If I had to do college all over again, there's little doubt in my mind that I would abandon pursuing an English degree in favor of Psychology. The older I get, the more I'm fascinated by what makes people and groups tick. Being a writer, it's no surprise that I find the psychology of communication, especially through writing, most fascinating of all.
I read recently that emoticons tend to be used more by women than men. See, this bugs me, as I happen to enjoy a good emoticon every now and then. Not tons. I don't spray them around like exclamation points at a teen shopping adventure. Just a few to be friendly.
So imagine my sense of relief upon finding that emoticons can help during online negotiation processes. That's right. The smiley may yield an actual beneficial business result. Take that, ya misogynistic emoji haters.
However, since my online source for this tidbit seemed less than reliable, I went digging. Apparently, the root research that spawned this revelation had more to do with general communication than emoticons in specific. In particular, the research focused on mimicry during negotiation, both in person and via text. That's the emoticon tie-in: If the person on the other end uses emoticons, you'll do better by using emoticons in a similar fashion.
You can read the paper for yourself: "Early words that work: When and how virtual linguistic mimicry facilitates negotiation outcomes." The idea boils down to the fact that if you copy the mannerisms of the other person in the first ten minutes of a negotiation, they'll tend to like you more and you'll end up with a better negotiation outcome than you would have otherwise, including if you started mimicking in the last ten minutes. The researchers state, "Our results suggest that – even when cloaked behind the anonymity of a computer screen – strategically mimicking a counterpart's language early in a negotiation can be a powerful way to facilitate the negotiation process."
Note that the point is not to be a mirror or to parrot. If you blatantly copy people, you're just going to annoy them. This is about subtly relating to people and "speaking their language," even if that means body language. It's a valuable skill to be aware of if you're a heavy email communicator and another good reason to listen to others before opening your mouth -- or setting fingers to keyboard. ;-)
"You never get the order unless you ask for it."
From the time I was old enough to understand what making a sale meant, my Granddad drilled this phrase into my head. Usually, I dismissed his efforts to induct me into the stressful world of sales. That was for insurance salesmen like him and my dad. It didn't apply to me. I was going to become a writer.
Which I did...only to discover that writers are salespeople, too. Just about everyone is. If you create or provide something that other people want or need, you're a salesperson. Writing, hot dogs, door knobs, tax preparation, house cleaning, teaching -- it all gets sold.
After countless family dinners spent in arduous boredom, left out of conversations about accounts, chargebacks, renewals, and endless political intrigues in which my parents were inevitably the tragic victims, I grew up with a deep-seated resentment of selling. Selling meant stress. Selling meant cajoling people into buying things they don't want. Not surprisingly, when I went on to run a computer parts distributorship in my early twenties, I failed miserably. The job involved lots of selling, and, by God, I wasn't going to be a salesman.
It would take another two decades for me to realize that, in one way or another, everyone is a salesperson, and selling isn't bad. It's not what I thought it was. As with anything else, there are right and wrong ways to sell. Done right, the process is about helping people and providing them with more total value than the amount of money they give out in exchange. I don't mean things like when Office-a-Palooza offers to sell you a $29.95 extended warranty for an $89.95 inkjet printer. That's just taking advantage of people's ignorance and fears. I mean things like providing a great story to someone in ebook form, something that will entertain them for five, ten, maybe twenty hours, for only $4.99. That's amazing value. That's worth selling -- and buying.
Viewed in this way, selling isn't a bad thing. It's good, maybe even noble.
Only lately in my career as a freelance technology writer did I discover the value that my talents could offer to some companies. People told me for years why they liked my writing, but I didn't get it. Honestly, I thought any monkey could do what I did, and, when it came to benchmark-heavy hardware reviews or the like, that was more the case. You don't need a lot of talent or insight to operate a stopwatch and plug numbers into a spreadsheet. Which product is best? Well, that one, obviously.
However, I've been doing my day job for long enough (almost 18 years now) that I've learned a few things and gained a little perspective. Combined with a passable ability to translate Geek into English, I realized that I have a fair bit of value to offer commercial clients. Some companies are willing to pay for this value. I use the word "value" here instead of "expertise" or "talent" because I believe that, if I do my job right, they will get more in return through my work than the dollar amount I put on my invoice. It's a good deal for both parties, and, for the first time in my professional life, I understand that.
I'm not a monkey. I'm not a swindler. I'm just trying to do my best to help people, deliver real value, and make a living in the process. This is true of all of my writing work, commercial and fiction.
I wonder how many people are at or near my stage of life and haven't figured out their value proposition yet. It's debilitating, all of that self-doubt and aimlessness. You have to know your value proposition, because then...it's OK to ask.
Last week, I had a client renewing my contract for the upcoming quarter. They gently tried to nudge me to the bottom of my price range. I almost caved out of habit, nearly giving in to that old fear that it's better to have some work than risk having no work at all.
Then I looked at my schedule spreadsheet. No. I was going to be fine next month and probably the month after that. I could breathe. More than that, I knew my value, and I knew what it was worth. I countered with a number 50% higher than they'd offered. Two days later, they agreed.
This morning, I got final sign-off on a white paper I wrote for a different client, a new one I'd never worked with before. I was finishing the obligatory "thanks, glad you're happy, umm...bye-bye" email that would conclude the job. But before I typed my name, I heard my Granddad in the back of my head saying, "You never get the order unless you ask for it." It was kind of surreal, almost like Obi-Wan telling Luke to use the Force.
Before my name, I typed something I'd never written at the end of one of these messages: "So...what's next?"
Thirty minutes later, he sent me an invitation for tomorrow to discuss more jobs.
As parents, we're never really sure how to get through to our kids. My Granddad left out a couple of key tidbits in his message. Yes, you never get the order unless you ask for it -- that stands above all else. But when you ask for it, you have to know your value. You have to understand it and believe it, because once you know that, it will be obvious to everyone. You won't have to convince people to say yes. They'll be happy to say yes, because they know they're going to get the better end of a mutually beneficial deal.
Have you figured out your value yet? It's the foundation you stand on when you lift those around you to a slightly higher place.
In my teens and early twenties, I would go with the men in my family to hunt mule deer in the hills outside of Prineville, Oregon. In all the years I carried a gun, I only took my safety off twice. Mind you, this is after growing up listening to endless camp stories about supposedly mature men getting drunk off their asses, prancing through bonfires, having their hands duct taped to tent poles, and having their sweat freeze to the rocks under them as they sat waiting, usually hung over, on their hunting stands before sunrise.
In nearly a decade of carrying a gun, I only took my safety off twice, and I never fired. I got what they call “buck fever.” My hands would shake. I couldn't control my breathing. I never trusted myself to make a clean shot that wouldn't torture the majestic animal afterward. Every time I would lower the gun, I found myself wishing I was shooting a camera instead. (I was something of an amateur photographer in my high school years – another on the short list of pursuits I'd like to pick back up “someday.”)
Time passed. The area where my family had hunted for two decades, a place where the group would often bring back several deer per year, was only yielding one every two or three years. It was rugged, dusty, buzzing, achingly peaceful land, and I spent countless hours there playing cribbage with my Dad and Granddad, having my first illegal drinks, and hiking around the hills. I remember a little place named Shepherd's Pond, a small spring only five or six feet around and always covered in water cress. The place was always thick with the circular depressions made in the grass from deer bedding down, although I never saw a deer there. Finally, the Bureau of Land Management declared the hills off-limits and logged it all off. For me, they might as well have dropped a nuclear warhead right on the Lunch Tree, the lone juniper that stood in the center of the Big Saddle where we would meet for lunch when the day's hunt was over. I've never seen those hills since.
Last summer, in the middle of one of the busiest business months I've ever had, my family took a week to camp at the Prineville Reservoir state campground. On the last day, knowing it would make me tired for the afternoon and evening, I woke up half an hour per sunrise, just so I could once again see the sun come up, gold breaking through blue-gray, on these craggy hillsides. I'd even scoped out the table I'd wanted to write at over the prior couple of days. It's next to the fishing platform overlooking the water.
I had set my alarm for a few minutes before sunrise but actually woke up twenty minutes before that. For important things, your body knows. I crawled out of bed, got dressed, grabbed my notebook, and walked the path down to my selected spot. The sky was already gray brightening toward pale blue. Nobody was walking their dog yet. No kids were clamoring for breakfast. No boat motors obscured the occasional screaming caws of the pre-dawn crows. It was about 50 degrees on an August morning. Not quite stick-to-your-rock weather, but still brisk enough to warrant three layers and a pulled-up hoodie.
When I reached my table, I found a doe and her two fawns grazing there, silhouetted against the lake behind them. I snapped a few pictures with my phone. It was as if they were posing for me. “Would you like us here, between the trees? Heads up or heads down?” When I moved, they moved. So long as I kept a respectful distance, they were happy to allow me my contentment.
I smiled all throughout my picture snapping. It was as if the hills had waited 25 years to grant my wish. All I had to do was rise early and be still.
Moments like these require some luck, but, of course, luck happens where you make it. When your wish is quiet and noble and you let it come to you like a silent deer against the brightening horizon, every once in a while, the universe will throw you a bone.
William has been working in the tech field since 1991, when he began his long journey through working for a manufacturer's rep, being a distributor, moving into retail and corporate sales, shifting into journalism, and gradually transitioning into content marketing. In 1997, he sold his first articles to local computer magazines. By 1998, he was a full-time tech freelancer and now produces content for several of the industry's top companies.