The Secret to Winning

Does it sometimes feel to you that the most deserving ideas get short shrift? Do you often sense that the least deserving proposals are the ones most held up for consideration? Even outside of the business world, it may often seem like there is some unknown formula driving success in life, in love, and in business. It can be frustrated to ask yourself again and again, "why did they choose that guy?" or "why is she getting all the attention?" What determines who comes out ahead? Yes, there are winners and losers in life, and decoding exactly why how that happens hinges on something I like to refer to as a transaction

Life Transactions

Business gurus and life consultants claim to have bottled the secret to success. They claim to hold the key to determining winners and losers in what I like to think of as life's transactions: 

Job Interviews
Sales Pitches
Investor Meetings
Job Fairs
First Dates
Political Speeches

You may think the word 'transaction' is too clinical. Fair enough. But consider - if you're interested in success, then you're a goal oriented person. If you're goal oriented, then events that result in a shift in your value, or perceived value, are transactions of a sort. We come out the other end of these exchanges with either a diminished or heightened sense of our own worth, and in subtler transactions, it's likely that this give and take is often taken for granted as to be almost imperceptible.

We make value judgments throughout our lives, from the time we're old enough to interact with others in a meaningful way, through work, then later on, when the tools we use become important as we try to really make our mark in the world, or at very least, give others a sense of what we stand for.

These aforementioned gurus and consultants, by selling us their solutions, are merely engaged in a transaction of their own by selling their ideas to us. Their success or failure depends entirely on how we respond to them, which means they're not above the fray at all. They participate in the very game they claim to have cracked open and exposed. Entire seminars rally around the notion that there are variables we can seize and shift to improve our success rates at all of these things. Sell your idea. Get rich. Find a perfect woman. Get hired. Get elected.

I believe in four core variables determining success. Two of them are relatively controllable and two of them are not. Therein lies the uncertainty to any social transaction. Therein also lies what the gurus and consulting firms will go out of their way to obscure or deny. Whether you're selling an ad campaign, a new product design, or simply the idea of you to another human being, others' receptivity to you may be predetermined by elements you can't control. This is a harsh truth that a lot of 'self made' types go out of their way to avoid talking about. They don't want you thinking for one second that you are helpless to change the outcome of a transaction, because you're paying them to tell you you're a pioneer of your own destiny.

The Four Variables to Success

Let's use the world of Advertising as a backdrop as we explore the four core variables determining success or failure. Imagine that two ad agencies - one of them yours - are competing to win the business of a very prominent, high profile multinational company. You and your competitor have arrived on this day, after weeks of deliberation and brainstorming and planning, to pitch your idea to the company's founders. Each agency believes it has the upper hand. So, who wins? What determines who will win?

1) Your core ideas.

How good is your idea? Did you have an 'a-ha' moment, or did you slowly and painfully evolve your tagline over several weeks? Make no mistake: the power of your idea matters, and can be controlled. This variable is up to you. Some people feel that your ideas alone, the raw data you submit during a transaction, is all that matters. It certainly matters, and it's also something you can improve upon over the course of a career.

It's true that some Creative Directors grow ideas by the seat of their pants, and other Creative Directors find their ideas by setting up conflict with their staff, then mining that conflict for gold. Others are naturally gifted at decoding clients' needs. How you get to those ideas isn't particularly important to the client. In terms of the transaction, only what you find you eventually find and bring to them is relevant. Can you control this variable? Yes. You improve with experience. You improve with your interactions with others.

2) Your delivery apparatus.

Some clients will go with the worse idea if it's presented better. That's the truth. Not only does a Creative Director have to choose the best ideas, she must also choose the best way to convey them. This is the banner on which your ideas are flown by way of your presentation toolkit: props, keynotes, presentations, lighting effects, etc. If you have multiple ideas, the decision about the order to approach the ideas is key. Have you prepared a focused, compelling deliberate narrative to supplement your core ideas? Does your equipment break down at a key moment? Are key players not present? All these are controllable variables, and like your ideas themselves, they can be improved over time and with experience.

These first two variables are what a true believer in the raw power of ideas might embrace as the only ones that matter. "If your idea is good, and you are prepared, then you should win on the power of those ideas."

Of course, this isn't true. It's never this simple, which brings us to the next two variables in determining winners and losers.

3) Your personality.

Let's face it, there are objective personality traits (as discussed above, in variable three) that are always going to be helpful. Confidence. Succinctness. Professionalism. Empathy. If your don't naturally possess these traits, you will have a rougher time. Certain personality types having a rougher time coming out the other end of a transaction on the winning end. It's not that they don't want it, or that they're innately undeserving, it's just that our society as a whole - and the business community in particular - is conditioned to respond to a specific set of traits.

A pitch is a performance, in every sense. You shouldn't - and usually can't - hide who you are during a pitch. When the stakes are high, we're more apt to use our natural gifts, and this includes our 'real selves.' Your attitude is a delivery system, much like variable two, but tougher to prepare for or control once you get going. Our unconscious traits are difficult to hide during a meeting. Are you naturally arrogant? Humble? Casual? How do you shake hands or sit? What clothes are you wearing? How strong is your handshake? Do you maintain eye contact with one person or do you moves your eyes around?

You might be able to stretch beyond your comfort zone if you're shy, or restrain yourself if you're naturally aggressive, but you'll likely carry your innate energy into the room with you. Chances are, your personality will 'happen' during a transaction, and it will directly affect the outcomeWho you are matters - it affects the way you convey information and affects your perceived preparedness and competence. It colors the very ideas you walk into the room with, and can even diminish those ideas if you're not careful.

4) Simple Chemistry

Even those who possess desirable personality traits - or people who are really good at faking those traits - may still run into another unforeseen problem. It's the most nebulous and elusive variable, and the least controllable. You might walk into your pitch with the best idea, the most advanced presentation, and the most advantageous personal qualities, but you'll still lose. How is this possible? How can this happen?

In a word: chemistry.

I refer to the chemistry between you and who you're pitching to. This fourth variable is determined by your personality, but unlike your personality, you can't fine tune chemistry during a single transaction. Variable four, by invoking the 'great unknown' (in other words, the mind of a client), becomes the least predictable and least controllable of them all.

Some clients are receptive to obnoxious swagger. Some clients hate too much explanation, even if your idea demands it. No matter your skill at fine tuning your personality traits, the person sitting across the table from you will to have a visceral, chemical reaction to what you're doing, and there is nothing you can do about it. Maybe it's the way you smell, or your pheromones, or a barely noticeable facial tick. Maybe every person on the planet, save the sole soul sitting across from you, might love you for it. Either way, if you don't have it (chemistry), your great idea may not matter. If you don't have chemistry, the abundant professionalism you bring may not matter. If the chemistry isn't there, your winning confidence may not even matter.

So...How Much Control Do We Really Have?

You may think I overstate the importance of intuition and chemistry over raw talent in determining success or failure. Aren't some people just better at what they do? Yes. Does someone merely need to be better at what they do in order to win, though? No, not always. It's simply not important - or possible - to predict the outcome of every transaction. It's not important for us to come up with a formula. The gurus and consultants keep telling us there is a formula, but there isn't.

What's important is to approach each transaction with the knowledge and the wisdom that some of the variables are simply out of our hands. Our culture, with its rugged individualism and myths about self-made individuals who get to the mountaintop without any assistance from anyone, will go down swinging before admitting to any loss of control on the path to success.

What we can be sure about is that no matter what, we cannot control all the variables that determine whether our value - or perceived value, or self worth - emerges from a personal or business transaction enhanced or diminished. We can't always know. It sucks not having that control. But consider that accepting what variables are in our power to change, and which aren't, is a huge step toward self actualization and confidence that goes a long way toward improving how we approach transactions in the future.


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