The power of language and intent in sales and coaching

For the last five weeks, I’ve been working around Australia helping a major client get its sales leadership team ready to roll out a new sales strategy – their version of ‘the way we sell around here’.

It’s been pretty exciting and extremely well received.

Why? The language we are using is clear, simple, strong and positive. Our intent is purposeful and inspiring. There is a compelling reason to want to be a part of this new era. People can see a clear pathway forward.

Part of this sales strategy and sales process roll-out includes a very practical sales leadership and coaching program that gives sales leaders practical tools and resources to lead and communicate strategy, coach and develop sales teams, as well as the space to practice and reflect on their own leadership and coaching styles.

The insights and observations that have emerged from this program, and other programs like it, have inspired me to write this article and focus on the power of our intentions and the words we use.

For the most part, I have observed over the last 25 years that people are usually very happy to receive guidance, coaching, support and ongoing education on how to sell better and how to coach and lead sales team better.

Framed properly and positioned well, many people are only too relieved to find ways to make their jobs easier, less stressful and more rewarding. Makes sense.

However, I have noticed an overwhelming tendency for people, including myself from time to time, to focus on the negative or the difficult when it comes to talking about selling and leading better. The language around selling is often focused on ‘how hard selling is’ or on ‘how nervous people get when prospecting’.

Think call reluctance and fear of self-promotion, the stress of reaching budgets or dealing with changes and competitors, the unrelenting pressure of quarterly budgets and fixation on ‘meeting the numbers’ or bad experiences with clients.

And not to forget the negative stereotypes of selling that plague many people’s minds, and so on. This negative language also finds its way into client conversations when discussing ‘pain points’, client problems and issues, etc.

The language of selling and sales leadership, it appears, has been and still is weighted in the negative.

Using negative language such as can’t, won’t, don’t, too hard, have to, and so on sets up barriers to moving forward for many people. Changing our language to can do, will do, want to, and so on can change how our brains see opportunity.

In an interesting article ‘Words can change our brains’ by Therese J. Borchard, she writes that:

“Positive words, such as ‘peace’ and ‘love’, can alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning. They propel the motivational centres of the brain into action and build resiliency.

Conversely, hostile language can disrupt specific genes that play a key part in the production of neurochemicals that protect us from stress. Humans are hardwired to worry — part of our primal brains protecting us from threats to our survival — so our thoughts naturally go here first. However, a single negative word can increase the activity in our amygdala (the fear center of the brain). This releases dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters, which in turn interrupts our brains’ functioning. (This is especially with regard to logic, reason, and language.)

“’Angry words send alarm messages through the brain, and they partially shut down the logic-and-reasoning centres located in the frontal lobes,’ write Newberg and Waldman.

“According to the authors, using the right words can transform our reality:

“By holding a positive and optimistic [word] in your mind, you stimulate frontal lobe activity. This area includes specific language centres that connect directly to the motor cortex responsible for moving you into action. And as our research has shown, the longer you concentrate on positive words, the more you begin to affect other areas of the brain. Functions in the parietal lobe start to change, which changes your perception of yourself and the people you interact with. A positive view of yourself will bias you toward seeing the good in others, whereas a negative self-image will include you toward suspicion and doubt. Over time the structure of your thalamus will also change in response to your conscious words, thoughts, and feelings, and we believe that the thalamic changes affect the way in which you perceive reality.

I am not suggesting for one minute that we mollycoddle people and make them soft. Far from it.

We need to speak frankly and clearly about what and how we can do things and how doing so will serve us well. Why set things up as ‘being hard’ or ‘difficult’ from the start?

What if, instead, we used positive language to describe what sales does, its purpose and function in business and day to day life; what it can offer to us in terms of career opportunities and value to our clients, our businesses and the community; its importance in uncovering opportunities; its function as an enabler for realising opportunity and enhancing prosperity?

I wonder what a difference that would make in terms of setting people up for success in their sales careers rather than starting with a mindset of selling being tough, hard, difficult, stressful, and so on?

I challenged several sales leaders on my journey around Australia to reframe how they speak about selling and how they look at coaching their salespeople. Instead of seeing their sales coaching tasks as having to cajole, coerce or even threaten their salespeople to perform, I asked them to think about creating a space that offered people a well-structured, transparent and honest appraisal of what good selling is; what it looks like in their respective businesses; what is expected of people in these roles and how being in sales develops a whole range of business and life skills that they can apply anywhere.

I asked these leaders to be frank and clear about what they expected of their salespeople, using neutral terms that neither threatened nor over promised. That is whether they were speaking to a current team member or potential recruit.

Recently, I spoke at the Southern Business Women’s Network Day of Inspiration Event in Leongatha. Afterwards I was approached by a restaurant owner who asked me how he could attract and recruit staff to his restaurant who cared about customer service and who would represent his restaurant well.

I asked him what he was offering his potential recruits. He said a job. I said, “No, if you want the right people to represent you, show them what they can learn from you, how they can benefit from learning the skills and manners of hospitality. Be really clear that you understand they will not be with you forever and that while they are you with you, you are offering a stepping stone in their careers. You will promise to teach them how to understand clients and help them have a great experience, they will learn project management and organisational skills, and develop their communications skills, and so on and in turn they will create and be a part of a great environment to work and serve.”

It’s all in how we frame it and how we then follow through on our promises that makes the difference to how our people step up and perform.

If you read most sales or service recruitment ads it’s usually only about what the employer expects from the employee. In today’s world, better businesses are about attracting people who are seeking collaboration, cooperation, teamwork, continuous learning, purpose and results that lead to a fair exchange of value where all parties benefit. And we must be clear so that no one is left wondering what is expected of them.

Being a skillful and successful salesperson is something to be honoured. We understand that selling, as a career, is not for everyone nor is sales leadership. To be excellent at these roles requires consistent effort, continuous learning, discipline and persistence. As careers go, selling and sales leadership are a ticket to almost any organisation anywhere in the world.

How we frame and speak about sales, selling and sales leadership would look a whole lot different if we spoke about it in positive terms of opportunity and continuous evolution.

Think about that.

Remember everybody lives by selling something.

Sue Barrett is the founder and CEO of the innovative and forward thinking sales advisory and education firm, Barrett and the online sales education & resource platform Get to know her further on TwitterFacebook, and YouTube.


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