Water, I write on the whiteboard in blue expo marker, in vague response to a question from a participant who is now adding context.
There are a couple dozen people seated in the small classroom on the 5th floor of a building on Montgomery street in downtown San Francisco. They are here to pick up a few tips and tricks on navigating a high-stakes one-on-one conversation.
The blue word sits there behind me, unexplained, as I engage with the question. In truly non-linear fashion, it takes me several minutes to remember what I've written, turn back to the board, and flesh out the non-linear communication strategy of which it is a part.
I jot down four other words, and connect all five in the shape of a circle.
As I explain to the class, each of these five words represents a specific way of engaging with the human being in front of you. While actively listening to and observing your audience, the idea is to always be asking yourself: "What does this person need from me in this moment?"
For you, dear reader, please conjure in your imagination the person you hope to influence in your next important conversation: that potential client or partner; your boss or CEO; or a gatekeeper -- someone who holds the keys to the palace you really want to reach.
And keep them in your mind's eye, as you consider calling forth each of these elements, the next time you sit down with them.
"Water," I announce, turning back to the small sea of faces, "represents curiosity."
Water symbolizes going deeper, beneath the surface, beyond the superficial.
As an element, water can't help but seep into the cracks and gaps beneath closed doors. It reminds us not to make assumptions, or take whatever the person says at face value; to instead get curious about what they really mean, and invite them to tell us what that is.
"Fire is what we just finished talking about: making that human-to-human heart connection."
It doesn't matter if the person in question sits in the c-suite or out in the lobby; fire is the only non-negotiable. If the person can't relax and feel genuinely connected to you as a fellow human, they have no reason to say YES to you.
Although there is no exact order for bringing in all 5, fire is first and arguably the most important. If you establish that warmth in the beginning, but then feel it go cold later on, always come back to fire. (If you can make them laugh, you're on the right track.)
"Earth is all about being of service."
In much the same way that our sweet blue planet produces bountiful food and resources without even being asked, Earth is always asking: how can I help?
You can say: "Given that your goal is x, how do you see me helping you accomplish that?" Or, "given that we've got all these competing priorities, where do you hope to see the most progress as a result of our efforts?" Or literally: "Given that we have ten minutes left, how can I be of the most service to you right now?"
If you get to a point in the conversation and you're not sure where to go next, Earth is a wonderful place to default to.
"Metal is the easiest to forget when we're all wrapped up in ego and getting what we want."
Metal represents acknowledging that which is precious and rare about the person in front of you. It's part of knowing your audience and making them the hero of your story. It's the ability to say, in so many words and in the spirit of the movie Avatar when the blue woman kneels and speaks into the ear of the deer who lays dying: "I see you."
Sometimes what people need is just to be reminded that they are unique and special, and that you recognize and appreciate this about them. It can be as simple as saying, "as a lawyer yourself, I'm sure you've considered..." or, "I know how committed you are to this project, and we would never have gotten this far without your resourcefulness."
... If you can draw effectively on just these four elements in the course of your conversation, and you get really great at asking the right questions at the right time, I can fairly guarantee you will never need a scripted "pitch deck" to get your audience on board with you and your ideas.
... And yet, if you don't include the fifth and final element, all your diligent effort may go to waste.
This is a lesson I had to learn the hard way, back in the day when I could get top decision-makers excited about the possibility of working together -- and produce a proposal that could bring tears to their eyes -- and yet, did not yet know how to close; and so would spend weeks or months circling closer to a huge opportunity, only to have it fall through at the last minute.
The fifth element can save you years of "figuring it out" by trial and error. Next week, I'll reveal what it is -- and how you can use it to start turning missed opportunities... into golden ones.
(And if you're interesting in attending my next UnPitching workshop and learning more tips and tricks in this vein, you can nab your spot for January here.)