Developing the Lead

....in which we remind ourselves to see for the forest while we're cataloging the trees. Sunday morning lead sentence in an on-line New York Times article: "COLUMBIA, S.C. - Senator Barack Obama won a commanding victory over Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the South Carolina Democratic primary on Saturday, drawing a wide majority of black support and one-quarter of white voters in a contest that sets the stage for a multistate fight for the party's presidential nomination."

Without reading another paragraph in the story, you have the general picture, from the Times’ point of view: It’ll take a while to settle, Obama and Clinton will be the only serious Democrat candidates, and race will be an issue.

That’s the lead, the central message of the full story that answers the “Five Ws” – who, what, when, where, and why.

Got me thinking: How is writing a newspaper article like managing a sales call?

Well, one common element is interviews. Preparing ahead of time, so we know something about the people we’re interviewing. Organizing our questions. Asking the Five W’s questions to draw out facts and opinions. Summarizing and confirming. Common to both sales and journalism.

But there’s a difference. While journalists will sometimes invest half or more of their story development time writing the article lead sentence, we sales people (generally) don’t. If our managers ask us, “What’s going on with Lewis Industries?” we’re like to regurgitate the facts or the needs we heard – they’re building a new distribution center, they’re hiring 20 more people, they’re expanding their product line, they’re buying 2 new trucks – and a pre-pipeline announcement like, “so we can sell them this, this, this, this, and this.”

And that could all be true. And it’s not necessarily “the lead.”

Suppose the “lead” in this case sounded like the following: “Gerald Lewis, the raspy breathed, 88-year old patriarch of Lewis Industries, today announced distribution expansion into two additional states to provide only-child son, Chip, one last chance to make something of himself and continue the family business.”

Proposing products to “meet Lewis Industries’ needs” would help Gerald finance expansion or reduce costs or whatever, and it’s Chip’s ability to sustain the family business he’s really worried about.

So, if you’re a sales rep calling on Lewis, this lead says, “You can win big if you’re able to help Chip make this deal work.”

Too often, we are so enthusiastically focused on “finding needs” and “proposing solutions” based on what our prospects and clients tell us that we don’t invest the time that a journalist would take to think about what we’re hearing and “develop the lead” that sums up the most important points in a situation. When we don’t do this, we run the risk that we get the details right but miss the “main point” that would convince our prospects and customers that we really heard them and understood them.

So, when as we finish sales calls this week, a few minutes of our time for “developing the lead,” the one sentence encapsulation of the most important, organizing points of each client’s or prospect’s story.

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