would handle things going forward. By using the humor of the devil’s advocate, the issue was addressed in a polished, entertaining, nonthreatening way that diffused tension. “Rather than placing audience members in a defensive mode,” Carlstrom explains, “this technique lightens the mood and efficiently focuses the audience on enthusiastically working with you to meet your goals.”

Carlstrom says the success of this technique hinges on top-level executives admitting there’s a problem and being willing to talk about it with humor. It also requires that they give Carlstrom and his team access to employees so they can learn about their true concerns and write scripts that deal effectively with those concerns. Finally, Carlstrom recommends scheduling this session at the beginning of your meeting. That way you can clear the air and move on to the meeting’s main purpose.

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