How to Befriend an Elephant

How to Befriend an Elephant

Conducting sales calls requires walking a thin tightrope between getting to know clients on a personal level, ingratiating them to yourself and your company, whilst also weaving in the core business offer that you’re trying to introduce. These two elements can feel like water and oil at times but an approach of one without the other is almost doomed to fail.

Initially one might expect that business decisions are all the result of cold, hard logic and appeals to reason but I think that’s less true than most companies would care to admit – even to themselves. Behind every decision is a person, or team of people, who simply aren’t capable of pure, disinterested logic. Putting on a nicely tailored jacket and some shiny shoes might make us feel smarter, more mentally sharp, more discerning with our business acumen, but in many ways we’re still little more than monkeys in suits. This sobering reality is a crucial realisation for anyone in sales (or dealing with people at all, for that matter). In truth, we are a torrent of emotion and instinct, fuelled by biological processes over which we have vanishingly little control, desperately wrangled by the moderator of our prefrontal cortex.

Jonathan Heidt, renowned psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, described this in a wonderful way in his books The Happiness Hypothesis (2006) and The Righteous Mind (2012). He uses the metaphor of the rider and the elephant. In brief, the rider sits atop the elephant and appears to be in control – he holds the reins, after all. The rider looks off into the distance and plots a course for the two to travel, seeing potential pitfalls ahead and planning a rational course of action. However, the rational rider is at the mercy of the sheer brute force of the elephant – our rider cannot impose its order without the consent of the elephant supporting it. The elephant is our impulsive, emotional, irrational side, the relic of our evolutionary past but the means by which we can support our rider. The lower regions of our brain control not just our emotions but our breathing and other autonomic processes, too, so we can hardly afford to lose it! Heidt uses this metaphor to outline the asymmetry of power inside our brains. Our logical rider can only guide the way if the elephant is willing. Put another way, logic is a luxury only afforded when our emotions allow it.

In the world of business, this has a very obvious impact. It’s beyond futile to appeal to your client’s rider if their elephant does not trust you.


Further Reading
A Six-Step Guide to Delivering Impactful Presentations:
delivering impactful presentations


Since I don’t get to meet face-to-face with the people I call (in my Business Development role), every interaction is begun with a handicap. The majority of human communication is nonverbal and most of the ways we assess trustworthiness and make judgements of character is through assessing these nonverbal cues. Indeed, a large portion of blame for the inflammatory nature of online debates can be laid at the feet of anonymous communication. We can even see this when dealing with loved ones, when a short, succinct text message can so easily be misinterpreted as aggressive.

Despite these disadvantages, how can we connect on a human level with potential clients? By using the most human instrument in our arsenal. The voice.

My training in the world of opera taught me many things but one of the more unexpected ones was that you can tell when someone is smiling through the sound of their voice. Often a tutor would tell their student in a performance class to express their song physically, though their face and their posture, all to effect a change on the quality of sound produced. The acoustics of the mouth and the effect of different facial expressions on it, while interesting, is perhaps too much to cover here. However, the main conclusion I would take from this training is simply to smile down the telephone like you would if you were face to face with the person on the line. Genuinely smile though, not force yourself to smile – a forced smile would have the opposite effect!

Approach each call like you’re trying to make a friend, to brighten somebody’s otherwise dull workday. It was surprising to me, how many people sounded relieved to have somebody to talk to who would patiently listen to them and do their best to improve whatever situation they and their company was in.

A mellifluence to the voice can be a helpful addition, too, as a more melodic cadence to one’s speech can often put others at ease. A very useful thing to employ when calling people unbidden but not something that can easily be taught in a blog post…

In brief, the rider is interested in the words you say, but the elephant is interested in how you say them and why. So, in order to have the business discussion with the rider, pay extra attention to that which the elephant can judge you on. A blind elephant is a distrustful one, so use your voice to win it over. The warmth of your tone and vocabulary, the happiness to hear how they are and the determination to be of help.

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