What do Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, and Michael Dubin (the CEO of Dollar Shave Club) all have in common? Two things: they’re all known for quick-witted responses and they all got their start in improv comedy.

For those not familiar, improv is where actors make up the show as they go. There’s no script, the audience provides plot point suggestions, and it’s all about hilarious honesty and occasionally cringe-worthy mistakes. Because it forces participants to think quickly on their feet, there’s a tremendous amount it can teach your sales team about being top performing cold callers.

Improv: Your Cold Call Secret Weapon

Now, are we actually advocating that you go sign your entire sales team up for improv classes? Yup. Michaela DiChrio, former Manager of Enterprise Sales Development at Salesforce did just that and she found that “It helped our BDRs think on their feet and understand how to continue leading a conversation even when they were hit with unfamiliar topics, questions, and objections. Without a doubt, it made them more agile on the phones.”

Improv acclimates your sales team to jumping into awkward situations. The action moves fast and improv actors must respond faster than they can filter themselves, so what they blurt out is often painfully honest. With time, your sales team will lose any sense of self-consciousness. They’ll become brazen, bold, fearless about cold calling and able to keep a lively conversation going with a brick wall. That’s when they’ll start to apply these tactics:

1. Yes, and…

Imagine this scene: An improv actor throws an imaginary salmon at her partner and shouts, “Get away, bear!” and the partner just says, “We’re not bears, we’re rabbits.” What happens next? The comedy dies a sudden and painful death. Why? Because the second actor didn’t accept the situation. He said “no” when he should have said “Yes!” Now there’s tension because they can’t agree. If this was a cold call, that first actor would have hung up.

Salespeople say “no” a lot more than they realize and it destroys their chances of building rapport. They do it every time they correct their prospect, repeat themselves, or tells their prospect how to feel. Instead, as a salesperson, you need to say “Yes!” and build a scene with the person on the other end of the phone.

Using “Yes, and…” validates your prospect’s feelings. Is the prospect worried about your product’s reliability? Yes, that’s a valid concern, and here are some other facts to consider. Does the prospect hate salespeople? Yes, that’s common—and me too, if they’re disingenuous. This agreement is the equivalent of catching the metaphorical salmon—it allows salespeople to build trust and then redirect the conversation somewhere more productive.

2. Don’t be entertaining, be honest

Many new salespeople think they must play the role of an overly gregarious or aggressive “sales guy/gal.” Similarly, in improv, new actors think they have to be funny, and they try to act like a standup comedian. In both cases, it doesn’t work because audiences can sense a phony. What can improvers and salespeople do? They can drop the act and be completely honest.

Improv is all about tapping into honesty. If another actor tells you that you’re the bridge troll and your reaction is to shout, “Oh, I’m really green with jealousy,” it’ll fall worse than flat. It’s not punny. Instead, hunch over and become the troll. Snarl, grimace, demand your troll toll, and rant about the architectural advantages of cantilevered versus truss bridges.

This is honest to the situation and it works the same in cold calls: be yourself. If the prospect gives you a phony excuse like that they’re in a meeting, reply with genuine surprise. “You picked up your phone in a meeting?” If they tell you that they don’t have any budget, express genuine concern. “Oh wow, that sounds serious. Our product and me being a salesperson aside, what are you going to do?” You will see that prospects find this pure, guileless honesty so disarming that they’re forced to sheepishly drop their own act as well. Together you’ll have a more productive conversation.

3. Give offerings

Finally, improv is as much about giving as it is getting. New improv actors mostly sit around on stage waiting for something to react to and ask each other boring questions like “Who are you supposed to be?” Those questions put the onus on their teammates to come up with the scene and it’s tiring to carry this weight. The same is true of cold calling: new salespeople who only ask boring questions of their prospect like, “What does your business do?” put all the weight on their prospect and are annoying. The answer? Learn to give offerings.

In improv, offerings are about taking action, describing the scene, and offering a role to your partner. For example, shouting, “What a wonderful realm this is, is that not so my good steed?” This gives your partner something substantial to work with—something they can say “yes, and…” to. In cold calling, your offerings will be interesting tips, quotes, facts, and statistics that spark discussion, such as, “Did you know that according to Gartner, 90 percent of companies collect data but only 5 percent use it wisely? What’s your reaction to that?” You’ll find that with offerings, prospecting conversations morph into real conversations and you get a lot further.  

Great cold callers are like Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, and Michael Dubin: they think quickly on their feet. By exposing your sales team to improv, you’ll make them masters of the cold call, help them close more deals, and honestly, it just might make your office a funnier place.

Chris Gillespie