We do it automatically and without even thinking about it. We apologize, we kowtow, we euphemize. And that’s just the start of it. In every conversation, we’re weakening our own message in a hundred little ways.
Sometimes we avoid being direct because we’re worried we’ll come off as too aggressive or cold. Sometimes we fill conversations with fluff because we don’t like the sound of silence.
These tendencies are all too common, and, added together, they’re having a profoundly negative effect on how we communicate. If the professional communication you’re doing is with a client, customer, or prospect, you’re hurting your chances to reach the outcome you’re hoping for.
Chris Marr is a They Ask, You Answer coach at IMPACT who works directly with businesses to help them improve the way they interact with customers — both in marketing and sales.
He’s been on a crusade for years to help professionals be more direct and candid in their conversations and correspondence.
He believes salespeople should be practicing radical candor, as it’s been called by Kim Scott. This means being direct and straightforward in all communication so that you don’t undermine your message without realizing it.
“The language you’re using,” Chris says, “is diminishing your authority and you don’t even know it.”
But being candid and having authority isn’t the same thing as being authoritative, he warns. It’s about guiding conversations so they’re more productive — and avoiding fluff when it’s not necessary.
In our conversation below, Chris and I dive into the importance of good communication, including:
- Why we often default to apology.
- Establishing (and redefining) the “alpha” role in a conversation.
- Training yourself to be more direct.
- Taking the first step toward eliminating weak language from your communication.
I’ve cut our conversation into four clips. Scroll below to read the transcript and watch the interview.
Why do we default to apology?
It’s the end of a sales call and things are wrapping up between sales rep and prospect.
“Thanks so much for your time today!”
So, who thanks whom for their time? Of course we want to be courteous and affable in conversation, but is one person’s time more or less valuable than the other’s?
Too often, says Chris, sales reps are thanking the prospects, not the other way around. The implication is that the prospect’s time is more valuable than the sales rep’s — and that the prospect was being generous by offering up her valuable time.
This is the wrong approach, according to Chris, because it gives the impression that the prospect is doing the sales rep a favor. As a result, the sales rep loses the position of authority in the conversation.
A better model would be this: each party’s time is seen as having equal value. No one needs to apologize for taking up the other’s time.
This way, when the sales rep sets out the goals for the meeting and directs the conversation, it’s based on a foundation of equality.
In the first clip of my interview with Chris, he explains why weak language is so common in sales conversations — and why he’s on a mission to do something about it.
Transcript, part 1
John Becker: I’m John Becker, revenue and features editor at IMPACT. And I’m here with Chris Marr, They Ask, You Answer coach and just all-around brilliant and interesting man. Man about town, man about the world. And welcome Chris, first of all.
Chris Marr: Thanks, John. I’m looking forward to this conversation.
JB: And you’re coming to us from where?
CM: I am in Scotland. On the east coast of Scotland, in a city called Dundee. So yeah, like you said, it’s interesting, being from a different country and I have a different accent maybe as well, than what most people are used to.
JB: You know, it is funny because even going into this… So, our topic today, we’re going to talk about how we might unintentionally use weak language in our conversations with clients, with customers, with prospects, et cetera.
So, how do we become aware of that, and how do we ultimately rid it from our communication? And I know this is something that you’ve thought a lot about, but it’s interesting you talked about language first and accents first. I wonder if this is something that does vary depending on local culture, depending on where you’re from, where you were raised.
I think even English itself is a language that is full of apology. I think we tend to say things like, “would it be okay if I ask you a question about this?” Instead of just asking a question. Whereas in other languages that’s not as much the case.
So, I want to first say, well, just talk to me about how you became aware of this and why this is something that’s important to you.
CM: I think what you’ve mentioned there, I would definitely touch on that. Because there are cultural differences, I think that are natural, but also have pros and cons, I think of each. In one case you get that sort of English stereotype of the apology, everything’s an apology. And then you get the exact opposite of that, which is super direct, no apology.
And they both have a good side and a bad side, I think, in some ways. And there’s somewhere in the middle, I think we’re trying to hit with all this stuff as well. The origins for me here are really in two key places. One is in my own development as a coach. So, as a coach I have to be constantly working on my communication. So, that’s had a dramatic impact on my whole life.
So the stuff that we’re going to talk about today you’ll be applying it to your work. But ultimately, if you’re a parent, you know how important language is, communication is. How you say something can change the dynamic of a conversation entirely. The tone, the words you use. So, I think the things that we talk about today can be applied in any conversation.
And I think that’s true for me as a coach, is that as my training developed, and I’m practicing this all the time, weekly role plays with my coach to get better and better with communication all the time. So, that’s the first root place. So, that’s been, I want to say, six or seven years of real training in that area.
And then as, over the last two or three years, as I started to coach more in sales organizations, that’s when it really started to make a big difference. Because with sales teams, especially with sales teams, they want things that are going to help them improve right now in their work.
They’re always looking for a silver bullet or that next thing, that next tactical thing that’s going to change the game. And when we get into the weeds with sales teams, there’s so much good stuff there. You can watch calls, you can watch videos, you can look at emails and they’re communicating all the time.
So, I think as I started to really get into the weeds with sales teams. That’s where it really started to show up to me as this is a massive opportunity for salespeople to really correct their language, strip out those weak words.
And ultimately, it’s almost like they were working against themselves, like their own worst enemy without actually realizing it. It wasn’t about adding more words in, or adding more, it was about taking away. It was by using specific words that they were actually really working against themselves.
So, that was the two main areas. So, my own coaching and then applying really what I’ve learned as a coach, to other areas of business. In this case, I would say the most dramatic changes I’ve made have been within sales team and with sales professionals.
JB: This feels very much like a “hiding in plain sight” type problem. So, let’s talk about some specifics. When you see that in a sales call, when you see that tendency in a sales person, what are you seeing? What are those red flags, where you’re saying here’s where you could be stronger, more direct, et cetera?
CM: There’s loads of areas here, John. I’ll pick up on what’s really front of mind, or the most common ones. Right at the start of any call, usually that’s a place where there’s a lot of fluff. I would call it just stuff you say that feels like you’re running up to the thing that you really need to say. Or sales people don’t have a practiced or an agreed way to really start a sales call, or a sales video, or a sales email. So, always at the beginning.
And I think you could probably, as a writer, maybe appreciate this as well. When you write something, when you go back to edit usually you’re taking out the first paragraph, or the first two paragraphs, or the first two sentences, because you’ve sort of run up to the direct start that you need to make. It’s exactly the same thing.
So, usually at the start of a call:
Hey John, it’s Chris here from IMPACT, just phoning to check in with you to see if you had the chance to look at that email that I sent through to you last week. I know you’ve had a busy weekend, you’ve got a lot on your plate, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
So, there’s this 15, 20 seconds, 30 seconds, of just nothing, that happens with sales calls. And what we want to do is almost just delete the whole thing, cut it all out. How can we get there faster? How can we get there more directly? So, I would say that’s one of the key areas. In fact, the two most common areas for optimization here are the start of a call and the end of a call, and they need focused work. And again, I say call, but I mean any communication, it’s the same truth.
The same’s true of sales emails. The start and the end, usually both [are] very weak. So, this bookending of your sales communication is really critical. Get there fast. They’re continuing the conversation from the start, like as if… In a lot of cases with sales teams, it’s almost like they’re starting a new conversation because they’re following up from something a week ago. Actually just start exactly where you left off.
Doesn’t matter how long it’s been. Just start right there. Start right at the end of the last time we spoke. It’s like trying to get people to cut out all of that stuff. So, the start and at the end. The end really, typically, John, is like, let me know if you’ve got any questions, get back to me when you’ve got time. There’s all these…
Like you said, it’s all wrapped up in apology. We need to really stop apologizing for who we are, and know that we have value to add. In fact, in a lot of cases, almost always, the person you’re communicating with can’t do the thing that they need to do without you. So, actually you’re critically valuable in this part of the process. So, we need to… It’s almost like the language is the output of where our head’s at, or where we feel like we’re at in the relationship.
It’s almost like [you need] to flip it, so that you become the alpha in that relationship. You see yourself as a leader in that relationship and that you can take control of that conversation. And if we can get our head into a different place, it changes the language that we use in our conversations, with buyers especially.
Establishing (and redefining) the ‘alpha’ role
Conversations that begin on equal footing tend to meander. Unless there is a clear hierarchy, it’s hard to establish an intended endpoint. Chris recommends salespeople work to establish themselves as the ‘alpha’ in the conversation.
Chris is quick to remind us that being the alpha is not what many of us think. “People have the wrong idea, of what an alpha looks like,” he says. “They think it’s this aggressive, obnoxious, pushy bully, but that’s not the case. All we’re looking for is some authority.”
When a salesperson has authority in a meeting, they can set the agenda, move from one topic to another, direct discussion, and be clear about desired outcomes. A salesperson demonstrates that authority at the beginning of a call by saying, “By the end of our meeting today I want us both to be clear about which option is the best fit for you.”
A salesperson is giving up authority when they replace this candor with weak, vague language that obscures the point.
Chris explains below in our second clip:
Transcript, part 2
JB: It’s so fascinating. I think there’re situations where we are in conversations, and even in email communications as well, where we are uncomfortable and we tend to fill those uncomfortable spaces with fluff.
We’re often really uncomfortable with pauses, with silence. I have a teaching background. I learned long ago, cherish those pauses. You ask a question, wait, let that question sit there.
And I think about an email. When you start writing a blank email, it’s like a pause, it’s an empty space. And we want to fill it with something, so we fill it with, I know you’ve had a busy weekend, really hoping you got a chance to… All those sorts of things.
I think you’re exactly right, that those are situations that prompt us to start to just effusively throw words into the blank space to fill it up with something. And I would guess [that] also those questions, those silences in conversations too, are often opportunities to [not] put in more fluff, to let that question, let the thing that you’re asking them to reflect on, give them a chance to actually reflect on it, rather than fill it up with your own useless words.
CM: The challenge or the outcome, you could say, of this is that a buyer or somebody on the other side of that conversation, maybe doesn’t even know why they feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. Or they don’t trust you as much as they would like to. Or they have something that’s telling them that this doesn’t feel quite right.
They’ve got some doubt about doing business with you or being a customer, or whatever situation you happen to be in. And it’s because of the language we’re using. And it’s because of the position that we’re putting ourselves in.
A buyer doesn’t want to feel more doubt. They want to have certainty. They want confidence. They need to feel like this person knows what they’re talking about.
And I think a lot of people, or the pushback I have had in the past, is a lot of people don’t want to be the, quote, unquote, alpha in a relationship, because they’ve got an idea, a bad idea, the wrong idea, of what an alpha looks like. They think it’s this aggressive, obnoxious, pushy bully, perhaps in a relationship.
That’s not the case.
All we’re looking for is some authority. That you believe that you know what you’re doing. That you believe that you’re valuable. That you believe that the product that you sell, or the solution that you sell, or whatever it’s that you do, is truly going to help someone to solve a problem, to create more opportunity in their life, whatever that might be.
So, it’s getting ourselves into a position where we’re not approaching that conversation desperate, [thinking] “we need this sale.”
We need to get them from a different place, which is how can I help this person to make a confident buying decision.
So, you can come all the way back to the roots of They Ask, You Answer here, and it’s how They Ask, You Answer shows up in our language. And this is the chat I have with sales teams especially, is that the language you’re using is diminishing your authority, and you don’t even know it. It’s like you said, it’s hiding in plain sight.
And possibly one of the quickest ways, fastest ways, to bring more authority is to strip out all those words and statements, sentences, whatever you’re using that’s diminishing your authority in calls, and videos, and in sales emails.
JB: I love how before you talked about this balance, because we’re not talking about being rude. We’re talking about being direct, being candid, being straightforward.
But stripping out so much of those, there’s a danger of stripping out the personality, stripping out the conversationality of communication.
So, how do you find that balance that feels appropriate to the situation, where you don’t just be so direct that it comes off as cold and austere, but also not so fluffy that it sounds like it’s just an email about nothing?
CM: So, I guess this is just about being able to read the room. And this is where sales… If we’re talking in the context of the sales professional, this is where your skill as a sales professional really counts, your ability to read the room.
Ability to know when it’s time for a personal conversation about what you were up to at the weekend, or how your vacation was, or whatever it might be. And the difference between that and when you need to be direct, when you need to apply authority, when you need to really show your alpha status in a relationship. You’ve got to be able to read the room. And that’s the skillset that we have.
So, I don’t know if there’s any prescription here. The way that I always do it is, who started it? So, if my customer is the one that’s saying, hey, Chris, what did you get up to at the weekend? Did you get up to anything interesting?
I’m more likely to engage in that conversation with my customer, because they started it. I wouldn’t necessarily be the one that would start that conversation, if that makes sense. So, I will let them lead that, that sort of stuff.
But when it comes to the directness, moving things forward, getting decisions made, then I’ll step into that alpha status, take that conversation where it needs to go. So, reading the room remains to be one of the most important skills.
Reading the room, self-awareness is really what it’s called, I guess. And making sure that we’re able to do that correctly. And know when it’s time to loosen things out a little bit, or be fluffy perhaps, and knowing when we need to be on point and direct.
JB: Yeah. 100%. I watch a ton of sales calls in my work and I’m always amazed at how much emotional intelligence it takes on the part of the sales people to direct that conversation in a way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed, that doesn’t feel, like you said before, aggressive, or domineering or bullying.
CM: It’s like a pendulum that’s swinging all the time. You can’t… I don’t want to say you can’t, but the pendulum’s swinging all the time and there’s a couple of different pendulums that are swinging.
There’s that pendulum that’s swinging between alpha and beta status. Who is in control? Who has the power? Who is the leader? Who has the authority?
And it’s going back and forth all the time. And as a salesperson, or as a coach, you really want it swinging your way most of the time. And if you’re in control you can let it go sometimes, as long as you’re able to bring it back. And that’s where your training and your coaching comes in, your ability to really control the swing of that pendulum.
And then you’ve got another pendulum that’s swinging between that ability to be direct but show that you care on one side, and then swinging back to that ruinously empathetic state, or even into obnoxious aggression, which is radical candor.
So, your ability… When I try and summarize this up, it’s trying to walk that fine line between being radically candid, which is being direct but showing that you care, and being obnoxious, aggressive, or having that obnoxiousness about the way that you communicate.
It really comes back to how much you care about what it is that you do, and your ability to help someone to get to where they want to go. If they’ve got a vision, they’ve got a problem they need to solve, your job is to help them solve that problem.
And your ability to say something like:
“You’re going down the wrong path here, John. My experience over the last 10 years tells me that if you make this choice, this is where you’re are going to end up. What really needs to happen is you need to go down this path here, which is going to help you to do X, Y, and Z.”
So, your ability to be direct and honest, but showing that you care at the same time, is really important. Versus:
John, you’re making the biggest mistake of your life. If you do this, you are stupid, dumb, dumb, dumb. You don’t deserve to be in the job that you’re in.
That’s clearly obnoxious, aggressive, versus someone that’s saying, look, I really care about you, and you like being a superstar in your role and making the right choice. In this moment, John, we’re not a good fit for you, and here’s why. Here’s what you should do instead.
So, it’s like that high caring needs to come into it. But at the same time, our ability to maintain a level of directness, no fluff, making sure that people really understand what the right direction looks like. And that’s where we bring our expertise as salespeople into this conversation.
So, instead of just being salespeople or sales professionals, we become leaders. We give direction, we consult, we advise, we guide. And I think that our ability to be able to do that well, comes back to being able to be direct with people.
Training yourself to be more direct
As a They Ask, You Answer coach, Chris works directly with sales teams to hone their communication skills — helping them see the weak language that’s hiding in plain sight.
Even without a dedicated outside coach, though, you can begin to improve your communication with clients and prospects.
It starts with recording your sales calls. Working with a partner or by yourself, scrutinize a single call to carefully observe the language you used — particularly at the beginning and end of the call.
But don’t stop there. Become aware of your non-verbal cues. Facial expressions and body language are critical, too.
Then, after you’ve digested a few calls, make a list of areas of growth and start to plan your improvement. Remember not to bite off more than you can chew. It’s easy to become discouraged if it feels like the problem is just too big. Instead, channel your focus in one or several ways on your upcoming sales calls:
- Focus on improving one part of the call. For example, work on really nailing the opening — setting the tone, defining outcomes, or building rapport. That way, you set a realistic plan for improvement.
- Focus on eliminating a single tendency. Maybe you laugh nervously, look away when you talk, or fidget when asked a question. Eliminating one negative tendency at a time helps you steadily move toward improvement.
- Focus on eliminating a single word or phrase. It could be a useless filler word or a subordinate phrase, something you use out of habit. Breaking that habit will make a big difference.
Below, Chris talks about his own “Weak Sales Words Bingo Card” he made for clients. It looks like this:
Here, in our third clip, Chris explains how to get started with your own improvement.
Transcript, part 3
JB: So, you work directly with clients. And I would think that having that outside perspective, that outside expertise, is going to be hugely helpful for someone to become more self aware of ways that they can make their language stronger, ways that they can be more direct, et cetera.
If you don’t have that outside coach, are there ways… How do you train yourself for this? How do you see it in yourself? What do you recommend for someone who’s like, yeah, I could probably be better at this, but I don’t have a coach who’s watching my every call and can help me. How do you do it yourself?
CM: Yeah. So, you’re right. In an ideal world, you do have a coach. Somebody that can give you that outside perspective. That would be ideal. Even if it’s just to look at one or two of your calls. Hire someone to have a look at a couple of different things for you, give you some guidance.
That would fast-track you to a better place. Sake of argument, say you don’t have that, there’s a couple of things you should definitely be doing here.
There’s one resource actually that I built, called the Weak Sales Bingo Card. And there’s a couple of dozen or so words and phrases that people use. And the idea is that we’ll look at that bingo card and we’ll listen to a call, or watch a video that you have, and mark off all these filler words that you’re using in your calls.
So, that’s one thing you can do. It’s kind of fun, but also proactive. And it has a use, as well. You could do that.
What I would advise that anyone in a sales team does, even if you’re just a two person sales organization, is that you’re watching each other’s calls, and you’re giving each other feedback. But you have a resource to go on, so the Weak Sales Bingo Card, probably a great place to start. You can watch each other’s calls. You can get sense of what’s weak and what we need to be stripping out. How we can get faster starts, better closes. What’s diminishing our authority.
Now, we’re talking language here, but many times John, I would say watching a call is much more than just the language, the words that are coming out of your mouth, there’s everything about the setup here that’ll diminish, or add to your authority, body language as well. It’s all part of the package. So, we need to look at everything.
So, I would say number one activity in any sales organization is watch parties, watching each other’s videos, giving each other feedback, bonuses, strengthens the communication between a team as well. In other words, your ability to practice giving your team members direct feedback, obviously adds to your training. So, that’s a big part of this too.
And then if you’re a slightly larger organization, I would do role plays. As long as there’s two people in the sales organization, you can do role plays. So, real quick on this. Role play, you got off a sales call, it went bad. Role play it immediately with one of your team members. Let’s role play this out. Let’s see how I could have done this differently or better. Watch it back. Have someone else watch it back and give you direct feedback on it. Seek the feedback that’s going to help you.
The other thing with role plays of course, is to get ahead of important discussions or difficult conversations you’re going to be having with your clients, or your customers, or your buyers.
And then tap one of your teammates on the shoulder and say, hey, could you role play out this with me? This is the scenario. I’m going to be the salesperson. We’re going to go through this. I want you to be like this. And create that scenario, so that you can actually practice it. It’s absolutely critical that we’re practicing before we do it for real.
And that’s what role play is really all about. We learn from our mistakes. When we’re really smart, we’re learning from other people’s mistakes. And then we’re also being proactive in knowing that difficult conversations are coming up and we’re going to role play those out 2, 3, 4, 5 times. And then when we do it for the sixth time, we’re doing it with the client. End of practice that happens.
JB: You’ve gotten those reps to be comfortable.
CM: All the way through as well, to the end. You’ve got to a point where you feel like you know roughly what you’re going to say, how it’s going to go. And honestly, it’s one of the most basic things.
I would say, John, for context here probably one of the things that floated to the top, in terms of sales coaching through COVID, was bringing role plays back in teams. Teams seem to have forgotten that one over time and it just came back up as like, hey guys, we don’t know how to sell on video, we’d better practice this.
So role plays became a really big part of the culture within sales teams again over the last few years, certainly that we’ve seen.
So, I would say, back to the question, for those that want to do this and find places to optimize this, communicate at a higher level, practice with your teammates, watch your own calls.
Like any professional sports player. I don’t know if you read biographies you’ll know this, they watch their games. They watch their swing, they watch their throw, they watch the competition’s throw. They’re watching what they would call their game tape. That’s what we need to do, if we want to be better.
JB: And they have multiple coaches watching them as well.
CM: Yeah, absolutely.
Taking the first step
Today, there are digital tools that can analyze your call recordings. But there are also lower-tech options that don’t cost a thing.
The key, says Chris, is choosing to see communication as a priority and committing yourself to improvement.
“Nothing beats practice,” he says. “That’s the key for communication, is just continually practicing — knowing what your weaker words are and eliminating them over time.”
Here, in our final clip, he explains what it takes to get started.
Transcript, part 4
JB: Here at IMPACT, we’ve just started using a tool called Chorus, it’s an AI tool that tracks sales calls. So, it will give you a dashboard to show how much each person spoke. And it can even track individual words. I haven’t used it much, but it can even track individual words.
So, it could be that there might be some tools like that, or there’s another one called Gong that I know we at least looked into, where you could maybe use some technology to help track. This is how many times I said this, or even things like filler words, saying like, or you know, or um. Things like that also, to a small extent, diminish your authority, diminish your messaging, et cetera.
So, I would encourage all of our listeners to look out for… Yes, there are old fashioned ways, like work with your colleagues, watch your own calls, but there are also probably some tools out there that could help you as well.
CM: Chorus is really great. You’re right. You’ve highlighted the majors and Chorus. The filler words. How often you’re speaking as well is a good one. Did I speak for most of the time or did the client speak for most of the time? There’s loads of great stuff in Chorus, for optimizing sales calls too.
But nothing beats the practice. You’ve got to get the practice in. That’s the key for communication, is just continually practicing, knowing what your weaker words are when they show up, eliminating them over time.
Some of them will be easy. Some of them are going to be more difficult. And some of them, you’re not even going to be able to spot yourself, you’re going to need somebody that knows what they’re looking for to see it.
JB: So, Chris, to wrap up, what’s step one? What’s one small step that people can take to move them forward on this path of being stronger and more direct in their communication?
CM: I think first of all, you’ve got to shift the mind. I think that’s the key. You’ve got to see yourself as a leader. You’ve got to see yourself as truly valuable. You’ve got to accept and understand that the person you’re speaking to, this buyer, can’t do what they need to do without you.
And if you can get to that position, you can see yourself as a leader, it does change your approach in terms of how you’re communicating. So, that’s the first part, it’s a mindset shift.
So, what we want to do is change the way that we think, which should in turn change the way that we behave as well. So, that’s become the language and the way that we act around these things too.
So, that’s the first thing, seeing ourselves as a leader. Stop apologizing for what you’re doing, for showing up, for being there. And the way you do that is by saying, thanks for your time, I know you’re busy but… Those are all apologies. We need to stop doing that.
Stop apologizing for showing up, stop apologizing for being valuable, stop apologizing for doing great work, and instead see yourself as a leader.
JB: I love it. Chris, thank you so much for your time. I think this is a great conversation and the start of a process that can make us all better.
CM: Yeah. Hope everyone goes to work on this. And it makes a huge difference, especially in sales teams, if we can eradicate those weak words and ultimately become more authoritative in our communication.
Better language, better conversations
Eliminating weak language from your sales conversations does not mean eliminating warmth, humanity, or kindness. It does not mean acting in a way that is domineering or aggressive.
Instead, it’s about becoming aware of the ways we undervalue ourselves and, in doing so, weaken our message to clients and customers.
When we are more precise in our communication, we are better able to convey our ideas to our audience.
In her book Radical Candor, Kim Scott notes that “The essence of making an idea clear requires a deep understanding not only of the idea but also of the person to whom one is explaining the idea.”
In all cases, you need to read the room. Sometimes a conversation calls for chit-chat. In most cases, a conversation is in sore need of leadership.
Limiting our own weak language allows us to approach our conversations more transparently. The results benefit ourselves and anyone we speak with.