The day I interviewed Tom Hanks for the hit film Forrest Gump he did 64 back-to-back, five-minute television interviews  at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. Although I was fortunate enough to be in the first group of entertainment reporters, I knew if I was going to have a unique, memorable interaction with the Hollywood star I would have to be different, get him to put down his script, and take him off "autopilot." Well, some new research shows that from moment to moment, all of our brains are set to run on autopilot.

"Most of the information that our senses pick up is processed automatically; just a fraction of that information ever makes it into our conscious awareness," says Daniel Bennett, PhD Candidate at Australia's University of Melbourne in this post in The Conversation. "This makes our brains efficient, since it means we don’t have to pay conscious attention to everything at once. But it has the side effect that we can make decisions based on information of which we are not fully aware."

What are the "side effects?" What are the ramifications for all of us as we try to move, persuade, convince and sell people when their brains are on autopilot, and ours are too for that matter?  

The Script

One of my first 3 Second Selling™ sales training clients was a VP at a nationally known insurance corporation that specializes in tax-qualified retirement plans.

He had a spreadsheet with 700 warm, qualified leads on it, and spends a fair portion of his day working through that list via a combination of emails and phone calls. 

When I asked to sit in his office while he made some of those calls I was astonished at how rote and robotic he sounded, bored even. He didn't vary his script at all. He just left voicemail after voicemail wanting to know if he could "share some news" that might impact his prospect's retirement planning. 

But he wasn't working very hard to pique their curiosity, to arouse their brain, to be different, to give a hint that he truly had something of value to offer and deserved to earn some of their time and attention. 

I asked him if he was "bored" by the rather tedious process and he admitted he was. I told him his prospects could hear that in his voice, and that if he wasn't excited and had no urgency, his prospects wouldn't have any either. 

We all follow scripts in our daily lives, interaction by interaction, playing out preconceived notions of how we think something is supposed to go. We have to be diligent and deliberate to overcome that. 

Tom Hanks told me if he sounded like he was on autopilot it was because he got asked the same five questions by every interviewer. 

I wrote this post in Staffing Talk about former Yankee baseball great Derek Jeter who when responding to some sportswriters criticisms about being a boring interview told them, "Ask me different questions and I'll give you different answers."

The Rookies Rock

I recently had the chance to spend some time with some sales rookies, newly hired insurance sales people right at the front end of their training. It was immediately apparent these new reps were getting more results from their phone appointment setting efforts than that veteran who had spent decades in sales.

Why? Because they didn't use the same pitch every time. They mixed it up. They tried different things, sometimes even just different ways of saying basically the same thing. 

And because it felt so new and fresh to the sales person, and they were excited and enthusiastic and also sincere, it probably caught the prospect slightly off guard. 

"Wait a minute, this sales person actually sounds authentic, like they want to have a unique, original conversation with me." And that kind of reaction, that kind of emotional connection, puts you well down the path to becoming someone people know, like and trust, and that is who we do business with. 

Most sales people probably approach their calls with a script that sounds too familiar, and that virtually everyone is using.  And the prospects are also often following a script where they are simply looking to interject something mid-spiel, and end the call with one of the following responses: 

  • I’m not interested.
  • We’re happy with our current vendor.
  • We’re on contract and can’t change right now.
  • Oh, we just renewed, changed, signed up last month.
  • Call back in a few months when we’re ready to make a change.

Both parties are on autopilot, both the sales rep and the prospect. 

A New Paradigm

The historical protocol for selling is officially dead. The immediate access to information via the Internet has completely altered the balance of power in direct sales exchanges. Your prospects know far more than they used to, and the first time you actually have a conversation with them they are likely more than halfway through the sales process. 

They don’t need you necessarily to tell them about the importance of retirement planning, or how you can help them effectively manage contract employees by quickly increasing or downsizing their workforce.

That information is all around them, and whatever questions they have is available in a Google search.

So your relationship has to involve more than just being a purveyor of information. To cut through today’s buying clutter, you need to have an authentic, unique and memorable interaction, create emotional connections quickly, and lay a solid sales-forward foundation.

In the end, it may be as simple as the answers found in two questions.

"If the person you're selling to agrees to buy, will his or her life improve?"

"When your interaction is over, will the world be a better place than when you

John Kotter, a former Harvard Business School professor, says, “Behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people’s feelings.” 

Do that, and you'll likely be able to disengage the autopilot. Yours and theirs. 

Tags: Sales training, 3 Second Selling, Tom Hanks, Harvard, Autopilot, Sales tactics, University of Melbourne, Forrest Gump, Daniel Bennett, John Kotter