My stories 2: Influencing with ears

It wasn’t very long ago that sales involved the projection of power through visuals and voice. (Remember yellow “power ties”?) The purpose of relationships in B2B communications back then was simply to gain permission to talk and show. I think it’s safe to say that now, talking and showing without major listening up front are more often construed as evidence of arrogance than of competence.

An excellent example of this in my career occurred three years ago when I was competing for the privilege of producing a video for the American Institute of Physics. A number of production companies responded to an RFP by submitting cost quotations and proposals. From these, two finalists were selected to meet with the executive director, Marc Brodsky, and three assistants who would be involved in the project. One hour was stipulated as the time for each meeting.

The first to present was a respected Washington D.C. producer with lots of lobbying and public affairs credentials. They brought a team of people including the CEO/executive director, a writer, and an account executive. I was told they gave a spec treatment for the presentation… describing its flow in some detail, and laying out their strategy for the shooting and editing of the project. Marc told me later that he really liked their treatment; it seemed to be on target and highly creative. So when I walked in with just myself and my laptop later that day, representing my tiny company from Ohio, their expectations were not very high.

I had prepared a presentation with some nice photography and a few clips to highlight my experience. But within minutes of the meeting’s start, I sensed that talking about me was not necessary, or desirable. Instead I began to interview them, asking open-ended questions and listening carefully to what they said about their concerns, hopes, vision, and challenges at AIP. What misconceptions did their audiences hold? What critical issues did they need to communicate in order to stabilize funding from the government agencies who would be attending? I knew Marc would be retiring soon. What did he want to leave as his legacy? And what is important to the great enterprise that they saw themselves as serving — the march of scientific knowledge?  I had a handful of questions I had already turned up in my research, and it wasn’t long before all of us were engrossed in a brainstorming session about the past, present, and future of physics, and how to balance a message for an impossibly varied audience on the night of the presentation. The meeting continued an hour, two hours past the scheduled time. I had no idea when I left whether I would get the business, but I felt good about having communicated my own passion for and facility with high-tech subjects, and I had certainly learned a lot from them.

In a few days I got a call from AIP. Marc had selected my company. My ears had been the aces in the hand I was holding. Staff experience, equipment, facilities, the theatricality of my presentation … all my other cards were weaker.  My secret, winning weapon had been transparent authenticity.

The experience solidified my conviction that the best diagnosis comes, not from doctors who know everything, but from doctors who take the time to listen… and keep on listening, even after the first round of questions have been answered. When a patient … or a business leader … senses that someone is intelligently interested in their concerns and prepared to work hard on the problems, they form a relationship based on authenticity and characterized by trust.

As the AIP project evolved, its immense complexity made it necessary to keep listening and evolving as content accumulated. After the first round of interviews, I realized that we were going to hit an emotional wall unless we could introduce more youthful, future-focused stories to the mix. The elder statesmen and women certainly didn’t lack exuberance, but we needed visuals to support them. Back in D.C., I dropped in on an ice cream social sponsored by the University of Maryland physics majors club. Downtown, we found college students at George Washington University enjoying their iPods and cell phones; and an AIP education liaison put together some special physics play sessions for us, with toddlers in the day care center. On our trip to New York, I accelerated the interviews scheduled there, and asked the client to fly in some top students from around the country.  When we went to Boston, we added MIT doctoral candidates to our shot list; and on our final trip, to San Diego, I was able to squeeze in a few graduate students at Mount Palomar and Scripps Oceanographic Institute. It was all of this youthfulness that ended up providing the emotional visuals we needed to support the great words of those octo- and nonagenarians whose wisdom framed the finished piece.

Here’s the final project. I’m proud of what we were able to do for a relatively small budget; but it was listening up front, and listening throughout the process, that made it possible.

P.S. Here’s the Friendfeed link: New experiment courtesy of George Dearing:

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