Outside-In Thinking

Robert Terson

My friend Jack Malcolm, who is a guest-post contributor to this site, recently asked me to review his new book Strategic Sales Presentations; I’ll be doing that after I finish reading Jack’s book. I always read the entire book before opening my mouth and proffering an overall opinion about the book. I’m not going to tell you about a book without reading it from cover to cover, although, at times, I may comment on a particular part of a book, as I’m doing today.

In Chapter 1—Four Recurring Themes In Strategic Sales Presentations—Jack uses the term “Outside-In Thinking.” I loved this spot-on theme so much that I thought it was worth a blog. What is “outside-in thinking”? As Jack says, “It’s not about you. It’s about your audience or listener.” This isn’t the first time you’ve heard about this theme; I’ve written about it myself. But I think Jack Malcolm explains it as well as I’ve ever heard before. So why don’t I just let Jack’s words speak for themselves—consider it a sneak peek of Jack’s opus:


It’s not about you—it’s about your audience or your listener.  Audience-focused communicators know that the quality of the reception is more important than the elegance of the transmission. They make the listeners the heroes of their stories, not themselves. They use outside-in thinking, which looks at the persuasion process from the point of view of the other person first. What do they know and not know? What are their needs? Why would they say yes or no to your idea? How do they like to receive information?

We’ve all heard the Alice in Wonderland quote to the effect that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. Yet knowing where you want to go is not always enough, and that’s where sales presentations tend to go wrong. After all, even a man lost in the woods knows where he wants to go. Any presentation, sale, or other persuasive effort aims to take the other person from Point A, where they are now, to Point B, where you want that person to end up. You can’t go anywhere without knowing both the start and end points.

It goes even further than that: You may want to get to Point B, but the customer wants to get to Point C. As a sales professional, you already know very well that ultimately the road to your own goals must go through your customer’s intended destination. People do things for their reasons, not yours.

Persuasion is not about getting people to see things your way; it’s about getting them to see your point in their way.

I learned about customer focus quite by accident. When I was a banker, I managed to get an appointment to see the CEO of a reasonably large local company to try to pitch him our banking services. I’m sure the only reason he gave me his time was because I worked for one of the larger banks, not because of any special skill that I had in C-level selling.

I walked into his imposing mahogany-lined office and introduced myself. We chatted for a short time, and then he got down to business. “So, tell me why I should bank with you.”

I’d dealt with this question many times before, but this time, I looked at him for a couple of seconds, and all that came out of my mouth was, “I don’t know.”

I’m not sure which one of us was more surprised by my answer. There was an uncomfortable silence for a few moments, and then in a tone that implied he was trying to figure out whether to get angry or laugh at me he asked, “You want me to bank with you but you can’t tell me why?”

Thinking fast, I said, “Well sir, I have a lot of customers who are very satisfied with the services we can provide. We help some of them grow their businesses with loans and credit lines; we help some with cash management services or investment advice. But until I know more about your business, I don’t know if you should bank with me. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

He said, “Interesting approach. Go ahead, ask me a few questions.”

I don’t remember exactly what I asked, but as the conversation went on his answers grew longer and soon he was telling me about how he founded the company and the pride he felt in what he had achieved. By the end of the meeting, he agreed to give us a small piece of his business, and he later became one of my largest and most important clients.

That’s the day that I learned the essence of selling. I realized for the first time that selling is not about who you are, or the products you sell, or the price you charge. These are all important, but selling is first of all about customers. It’s about understanding them and their needs first. It’s about asking before telling. It’s about having the humility to admit what you don’t know, and the ego to find out. It’s about realizing that while your customers may see you and your competitors as all alike, they always see themselves as unique.

There’s an old bit of sales wisdom that says: “Leave the product in the car.” That is excellent advice for presentations. For many salespeople, their favorite topic is their product—or their company. How many sales presentations begin with slides that tell your corporate “story,” for example?

I call this approach outside-in thinking. We naturally look at the world from the inside out. We have our own thoughts, desires, needs, and aspirations, and we look at the world—and at others—and try to figure out how we can get what we want through them. What may feel unnatural, but is far more effective in the long run, is to begin by seeing the world through their eyes first, and then work backward to figure out how they can get what they want through us.

Of course, there’s nothing new about this idea. On a business level, the most eloquent exponent of the idea is Peter Drucker, who said:

It is the customer who determines what a business is. For it is the customer, and he alone, who through being willing to pay for a good or a service, converts economic resources into wealth, things into goods. What the business thinks it produces is not of first importance—especially not to the future of the business and its success. What a customer thinks he is buying, what he considers “value,” is decisive—it determines what a business is, what it produces and whether it will prosper.

It’s also embodied in the works of these sales-minded authors: Tony Alessandra, who made a slight alteration of the Golden Rule to state his Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they want done to them”; Stephen Covey, who tells us: “Seek first to understand and then to be understood”; and Fisher and Ury, who encapsulate the idea in their “win-win” approach to negotiating.

Inside-out thinking, by contrast, is characterized by outputs instead of outcomes—pushing things out the door to unwilling and unreceptive audiences. In the old Soviet Union, the economy was run by five-year plans handed down by a central planning office, which led to some strange decisions at the local level as factories did what they could to meet their targets. There’s a story told of a shoe factory that constantly exceeded its production targets—by producing only left shoes of one size! You  have probably attended enough presentations that seem to have been produced under the same principle, where efficiency of production is more important than whether the message fits the audience.

Show the audience you care about them, and they will reciprocate that regard. Do you want people to listen to you and be interested in what you have to say? Then begin by listening to them and being interested in what they have to say. Do you want to influence them? Be open to being influenced yourself. Abraham Lincoln once said that when preparing a speech he would devote two-thirds of his time to thinking about what the audience wanted to hear and one-third to what he wanted to say.

In her book Resonate, Nancy Duarte quotes Ken Haemer, who says, “Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like addressing a love letter ‘To whom it may concern.’” To ensure a strong customer focus, filter your presentation through the simple two-word question that is uppermost in your listeners’ minds when you speak:

So what?

I refer to this important customer focus filter as the so-what test.

There you have it. Now, the question is, What are you going to do with it?