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#72 The Magical Power of Closing Your Mouth
Waiting backstage, my heart is pounding out of my chest. In 30 seconds, I’ll be in front of our entire company unveiling a new product strategy. This is the first time most employees will hear my vision for the product. I’ll only get one chance to earn their trust. A booming voice introduces me over the loudspeaker - music thumping, and I think to myself, ‘Don’t mess this up.’
Selling has a dirty reputation, conjuring up an image of a plaid suited salesman pushing the extended warranty. No one wants to be “sold”, yet we have all had great sales experiences. It’s just that we don't usually call these positive moments “sales” - we have different words for them. Learning about a product from a friend is a recommendation, not sales. Being moved to action by a celebrity endorsement is advertising, not sales. We soften the terms, but the result is the same — a migration in our point of view.
“Whether we’re employees pitching colleagues on a new idea, entrepreneurs enticing funders to invest, or parents and teachers cajoling children to study, we spend our days trying to move others. Like it or not, we're all in sales now.”
— Dan Pink
As a product manager, you are a salesperson. It doesn't matter if you're the Chief Product Officer or the newly minted intern; the product role is by nature one of influence. Entrepreneurs know, the greatest idea without execution isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. As the owner of your product or feature, you live or die through influence. No one reaches their potential alone and your product’s success depends on your ability to overcome the universal obstacle to behavior modification — inertia. Inertia means you have to do something if you want to change something.
“Nothing happens until something moves.”
― Albert Einstein
Sales is the art of influence, but to influence, you have to be influenceable. This is the difference between good and bad salespeople. A microcosm of this difference can be experienced through the classic salesperson interview question of ‘sell me this pen’, popularized in the film The Wolf of Wall Street. In a Piers Morgan interview, Jordan Belfort, the real Wolf of Wall Street, answers this question and in the process provides a masterclass in sales. You really should watch it. It’s only 98 seconds. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
“When you sell someone something, you need to be asking questions first.”
He begins with the assumption that he doesn’t have enough information. It’s not what you’d expect if you’ve bought into the caricature of a stereotypical salesperson. He knows that it’s not about what he knows. Instead, he’s open, curious, in a word, interested. The approach draws us in, it touches something in our humanity - he wants to hear from us! What a feeling to be heard.
It’s less obvious, but he’s also vulnerable; he might not have anything to offer. Whoa - to not be useful? What would our boss think if they saw that? If we didn’t have all the answers? If we didn’t win everyone over with our brilliance? Jordan is ok with that. His quiet confidence calms our fears - he knows he has value even if he might not in this particular moment. He’s ok moving on to a place where his contribution will be appreciated. No ego about it. 
If you are in a leadership position, it’s far too easy to fall into bad salesperson mode. Imagine starting each meeting with questions — assuming you don’t have the answers at the ready. Instead, we don’t pause to question our conviction of rightness; we blather on without a moment’s hesitation. We’ve internalized our own place in the hierarchy, thinking by virtue of title that we have enough information to make the call. The trap of poor leadership is the same as the trap of bad salespeople.
Listening is not just about the surface information you collect - the real power is a subtle message that the most important thing in your life, at this moment, is this other person or this team. Not what they can do for you, and certainly not what you can cajole them to do, but who they are. What they are facing. What they are feeling.
I worked for a few years leading a team of about a hundred folks. I spent the first few months having one on one meeting with every single person on the team - not just my direct reports - everyone. When I moved on to a new job, several people reached out. Not to pat me on the back for some long-forgotten accomplishment or tease me about my many failures, but to recall those early discussions. To point out that the simple act of asking their opinion mattered to them. Sometimes it really isn’t all that complicated.
Just listen. No agenda. No motive other than understanding. You’ll be amazed at what you learn, and how people respond - after all, we already know what we know.
Embrace the magical power of closing your mouth, and just listen.
 There’s a great moment in a Miracle on 34th Street where a department store Santa promises a child a toy that Macy’s doesn't have in stock. The mother, exasperated and set on giving Santa a piece of her mind for putting her in a bind, is surprised when the Santa refers her to a store with the toy in stock. In a moment of disbelief, she becomes an ardent fan of Macy’s. Ut wasn’t about the toy. They put her first.