For Impact


Using Brain Science to Engage Prospects

Funding | | Nick Fellers

Humans seek order. In a very primitive sense, we’ve evolved to recognize faces (the ‘whole’) over features (the ‘parts’). In a cognitive sense, we learn new things by associating them with existing concepts in our brain… so all communication and learning is a mapping exercise inside our brains.

Gestalt theory emerges from these scientific underpinnings.

Think about a time when someone explained something new to you. In particular, think about a time when this explanation was coming from a subject matter expert — a real geek! Think about what it was like to catch — and comprehend — all the jargon coming at you! You likely felt overwhelmed. You likely missed concepts because you were devoting mental resources to sorting out one or two ideas in particular.

This is gestalt in action: Gestalt explains that feeling of WORKING to understand the other person. You were working to create order in YOUR mind.

Let’s contrast this with the presenter’s perspective. Everything is in perfect order for the speaker! She is explaining the concept as it makes sense in her head.

Great sales and effective 1:1 communication begins with the ‘order’ (or mental skeleton) as it ALREADY exists in the prospect’s head!

Instead of presenting your ‘frame,’ or concept, start by asking questions. Then, build your presentation on the prospect’s EXISTING mental skeleton. This has several effects:

  • It increases the amount of information EFFECTIVELY communicated. EVERY PIECE of information coming in has a category, or a place, in the prospect’s mind. Rather than making the prospect ‘work for order.’
  • Drawing on more neuroscience, it actually bypasses the fight-or-flight region of the brain. Think about your first impulse when a department store representative walks up to ask, “Can I help you?” For most people, our most immediate impulse is defensive!We can bypass the fight-or-flight (defensive) center when we are continually responding to a prospect’s concept.
  • You use words that make sense! This other mode of engagement requires us to LISTEN. Not only are we building on the prospect’s mental skeleton, but he is also sharing with us the key WORDS (concepts) that resonate.

In our boot camps, we do an exercise to illustrate gestalt and these learning points. We ask attendees to find a partner and — in two minutes’ time — communicate ONLY what is needed for the prospect to understand the organization in such a way that it could be communicated to someone else.

Most people are pressured by the ‘two-minute’ constraint. They start puking information. You can watch the room and see the prospects’ eyes glaze over. Prospects are overwhelmed with the information coming at them.

We then ask each partner to start over. In the second instance, we instruct the sales person to start the two minutes with an open-ended question… and then to follow-up with at least five more questions during the two minutes.

The exercise is used to show that you can actually communicate MORE by asking questions, and then responding…. by building your message on top of the prospect’s EXISTING mental skeleton.

Here is the example I use to illustrate this point. I communicate what it is that we do at The Suddes Group/For Impact.

(You have an advantage in READING these words. Imagine LISTENING to them.)

Scenario 1: The Suddes Group provides fundraising help. Unlike a lot of consultants, we also focus on organizational development and team development. We focus on the storytelling, the team, AND the funding implementation. We’ll do whatever it takes to help you move the ideas into funding. Often, this means we go on visits WITH you. We have a sales process, a funding road map, and a relationship-based funding model….

Twenty seconds into my ‘spiel’, I’ve lost the room.

Scenario 2: (I pick ONE person — Lisa — and engage in a dialogue.)
Me: Lisa, what is your greatest funding challenge?
Lisa: Trying to figure out what to say to get people to give the money.
Me: Is it that you don’t know HOW to ask? Or that you don’t have a succinct message for the organization?
Lisa: I think we’re pretty succinct in our message. In fact, we’re GREAT storytellers. And, I think we have prospects, we just don’t seem to be able to convert any of them to big gifts.
Me: Do you feel like you have a reliable process to follow?
Lisa: Actually… no… maybe that’s it. Now that you ask the question, there are practices we probably don’t know about to make the ask easier. And then I would say we lack the confidence to ask.
Me (communicating WHAT we do in response form). Lisa, this is what we do. We help teams with those two obstacles. We help them figure out what to say, and how to ask, AND we help them build a process so that they can do this again and again.

The goal of the exercise is to communicate what you do in a way that the other person could communicate with others. In the first scenario, I was forcing the prospect to mentally categorize all sorts of new concepts – most of which weren’t interesting or relevant to the prospect. In the second scenario, we were successful by building questions and then building relevant associations for the prospect.

In 1:1 engagements, you can COMMUNICATE more effectively by asking questions, and then by RESPONDING with relevant concepts.