Say What You Think

David interviews Blair about the art of effectively communicating with clients and coworkers.



DAVID C. BAKER: Hello, Blair, how are you today?

BLAIR ENNS: Hi, David. I'm horrible, thank you for asking. How are you?

DAVID: I'm just going to skip that pretend like-

BLAIR: This came from our last podcast when you said, "Well, yeah, have you ever said..." No, I'm sorry, I'm doing wonderfully.

DAVID: Well, today, you are being interviewed and we're hooking you up to one of those lie detector machines-

BLAIR: Oh, right on.

DAVID: Because the topic is Say What You Think. If at any point you are not saying what you're thinking, there's going to be this zap that goes off, but first of all, a little bit of trivia to start. Do you know that the person who invented the lie detector is the same person who invented the character Wonder Woman.

BLAIR: Really?

DAVID: Really.

BLAIR: Who's that?

DAVID: William Marston.

BLAIR: Oh, really? Wow.

DAVID: Same guy who did most of the research behind-

BLAIR: Personality research.

DAVID: Modern personality profiles.

BLAIR: Wow, I had no idea. Isn't that interesting? I was going to tell an interesting funny anecdote about-

DAVID: You tell it and I'll tell you if it's interesting. Go ahead.

BLAIR: Well, it's so interesting, I don't think I can tell it. It's about how friends of mine in a high security profession taught another friend who wanted to get into that profession, how to beat the lie detector test to get around some certain things, so I'm not going to tell that story.

DAVID: Okay, now, wasn't there-

BLAIR: It never happened.

DAVID: It never happened, right. Now, isn't there a movie though called... Do you remember the movie that had something about... Was it Liar, Liar?

BLAIR: Yeah.

DAVID: We're going to learn... Okay. Topic is Say What You Think and I want you to... First of all, let's start out by pretending that we're in Blairtopia. This is-

BLAIR: Yeah, my favorite place.

DAVID: This is what you, lying awake at night just before you nod off to bed, every night, you're thinking of Blairtopia and you're in charge. What's in Blairtopia?

BLAIR: Blairtopia is this wonderful land where everybody has to do what I say and everything always works out perfectly. And you-

DAVID: Am I in the Blairtopia?

BLAIR: Yeah, of course you are. Why wouldn't you be in Blairtopia? [crosstalk 00:02:43] It would be empty without you. Yes, of course, you are. Are those shoes shined yet? You and I were speaking at a conference or an event of some kind sometime within the last year, and I did a talk on this. The talk is called the five constraints or the six constraints depending on the audience. And the premise of the talk is there is this place called Blairtopia. In Blairtopia, some of the agencies go out of business right away, a small number of them, but most of them... Because they shouldn't be in business to begin with. But most of them thrive and the reason they thrive is, in Blairtopia, Blair's laws are laws, like laws of physics.

I spend this talk at 60 or 90 minutes talking about the constraints that are imposed on you in Blairtopia and one of the constraints that forces you to be successful is that you have to say what you're thinking to your clients in your prospects in the sale at all times.

DAVID: But wouldn't that force you to be unsuccessful?

BLAIR: Yeah. It begs the question, well, what are you thinking? What are you thinking that you're not saying? Obviously, there is... To say what you think, you have to be thoughtful about how you're phrasing the word. I take these two words and put them together, this idea of kind ruthlessness. You need to be kind in your words and ruthless in your behavior. And the behavior, often it's just as simple as just say what's on your mind but say it with kindness.

We talked in a podcast not too long ago about this idea that stresses caused by the things that you don't do. Just imagine you're in a situation with a prospective client. I'm sure you're never in this situation.

DAVID: No, never.

BLAIR: Imagine you're in a situation with a prospective client, and you really want this deal. The client is saying whatever the client is saying and you're barely hearing what he's saying. You're just nodding yes like a good server responder, like you're demonstrating passion and enthusiasm for his brand and his business. You're demonstrating how you prioritize service. You're going to take care of them, et cetera, all of these things that we associate with the service business. Then, he starts saying some things that are slightly ridiculous about the scoping of the project. I once had a client say... Way back when I was doing business development for a design firm, I had a client I really wanted and he started telling me about their logo. He said, "And then we need to have a cup of coffee in the logo because we're Java based," or technology is Java based.

In a moment like that where it doesn't have to be as absurd as that, so many people who are conditioned to be yes-man or yes-woman in the sale will not say what they're thinking. But if you think that's a ridiculous idea, you should stop right there and say, "That's a ridiculous idea." You just wouldn't say it the way that I said it. You will be far more successful if you say what's on your mind and in particular, I'm talking about the objections that come up, the concerns, client asks you to do something that you think isn't in the client's best interest or it's not the best way to go about hiring a firm like yours.

Anything, whatever thought is in your mind about, "I don't think that's the right thing to do. I don't think you need that. I don't think... I'm not... That's not something I'm willing to do." All those things, you stop and I guarantee you... Maybe not guarantee because some people can make this go horribly wrong. But generally speaking, you were better off if you can stop and say what you're thinking and the key is... We talked again, the stress builds up and resentment builds up that you might unleash later when the gap between the stimulus and the response gets too big.

The client says something ridiculous and you smile and nod meanwhile you're thinking, "Well, that's silly," and then he says something even more ridiculous and you smile and nod a little bit less enthusiastic and you just let him go and things build and build and build and at some point, you've waited so long and you got to say, "Listen, I think you might be in the sand," or whatever the objection is.

DAVID: It comes bursting out and at that point, it's even harder to be kind because you've waited so long.

BLAIR: Yeah. All the resentment builds up, then you're not kind. These really wonderful people to work with on a daily basis whether it's a sales person or a colleague, et cetera, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful snap. They snap because the gap between the stimulus and the response. What they really... The stupid thing and the thing that they wanted to say in response, it just builds up and builds up and builds up. The key to saying what you think is kind ruthlessness is you say it early and you say it with kindness and if you wait, if you defer, if you let it build up, it's going to be harder and harder to do the right thing with kind language.

DAVID: You write a few phrases out when you're talking about this earlier, the kinds of things that you might say if you go ahead and say them right when they occur to you like... I'll just read for you as I'm here for you, "We're really just a filler, your third bid in this process, aren't we?" Or, "That's not enough money," or, "That's not enough time. Who are the other firms under consideration? What [inaudible 00:08:00] are you using to make the decision," and so on. Now, some of these, you could say just like that with the right inflection in your voice. Some of these, like could you imagine saying with any inflection like, "We're really just a filler, your third bid in this process, aren't we?" With a laugh or some of these you could never say?

BLAIR: Well, it's sales or what we in this profession, the creative professions called new business development. To me, it's just a game and the game goes by the name the polite battle for control. If you can lean into this early, you can have a lot of fun with it. I joked about the Rain Man approach. You just like state the fact devoid of any emotion. "We're really just a filler, your third bid in the process, right?"

DAVID: And then if you can pause and not fill the gap with-

BLAIR: Oh, yeah.

DAVID: All of a sudden, they're desperate to fill that pregnant pause with something. All right, so you've got some hints and let's get into them. You've got three hints there that I'd like you to expand on it a little bit. The first one is three stars and a wish and the idea I gather is that you commit to saying three positive things before you deliver the bad news. Talk a little bit about that.

BLAIR: Yeah, so we'll go over three different ways that might help you learn to be kindly ruthless and say what you're thinking. This one came from... I'm in Canada and their big sport that everybody gets all their knickers and they're nut about is hockey. There's a lot of leadership around hockey here because we take it so seriously like a lot of leadership training for coaches, et cetera. This was brought to me by one of my colleagues, one of my team member who's actively involved in minor hockey in the part of the world we live in. I was coaching at the time and she gave me this tool called Three Stars and a Wish.

If you're going to critic a player or a team member or a client or a prospective client in this situation, the idea is you say three positive things and then you frame what you would like them to do or what you think they should do as a wish. One that I love to role play is like you get an RFP because in Win Without Pitching Land which is a part of Blairtopia or maybe Blairtopia is part of Win Without Pitching Land.

DAVID: I'd like to see your map. It's like in your map, Kaslo BC is the very centre, that's and everything else measures up from there. [crosstalk 00:10:33]

BLAIR: Exactly, yeah. In Win Without Pitching Land, we're often talking about derailing an RFP. When an RFP comes in and the first thing you do, this is like it's a game. It's a puzzle. It's like Rubik's cube you're trying to solve the challenges, how do you win this piece of business without going through the RFP? How do you derail the RFP and still win the business? You could say... And sometimes, there's a time and place just for saying like, "We don't respond to RFPs," but the language I favor is, "We don't typically respond to RFPs," and then as you mind already that uncomfortable pause you just wait and just wait, lean into the uncomfortable silence.

Another way to do it if you're a little bit too nervous about that or for whatever reason is you could employ the three stars and a wish approach. You could say, number one, "Thank you very much for thinking about us on this project. I really appreciate that." Number two, "I think my people could get really excited about this project. It kind of ticks all of the boxes for us." There's the second star. The third one is, "It really looks like you've done a lot of work here, so congratulations on this. I'm putting this RFP together." There's three stars, "Thank you so much for thinking about us. We could get really excited about it. Congratulations on all the hard work that you've done on this." And now, it's the wish, "I only wish we had been able to have conversation before we put all the work in the RFP because we don't typically respond to RFPs." Pause, uncomfortable silence.

From that uncomfortable silence, the client will fill the void and that's one of the games or part of the game. It's like who is going to speak first and the client will say... There's a spectrum of responses to that and this is for another podcast, but one could be, "Okay, we'll see you later." Well, that's valuable information. They don't see me as meaningfully different. The other end of the spectrum would be, "Oh, I'm certainly sure that... Well, look, how do we make this work?" If you're not up for the blunt approach and me being a low affiliation, living in the woods, in the middle of nowhere type person, I'm fairly comfortable with the more blunt approach but I recognize that that's a personal thing and everybody is different.

For you to say what you think... If you're a high affiliation person, if you have this high need to look people in the eyes and if you want to be friends with your clients and you feel like the relationship comes before the deal, if you're that type of person, then I think the three stars and a wish approach would be really effective for you.

DAVID: Can you do this equally on a phone or video conference call or in person?

BLAIR: Oh, yeah.

DAVID: It works on any of those?

BLAIR: Yeah. You just start talking and just three great things. "That is a striking tie." Whatever you come up with for three positive things to say and then, "Have you seen the weather outside today? It's fantastic. I only wish you you'd given your head a shake before you put the budget together." No, we don't do that.

DAVID: I'm starting to recognize a few conversations you and I have over the years like when I've sent you a brochure for an event we're doing together and you say-

BLAIR: "I really like the weight of this paper."

DAVID: Yeah. Okay, so that's the first one, three stars and a wish. Second one, you're calling the sandwich which is what?

BLAIR: Yeah. In classic sales, there are different types of closes that are variations on the sandwich. [inaudible 00:14:01] The sandwich is this idea of you take... It's a horrible metaphor because the way it was explained to me in the sales training class many years ago now is you take the horrible rotten piece of meat and you put a sandwich [inaudible 00:14:15] two delicious slices of bread.

DAVID: We need an illustrations for vegans as well here, I think.

BLAIR: Yeah. But the idea is it's similar to three stars and a wish but it's positive, negative, positive. I'm going to reference this article here. "Your brother-in-law looks..." You can imagine the scenario if I'm responding with this, I'm saying what I think and I'm responding with the sandwich technique. "Hey, I'm sure your brother-in-law is very, very talented. We don't do the creative concepts and then hand them over to others to implement, but I'm happy to introduce him to other firms that might be better able to use his talent."

That might be a little bit obscure but it's basically... If you've got a client who's saying, "Hey, I've got a brother-in-law who could help you with X." With a close client saying, "Oh, yeah. You know my brother-in-law just moved to town. He works in design or marketing or your space or whatever. I told him he needs to come and see you because you probably have some work for him of this type," and you would say, "Well, I'm sure your brother-in-law is very, very talented. We don't do this type of," whatever, however you want to say what you're thinking, "but I'm happy to introduce him to other firms that might be able to use his talent."

What you're doing there is you're responding first in a positive way, so you're not creating the dynamics of an argument. Your first response is positive. And I had a mentor years ago who she could mime, "Oh, you don't like me? Fantastic. You hate my face? Great." She could respond to any negativity with a positive and she always did, and then she would deliver the objection or the bad news or just what the client needs to hear, say what you think and then you finish on a positive. In this way, we're saying, "Yeah, I'm sure he's a great person. I'm not going to do that for him, but hey, why don't... I know exactly the people that I should be introducing to him so just leave it to me." You're saying what you're thinking but you're being very kind. You're starting with the positive. "You know what? This is fantastic. It's not going to work out the way you think but don't worry, it's going to work out."

DAVID: It sounds like something between these two things that pretty apparent to me is, so this is somebody who has a point of view but they're not being an ass. They're not trying to pick a fight. They're not trying to make a point or draw a line in the sand. They're just trying to communicate kindly but firmly what their position is without trying to win an argument. It's not about winning. It's simply about clearly communicating.

BLAIR: Yeah. The asshole approach works too though. You could just say, "Yeah, we don't do that." Somebody is going on about an exciting engagement, et cetera, and I'm going to send you an RFP, "Yeah, we don't respond to those."

DAVID: But I'm thinking they want to work with somebody they like. Wouldn't that rule out more possibility for them?

BLAIR: That might explain why I have so few clients.

BLAIR: When I say, and I say it in a little bit tongue in cheek, that the asshole approach. It's really, I go back, I think of it as the Rain Man approach where it's just you wouldn't... This autistic individual that Dustin Hoffman is playing in the movie the Rain Man, you wouldn't hold it against him. It's just because it's clear that there's just something about him that where he needs to say what's on his mind. Some people are just really able to do this. You and I were talking before we started recording but like how can some people do this? How can some people say exactly what they're thinking, deliver bad news, deliver an objection and have the client go, "Oh, okay."

Others just have it blow up in their face all the time and they're short... Maybe there's a couple of answers. One is, I don't want to say emotional intelligence but emotional awareness. Some people just aren't completely tuned into the emotions of the other person and therefore, the appropriate emotional package in which to deliver the information in that situation. We're all on a spectrum of being able to do that. It's not about how good a person you are or how moral or how intelligent, even emotionally intelligent. That's not fair. We just have different abilities to do that.

Most successful salespeople are able to read the emotions that way and just on their feet be able to package that up but what it really comes down to, if I had to say the answer to the question, how come some people can do this and others can't? It's the people who own it get away with it. They just own it. They say it like it's no big deal and the emotions are completely stripped out of it. Back to the core point, you're able to strip the emotions out is if you say what you're thinking almost as soon as you think it. You just need a small pause to think about what's the best way to frame this, but don't think on it so long that doubt starts to build up or you lose your momentum. You start to get stressed by it.

DAVID: I wonder if there's something subconscious happening there. If you say something right away subconsciously, the other person knows you didn't take a lot of time to think about it.

BLAIR: Yeah, hence, the Rain Man approach. You're just a reaction. "Yeah, we don't that." And then you could say, if you offend somebody, say, "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say that out loud." You could just say, "I'm sorry, I hope you didn't take that the wrong way. I was just kind of thinking out loud. I'm running a little low on sleep but we don't typically respond to RFPs or work with clients under this budget or work the way that you blah-blah-blah or hire client's brothers-in-law, et cetera. That's the other thing about failing when you're... Whatever it is that you're doing in a sales conversation, you almost always have the right to stop, back up and try again. If you deliver an objection, you reserve the right to remove it. If you say no, you reserve the right to remove it.

If you do something incorrectly and offend the client, it's a fantastic thing to be able to call afterwards and say, "You know what? I would love to have that interaction over again. I can't believe I just like blurted out what was on my mind. It was on my mind and I think it was fair to say it but it was completely inappropriate the way I shared it with you. I'm really sorry about that. Can we have that moment over again? Can we try again?"

DAVID: Wow, that's very powerful. If you have that after every phone call, then they're probably going to suspect that it's so well-rehearsed. That's really, really powerful. That's interesting. Let me get to the third one you have here. The first one was about three plus one, three stars and a wish. Second one was the sandwich thing where you're sandwiching one of the tougher comments between two things. The third you're calling the policy trump card. Talk about that.

BLAIR: Yeah, when we in the creative professions in a sale, we find ourselves negotiating with a client whether it's kind of the hardcore final negotiations or just the regular to and fro-ing earlier on, maybe early to middle part of the sale cycle, we often find ourselves in a situation where we are responding to client's policies. Clients are bringing up the issue of policy especially if you're dealing with procurement and we never or almost never work from a position of policy. Rule of thumb is in a negotiation, your client's policy will trump your preferences and inclinations every time.

You would say, "Well, we really prefer to work this way or I'd like this to be the next step. I'd like to have a meeting with all of the folks on your decision-making team," and they could come up with the policy and say, "No, our policy is a matter of these tender processes or RFP processes. We don't allow the vendors to speak to the economic buyer or the decision maker." In that situation, you've said, "I'd like to do this," and the client responds with policy. Well, everybody knows who wins. Policy trumps preferences and inclinations all the time.

You simply match policy with policy or use a policy where a client is using a request, a preference or an inclination. What's really interesting is, I think I've talked in the previous podcast about this before. The first time I knew I was going to deal with an objection from the client, so I created a policy in advance and actually typed it up in a piece of paper and pulled out the paper and the objection just melted away. I thought, "Wow, is it really that easy?" It turns out it really often, in many situations, it really is that easy. People respect policies even if... If you say, "Well, it's our policy that we don't respond to RFPs," or, "It's our policy that we're not going to invest in a sale or an opportunity before we can meet with the key decision makers."

If you say, "It's our policy," and then you stop right there, now, your client has to deal with policy. Now, if they don't care that you're involved or rejected because of it, you're about to learn that. But if they have some interest in you being involved in the next step of the process, then it's incumbent on them to find the way to deal with your policy. Now, they might match a policy against your policy and now, you're stonewalled. Now, human beings need to step in and figure something out, but you will find that before you deliver your objection, if we go back to the RFP, if you say, and I don't suggest you use the policy approach with RFPs. I think you're better off leaving a crack open.

If you said, "It's our policy we don't respond to RFPs." Now, the ball is in the client's court and they couldn't turn around and walk away and say, "Well, see you later." Again, you reserve the right to say, "Well, hold on a second, from time to time, I'm able to make some things happen on our end. But the point is if you want to lead with a strong position when you're saying what you're thinking about the ridiculous things that the client is proposing that you do, policy trump card works great.

A policy is just, if you look it up, a policy is merely a predetermined decision. If I work with lots of solo practitioners, freelancers who have said, "Well, I can't use policy because the business is just me. They'll just-

DAVID: I'm the one who sets the policy, right?

BLAIR: They'll just say, "Well, you set the policy, can't you change it?" Nobody ever does. Now, of course, I'm going to get reports of people do but in my experience, I have never encountered that. Everybody respects a policy, and everybody understands and largely respects that when a solopreneur says, "It's my policy," there's some thought and determination behind these decisions, and so they are largely respected.

DAVID: That's what the pre-set thing means. I work by myself so I face this frequently and if I'm not sure if I'm getting through in the right way, I'll very often send folks several links. One of them will be the policy, frequently asked questions I call it and ask them to look them over and then I say, "Once you've looked over these three things," and they're very dependent on what we're talking about doing together, "then, shoot me a note and let's get on the phone and talk," because I found it very interesting. But I did wonder about that, well, like how can you say it's our policy when there's no "our", it's just me. That's interesting. It's doesn't come up anyway.

BLAIR: I have a policy that I have invoked for over 10 years and I stole it from you. I heard you or saw in writing you deliver it. You said you're invited to speak somewhere on a panel and you said, "It's my policy. I don't do panels. I heard that and I thought, "Oh, my god, I am so stealing that," because I hate being on panels. Because I have a contrarian point of view on selling and I don't want to be the entertainment who's up there creating conflict for the benefit of the audience, like disagreeing with all of the other people on the panel. I've used it repeatedly, "Yeah, it's my policy I don't do panels," and in many situations, that's turned into a better quality speaking engagement. Nobody has ever pushed back on it.

DAVID: Wow, that's interesting. Now, my reason for the policy is different and that's because I'm usually so much more interesting than the other people on the panel, it's embarrassing for them on the stage. Yeah, just to say [crosstalk 00:27:45]

BLAIR: If this is the first podcast that you [inaudible 00:27:49] they're never coming back.

DAVID: You're doing training programs now for principals in sales and business development staff and there's a lot of policies they can adapt. There's lots of insight they can think about, incorporate and so on, but I've noticed as we've talked today that there's a lot of modeling going on, conversation modeling. How do you address that with your client? Because it seems to me like just having the insight that you're delivering through different medium is great but if it doesn't, are they asking for... I'll bet you they're hearing you sometimes and saying, "Man, the way you just said that," like are they interested in the modeling and how do you address that?

BLAIR: Yeah, that's a great question and it's a timely one. It's so timely, it's like I planned to get with you but we-

DAVID: But you didn't.

BLAIR: Yeah. No, I-

DAVID: It's my policy not to accept [crosstalk 00:28:51] of questions.

BLAIR: We do a fair amount of role playing in the classroom so that the training program is all distant space and there's two-hour classes that are led by our wonderful coaches. There's a lot of those conversations are role played in the classroom and you can do their way of self-directive versions where you don't have the access to those classrooms and obviously, it's a lot cheaper but that's one of the things you're passing up on. That's point #1.

Point #2 is I recently had to write a post in our forum for all of our program participants and it was titled something like You Be You, Don't Be Me, because recently, I've encountered a situation and I've seen it over the years where people try to channel me. They'll listen to what I do and they'll try to deliver it the same way I delivered and it doesn't work. People hang up on them. They're called an asshole by their clients. My clients come back and say, "Well, that didn't work. That blew up." Sometimes, it's the most innocuous things that will have people blow up.

The point that I was trying to make in this blog post is I'm a little bit... Again, I have low affiliation and so I have a low need to be liked and I have high power needs. I have high need to be seen as the expert, need for authority and respect. I'm a little bit of a hard ass. I'll err on the side of being willing to... I never want to offend somebody but I'm willing to go closed in line as I've already modeled for you. If I feel like I go over line, I'm pretty good at retreating and backing up and saying, "Hey, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you." I don't think I offend many people too often, but I do see from time to time certain types of clients of mine will try to channel me but it just doesn't work.

There's a great saying, I don't know who the author is, it's actually attributed to a bunch of different people but the definition of a diplomat is somebody who can tell you to go to hell and have you think you'll enjoy the journey. I tried that on, I think. I'm not that good of a diplomat but that's what I tend towards other people. If you're the opposite of me, if you have low power needs and high affiliation needs, it's important for people to like you, then you're more inclined or you should be looking at the three stars and a wish or the sandwich approach rather than the Rain Man approach or the more direct... This is now an explicit podcast, and the more direct asshole approach that I sometimes model.

It's a great question and certain types of people get into trouble with that all the time and it took me years to realize that it was going on.

DAVID: We've been talking about how people need to really make this their own based on their personality and not just basically duplicate what they're hearing from somebody who might be different but it seems like a really advanced level of applying this stuff would be to, on the fly, be able to read and adjust your conversation style based on the prospect that you're talking to whether it's on the phone or in person or video or whatever it is. Still being yourself but understanding that they will interpret things a little bit differently, then somebody else might in understanding like how to avoid some of those triggers. It's simply unnecessary and will be confusing to the prospect because it will just throw up this net that isn't necessary. It would be really interesting to talk about that at some point.

BLAIR: Yeah, the muscle you want to build here is leaning into the dark places or like whenever you start to feel discomfort, ask yourself, "Okay, I'm feeling uncomfortable because the client just said something ridiculous, it's time to say what I think." That's the reflex that you want to build. Then, before you blurt it out, you want to take and then you want to think, "Okay, I need to get this out quickly. Let's just take a second or two and think about the best way to do this. I'm going to do three stars and a wish or whatever the approach is."

You need to be aware of, tuned in to how you're feeling, "Oh, this doesn't feel good what he just said. I just cringed even though I have a fake smile still plastered on my face. I need to lean into this." That's the muscle you need to build. Then, over time, once you learn to develop that reflex, then it's just a matter of practice of the different approaches that are more suitable to you. You got to take an approach that works for you. Don't try to channel me unless you think your personality is similar to mine.

DAVID: Well, this is great, Blair. Thank you so much and we look forward to next week's podcast.

BLAIR: Thank you, David. We'll talk to you then. Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to 2Bobs with David C. Baker and Blair Enns. Subscribe and learn more at That's the number two, B-O-B-S dot com.

Marcus dePaula