The Clapping Game – Applying Improv Comedy Fundamentals To Sales

By Terry Withers, BIG Managing Director

(Inspired by a recent professional development workshop BIG designed and provided for a corporate client’s sales department.)

One of my favorite improv exercises is really just a stupid little children’s game. You get a small group of folks together, maybe 8 to 16 people or so and you have them stand in a circle. You tell one of them that they have a clap. If they turn to their right and look whoever is standing there in their eyes, then both people are supposed to clap at the same time. Now the person on the right has got a clap. And they can turn to their right and pass it too. After people do that for a bit they can start to pass it back to the person who just gave it to them. Soon people can pass it to anyone in the circle. The best part is when everyone breaks out of the circle and walks around the room in no particular pattern while passing a clap between themselves.

I can watch that exercise for a real long time and be very entertained. I think of it as the smallest piece of pure improv. Just like an atom of any element is the smallest piece of that element, this exercise contains all of the key properties of good improv. You can’t succeed or fail by yourself. (If you clap together with a fellow participant then you succeeded together. If only one of you claps, then you’ve failed together.) You have to pay very close attention to what is happening around you. And it’s pretty stupid with a high chance of giving you the giggles.

Also, just like in an improv comedy show, teamwork counts for more than speed when playing the clapping game. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen groups get really good at this game and start passing a clap so fast it almost sounds like a machine gun is firing. Behind the back passes, over each other’s heads, bouncing claps off of walls to others who aren’t even looking at the passer but clap with them nonetheless. And that’s all great. But at the end of the day, clapping in unison is still more satisfying then any of that fancier stuff done in discord. So it’s no wonder this game serves as a common improv warm up exercise when the same dynamics are evident in improv: teamwork is better than speed or other showboat-y accomplishments. Two improvisers cooperating to build a simple scene with a simple comedic premise is better than a scene with two improvisers trying to top each other with spectacular moves that are not supported, created or received with cooperation.

Here’s the thing, sales people should be warming up with this exercise too, not just improvisers. Sales teams that want to improve their performance should come into the office every morning, drop their stuff off at their desk, have a cup of coffee and then meet up in the large conference room for a quick round of the clapping game. Think of the instincts it would reinforce. The clapping game would remind you:

1) To pay very close attention to what your clients are saying, not just out loud but also nonverbally.

2) That you can’t close a sale without a client agreeing to it. You either close the sale or lose the sale in concert with your client. Rushing your client won’t help.

3) That your day will probably go better if you don’t take anything too seriously and infuse your work with a sense of fun.

I remember when I worked in Ad Sales I had a VP who used to wander around the sales floor and ask reps who their hottest prospects were. After listening to a rep run through the particulars surrounding a given prospect this VP’s advice was invariably the same, “Why don’t you ask for their business by faxing over a contract?” The idea was that assumptive confidence would close sales. I think it ruined relationships, you ask me. Just like clapping at someone before they’re ready to clap with you feels aggressive and disconnected.

Great clappers, like great sales people are marvels to watch. I remember there was a guy in one of my intro to improv classes who couldn’t clap in a predictable rhythm. He’d keep his hands apart way too long, even as his eyes grew wide in terror as he watched someone else passing a clap to him. Slowly the person passing to him would close the distance between their hands, hoping he’d match their speed. And then with no warning his hands would slam shut while the person who initiated the clap would stare at him, stunned and slack-jawed by the unbelievable suddenness of his decision! He was impossible to clap with! At first his other classmates would roll their eyes and scowl when “he” messed up. But this class was a very supportive group and somewhere along the line they stopped blaming the guy who couldn’t clap in an easily anticipatable way and started trying to succeed with him. And seemingly against all odds they figured it out.

I remember one student in particular figuring it out first. She clapped at him real fast but then right before her hands met she pulled them apart again. This would trigger the “bad” clapper to realize he was going to miss the clap and so he would begin to clap himself and as he did that she would finish her clap, real quick this time for real. It had the same rhythm as a basketball pump fake and it worked like a charm. Soon everyone in the class was using the same trick. They had met this “bad clapper” where he was. They had figured out how to succeed together with him.

How many times have you heard a sales rep tell a story about a big sale they almost had, if only their client weren’t an absolute idiot? Whenever I hear a story like that I know who the real idiot is. A salesperson trying to change a client’s beliefs, behavior or list of priorities will never be as successful as a salesperson who seeks to understand their clients and then use that understanding to build strong, successful relationships by working to harmoniously succeed in concert with them. What point is there in selling a client a product they don’t want or pressuring a client to make a purchase before they feel organically ready to? It might help your numbers one month, but in the long term that’s a great way to lose clients.

No, if you want to be a great salesperson then you need to act like a great clapper. Pay careful attention to your client’s idiosyncrasies so you know whether you should close a sale real fast, real slow or with a pump fake.

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