How to Improve Sales Skills With a Lesson From President Lincoln

25 Sep 13

Lincoln was a highly skilled politician, and his legacy lives on today. Learn how his speeches are great lessons for how to improve sales skills.

After reading “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion,” by Guelzo, I learned the answer to one of American history’s great trivia questions - Who was Edward Everett? He was the featured speaker at the dedication ceremony of the Gettysburg National Cemetery on November 19, 1863, four months after the Battle of Gettysburg, where he spoke for over two hours. Immediately after he completed his speech, President Abraham Lincoln, rose and delivered his two and half minute Gettysburg Address, perhaps the most famous speech in American history.

There will no doubt be four scores of other books and articles analyzing the major themes of the speech, its structure, and historical significance. But the Gettysburg Address is not just for history buffs, sales professionals can also gain insights on key selling skills from Lincoln. Lincoln was a master politician and highly skilled at influencing people.  So it should come as no surprise that some of the skills that he used to influence people in 1863 can improve your selling skills today? What can we learn from Lincoln?


Plan Each Call

Abraham Lincoln once said, “When I get ready to talk to people, I spend two-thirds of the time thinking what they want to hear and one third thinking about what I want to say.” He had been developing the ideas for this address over the course of many months. Once he knew what he wanted to say, Lincoln spent a considerable amount of time carefully crafting his speech. There are at least five known drafts of his Gettysburg Address and he was still rewriting parts of the short speech the day the speech was delivered.  The lesson we can learn from Lincoln is: Plan each call.

How much pre-call planning are your sales professionals doing? Are they spending two-thirds of their call planning thinking about customer needs? If not, here is a list of key issues your sales professionals should research prior to going on a sales call or making a sales presentation:

  • What is the role/responsibility of the person they are about to meet?
  • What are that person’s objectives?
  • How does he or she measure success?
  • What are the competitive threats or industry trends?
  • What are the key business initiatives?
  • What are the specific internal organizational challenges/issues? 

Focus on the Customer: What’s In It for Me (WIIFM)

One peculiar feature of the Gettysburg Address is that Lincoln doesn’t devote much time to the actual battle of Gettysburg. According to Guelzo, while Lincoln let Everett review the war and the battle of Gettysburg – facts the audience already knew – Lincoln wanted to look for the meaning of the battle in the larger historical scheme of things. In other words, Lincoln was trying to help the audience understand what, after all of the bloodshed, would be the lasting impact of the Civil War.

How do we have an impact on our customers? Any successful sales conversation must ultimately focus on the concerns of the customer, their WIIFM. This is where the genius of Lincoln becomes clear as he makes Gettysburg meaningful to his audience. 

Lincoln of course pays tribute to the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.” He then pivots the focus of his speech to the audience, “It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here, have, thus far, so nobly advanced.” Lincoln finally explains that this unfinished work means to ensure the survival of America's representative democracy, a new birth of freedom, and that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

In just a few short sentences Lincoln clearly explains to the audience (and the nation) in simple language what Gettysburg and the Civil War means to them.

For sales professionals today this is a great reminder to keep the sales conversation relentlessly focused on the customer’s needs and concerns.


Finally, Keep it Short!

This is obvious: as long as you are making your points, keep your presentations short. Lincoln said that he would keep his remarks “short, short, short” and he certainly delivered on that promise. Everett’s speech was over 13,000 words, while Lincoln’s carefully crafted address was a mere 270 words. In just barely two and a half minutes, Lincoln was able to reiterate the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence and proclaim the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union, as well as redefining the war as a struggle for democracy and self-government.

Even Everett was impressed by the brevity of Lincoln’s speech and wrote to Lincoln noting "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” 

No one is expecting your next sales presentation to rise to the lofty heights of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but next time you are preparing to speak with a customer remember some of the techniques that Lincoln used: Plan, Focus on the Customer and Keep it Short.

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