How Mastering Table Topics Can Help You Sell Better

Sell BetterOne of the BEST ways to communicate with others is to be able to think on your feet. It’s called extemporaneous speaking. Yea, I know – big word. It is the ability to respond “in the moment” often without preparation to a buyer when they throw you a curve as they reply to you in a normal conversation.

Now I am all for being prepared – sellers should rehearse and role play (just like athletes practice and practice and watch themselves on video).

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Sometimes the unexpected – the “curve” is thrown at you.


What sort of curve might happen?

I once asked a buyer what had changed since we last spoke.

He said, in a devastated voice, “my dog died.”

Now if you were not expecting that, you could say something really inappropriate and lose the opportunity to do business because you seemed insensitive to your potential buyer’s dog passing away. You may not have meant it – you just didn’t prepare to answer that in a business conversation.

Once a buyer told me that his son had run away from home.

Another time a buyer told me that she had left her husband.

Those are all examples of personal situations – delicate ones to be dealt with. Sometimes you might get a curve that is business-related and also has huge bearing on your sales opportunity moving forward.

Some of the answers I’ve gotten when asked what’s changed since our last conversation have included:

“I’m leaving the company shortly – so no point in pursuing this now.”

“Our legal team is working on a crisis issue now – so I can’t move the proposal forward.”

“My boss is on an unexpected, extended leave.”

“There is a big internal restructuring going on – I can’t talk about it.”

This is where practice with Table Topics comes in.

In my early 20’s I had my first sales positions and it seemed like I had a lot to learn about communication, psychology, and leadership in order to improve my skills and be more successful. I heard about Toastmasters – an International organization where people can learn communication and leadership skills in a very affordable way. I needed “affordable” because I was a single mom without a lot of cash when I started in professional selling. I found a time and location for a Toastmasters group and started attending.

There is a way you can progress at Toastmasters through giving a series of talks which is fantastic. You learn to stand up in front of others and speak. My favorite part of Toastmasters meetings, however was Table Topics – the portion of time when we went around the table with a “surprise” topic.

Once the surprise topic was mentioned, each person participating had one minute to talk about that topic – if you stopped before your minute was up or if you talked too long, you were disqualified. At the end of the meeting people voted on the best Table Topics talk that qualified – and I often won – because it was so fun for me. It was a challenge to be told what to talk about and then immediately talk about it. Here is an example from a Toastmasters event from a couple years ago. The guy walking up on stage was just given the topic he’s speaking about.

There is NO doubt in my mind that this one exercise done many times helped me to be able to think on my feet – especially when someone says something unexpected.

Many people get flustered when this happens – do you?

Within your sales team you can do a brown bag lunch event and someone throw out an objection – then have several people answer differently with a time clock of one minute. You can opt to skip the clock but have at least 3 answers to each objection.

Try it with other things that buyers come up with on the phone or by email.

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Lori Richardson  helps mid-sized companies grow revenues by solving key issues in their sales department - like recruiting, retention, diversity hiring, process, pipeline and leadership. She speaks at CEO groups on topics of sales growth. Clients include companies in the technology, telecom, manufacturing, distribution, and professional services industries. Subscribe to the award-winning blog, follow her on Twitter
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