Conversational Hacks: “No Blocking”

A few years ago I took an improv comedy class at ACME in Hollywood. It was fun, but didn’t end well for me. The teacher kept accusing me of being a stand up comic. Apparently that’s an insult. Improv and stand-ups got beef.

The first thing you learn in improv is “No Blocking.” This means you can’t contradict what anyone says in a scene. If someone says, “There’s a purple alligator on the floor!” and you say, “What are you talking about? I don’t see anything.” rhythm is lost and the entire scene collapses. To maintain the flow you have to say something like, “Yeah, and it looks like it wants a donut!” The scene smoothly rolls along. This is also why improv comedy isn’t funny.

No Blocking isn’t just useful for improv. It works in real conversations. Especially if you are an engineer trying to raise money. A skilled engineer is a master of saying “no.” Say “no” enough and you’ll whittle an idea down to the core functionality that can be polished and perfected.*

This why investors and engineers don’t get along–engineers are generally too practical. They lack the ability to power up the reality distortion field essential for raising a round. This is where the principle of No Blocking comes in handy.

Let’s say a cokehead asks if your software can be used with some esoteric piece of hardware one of his portfolio companies is producing. You know this is a complete waste of time and a distraction to your core business. Also, there are loads of technical issues that would make such an endeavour impossible. However, this extremely rich person can write you a huge check.

You may be tempted to explain why it can’t be done, as you would when planning a schedule or product roadmap. Perhaps you think the investor would appreciate your candor and intelligent analysis in an effort to save him from wasting millions of dollars on a futile task. Not so.

As we’ve discussed before, this sort of “resistance” can sour the entire conversation and turn your investor cold. The most successful pitchers don’t block. They skillfully craft a “yes” and then use the art of conversational jujitsu to throw the conversation’s momentum back into pitching.

The most mesmerizing and successful pitchers I’ve ever encountered never acknowledge any disagreement. They relentlessly stay on message while still somehow making it appear as if you’ve been listened to. It’s almost as if they can disagree with you while leaving you feeling as if you are in agreement. This is a Jedi Mind Trick you might consider practicing at ACME.

* Of course, if you say “no” too much, you’re going to miss out on true innovation. Success belongs to those too stupid to know they can’t do something. You’ve got to learn when to let it go.

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