#134: When Things Went Wrong at Psychotactics (And What We Learned From Our Mistakes)


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In a small business, strategy and tactics often go wrong.

Yet all you hear about is success, success and how someone made it big.

This episode is about some bad judgment calls and also about plain pomposity. It's taught us to be better marketers and better people.


In this episode Sean talks about

Story No.1—The Internet Marketing Conference Fiasco of 2003 Story No.2—A Mess In Wellington: Why Extreme Personalisation is Not A Good Idea Summary: How our minus two learning has helped us

To read this podcast online: https://www.psychotactics.com/psychotactics-mistakes/


I remember one of the early events in my speaking career

Renuka was sitting in the audience. When I finished my speech, I came back to my seat and asked her how she found the speech. I gave you a minus two, she said.

Speaking hasn't been easy for me, and I struggled a lot not knowing what to say when in front of an audience

Luckily, almost at the start of my career, I ran into Eugene Moreau and his 13-Box Speaking system. The 13-Box system was so honed, it was like having a Samurai sword at your disposal. Except, it's not much use having a Samurai sword and not going through “sword practice”.

To get my practice in speaking to a high degree of professionalism, I'd speak everywhere I could. And when I mean, speak everywhere, these weren't at fancy events. I'd speak at the Rotary club, some places where people would meet to network and even at association meetings. In my mind, it was pretty clear that if I didn't get the practice, I wouldn't become a confident speaker.

And I knew I'd reached a good level when I was paid to speak at an event

It wasn't much. I think it was about $300 or $400, but hey, this was a paid gig. The only problem was that my so-called ability had gone to my head. In the first few years, I'd rehearse fifteen, sixteen times before getting in front of an audience.

This event, however, was different. The audience happened to be farmers—not professionals. They still had to sell their products, so they still needed a message like the one that's contained in The Brain Audit. But because they were farmers, I got a little pompous.

I practiced a couple of times, then my wife Renuka and I drove to the event

The signs were not good. Both Renuka and I had spent a restless night, and we had a long drive ahead of us. She kept asking me if I'd done my usual practice runs. I nodded, but I knew I'd taken some shortcuts. And on that day, when I went on stage, I was sleep-deprived and already a bit tired from the drive. Plus, as you can tell, I hadn't done my usual 15-16 practice runs.

Yes, I got a minus two.

This series is a little detour into the world of Psychotactics—and. About times when we got below par results

Some of the results were our fault, and some of them were just experiences we had along the way. In every instance, we learned a lesson, and it helped us move ahead in our business. Let's take a trip down memory lane, shall we? Let's look at some minus two experiences. Like the time back in 2004, I think, where I was a speaker at an Internet conference, and everyone was selling their products, but me.

Why did things go so wrong?

Story No:1—The Internet Marketing Conference Fiasco of 2003

I should have known better than heading to a particular Internet Marketing Conference in Australia.

It was what you'd call a pitch-fest.

Pitch-fests are given that name because the speaker tends to speak for a fixed amount of time, but then reserves at least a third of the given time to pitch their products or services. Think of speaker after speaker getting up on stage and selling like those folks you see on infomercials, and you get the idea.

I was not even part of the original speaker set up, but I was keen to be part of an international speaker group

Even though it was barely 2003, the speakers at the event had substantial lists, exceeding 50,000 subscribers. We, on the other hand, might have had fewer than 1500 people on our list. I watched as speaker after speaker got on stage and made a presentation. Then they'd make an offer, and there would often be a scramble to the rear of the room, where they were selling their products.

It was pretty early in my career, but I was pretty confident of my speaking skill by then

I'd done a bit of selling from the podium as well, and I thought I'd be going home with several thousands of dollars in sales. This dream of mine seemed more feasible when I compared myself to the person who did his presentation just before mine.

His presentation was more about how to run some software, than a real transfer of knowledge. And yet when he made his pitch, there was an almighty scramble to the end of the room. I was sure I could top that act, because my presentation was clearly better than his, and plus in my mind, I was a far superior speaker.

But even before I could get on stage, things went wrong

I was allocated just 45 minutes, and that included my presentation and my pitch. I figured the person introducing me would be done in about 3-4 minutes, but like an Emcee that won't shut up, he went on for a whole ten minutes, maybe longer.

Sure, he was saying good things about me, but I was losing a tonne of time in what I considered to be a pointless introduction. Anyway, I got on stage, did my presentation confidently and made my offer. It was the moment I'd been waiting for. I had dreams of the audience stomping over each other to get to the back of the room to buy my products.

You have a good idea of what happened next, right?

And you're right. Nothing much happened at all. About 15 people gingerly got up from their seats, and casually sauntered to the back of the room. Would they buy the product, I wondered? In my head, I was still doing the calculations.

Since we were selling the product for $100, I'd still make $1500 at the very least. However, maybe 9 of them decided to go ahead with their purchase. And you might think that's still a pretty good deal for a 30-minute presentation, right?

And yes it was a good deal, but not when you consider the expenses

To be part of this event, I had to fund my own travel costs. There was the flight to Australia which exceeded $500, the hotel room which also exceeded $500 for the duration of the event. And then there was food, transport to and from the airport and other incidental costs. Plus, the organisers wanted 50% of all sales to be passed on to them as a commission.

This was a -2 experience

I was out in the cold, and not feeling very good about myself. Any pity I have for myself is quickly tempered by the fact that there's a learning experience in every failure. I resolutely sat at the back of the room and watched what caused clients to scramble like crazy.

That event wasn't my first lesson in scarcity, but it certainly was the first one that was doused with so much defeat. It's the defeat that made me pay close attention to every single presenter. I stopped paying attention to the content of the presentation and instead paid attention to what they did instead. And I learned some very valuable lessons on that day.

But one mystery remained.

Remember the speaker who went before me?

He wasn't terribly good; his content was mostly technical. He made a pitch that involved scarcity just like everyone else. So why did he succeed when I did so miserably by comparison? I knew him well, so I went up and asked him what he thought was the big reason because I frankly couldn't see what caused the audience to rush to the back of the room.

And that's when I learned about the concept of the bonus. Now you're well aware of bonuses when you buy a product or service online, right? But I had bonuses too with my pitch. Why didn't the bonus work as well?

The key was the nature of the bonus

He was offering some software that would enhance their positions on Google rankings (yes, these were the good old days where a lot of crazy stuff worked). But that wasn't what people were so excited about. He had promised that the first 50 people would not only get the software, but he would install it on their servers, so they had to do nothing but run it.


It wasn't the bonus. It was so much bigger and better than a mere bonus. And that's when I learned that you need to make the bonus more important than the product or the service itself. Why? Because when people decide to buy something, they've already made up their mind.

If you've decided to buy a fancy new computer, you already are in the frame of mind to buy it. But what if someone offered you a bonus? Like a nice box of chocolates if you bought the computer from them? The box of chocolates costs just $15; the computer $3000. What are you focused on? What if I told you that you could get the computer without the chocolate box? That's the power of the bonus. That's the lesson I learned from this -2 experience.

I lost on the monetary front.

But when I got back to Auckland, I had a plan in place. We re-looked at The Brain Audit page and made sure we had an irresistible bonus in place.

And the power of the bonus worked!

As a result of the “failure” in Australia, we sold more product than ever before. That embarrassment led to a profound learning experience, and to this day when creating a product or service, I think about the bonus long before I write the sales page for the product.

The bonus—that's what matters more than anything else. And it doesn't even have to be many bonuses. Just one compelling bonus is what makes the client decide they want your product or service right away.

But hey, this isn't about the good, success stuff. These are stories about where we messed up.

Time for Story No.2, don't you think?

Story No.2—A Mess In Wellington: Why Extreme Personalisation is Not A Good Idea

Only thrice have I gone blank on stage. Once was back in school when I was about 12 years old. The next time was the first time I made The Brain Audit presentation, but the third time was really odd. It was at a time when I was confident with my speaking and was being paid to speak as part of a series.

When I first started out in marketing, I read and heard stories of personalisation

One of these stories came from a veteran marketer, Dan Kennedy, who once spoke about how he showed up for a Mary Kay event. Mary Kay Inc. is a cosmetics giant and is famous for its bias to the colour, pink. Superstars—the salespeople who earn 0ver $18,000 in a four month period and build a team—are rewarded with a pink Cadillac.

Dan Kennedy, ever the showman, turned up for the Mary Kay event in pink

Pink suit, pink tie, pink patent leather shoes. Kennedy said he wore pink in order to sell more effectively at Mary Kay events and it clearly worked for him as he'd sell 40% more when dressed in pink. Unlike at the Internet conference, I was not selling anything at this event, but I saw no harm in trying to personalise my presentation.

Since I was working with brokers at an insurance company, I spent hours talking to my liaison at the head office. I then sought out and found examples of insurance-based problems and solutions. All of this research was my aim towards personalisation, and I didn't realise I was making a big mistake.

The first mistake was that it ramped up my nervousness a lot…

When you're making a presentation you're already on someone else's turf. I'd just made it a lot harder by over-tweaking my speech to include many insurance-based case-studies. Trying to force fit their case-studies in my presentation wasn't a mistake, but I didn't have any background of the case-studies. No sooner did I bring up the case-studies than I had people in the room say, “that didn't work” or raise objections to the case-study.

This threw me off guard

Instead of doing The Brain Audit presentation, which was all my own, my entire talk was intertwined with their case-studies. I was not prepared for any pushback from the audience, and yet the cat calls came at intervals.

However, once you're nervous, things start to spiral. I was plainly confused and slightly terrified on that stage. Finally, I just gave up and wrapped up as quickly as I could. What should have been an hour-long presentation was curtailed to a mere 30-minutes. Suddenly the emcee had a nasty problem of filling in half an hour of dead air, as there was no presenter in sight.

This was definitely a -2 moment

Renuka wasn't around to give me those low scores, and I had to self-evaluate my own performance. Why did things go so wrong? Was it Dan Kennedy's bad advice? Or was I at fault? What I failed to notice, and learned a lot later, was that presenters do tailor their presentations.

Kennedy would have worn that crazy, even slightly-ridiculous outfit, but his speech would have barely wavered at all. He might have had a few words here and there that talked about Mary Kay or the kind of business, but he would have scripted his script and nailed it down. The Mary Kay women knew their business; Dan didn't.

In my case, the insurance agents knew their business, and I clearly didn't. To give the audience examples that they could pull apart was a silly move. They knew I was an outsider and my attempt to endear myself to them was easily the worst move I could make.

So what's the learning we got from this experience?

Let's say we're selling a product like the info-products course. That course is designed to show you not just how to create an information product, but to create one that's so useful that clients come back to buy many info-products from you in the future.

Now let's say your current sales page is pretty generic. But then you're going to be introduced to 10,000 coaches. And now you don't want the page to be generic. You want it to speak to the coaches, don't you?

Think of the Dan Kennedy factor: He only wore pink, he didn't colour his text in pink.

If we were selling to an audience that was precisely coaching related, we could change the first paragraph to talk about coaching and the biggest problem facing a coach today. And how the information products would be likely to help that coach. But that's where it would stop. Once we went past the problem, the solution would be as it is on the Psychotactics page right now.

Which brings up an ethical problem doesn't it?

If the product is not specifically created for coaches, would it be right to give the idea that the product was designed for coaches? And that's not what the main problem on the sales page is doing. The solution is to get the info-products course because it helps you create info-products—plain and simple. But we relate better to signage or information that seems to call us, rather than the general public.

The product or course would still have to deliver the goods. It would still need to help coaches (or anyone else) create outstanding info-products. However, there would be a greater attraction factor if the audience felt it was aimed at them.

At Psychotactics, we don't ever appeal to a specific audience e.g. coaches. Instead, we use the concept of target profile, so the question of using this method would not arise on our sales pages. However, there may be several situations where you have to appeal to a specific audience. In such a scenario, make tiny changes at the top, and don't go changing everything else.

My stop at Wellington was pretty scary

I've mentioned in an article and podcast before how I was so petrified of the place that I was not keen to go back to that venue. But several years later it's exactly where I had to speak once again, and once again. And it was a paid speaking engagement, so I couldn't back out of it.

This time, however, I stuck to my original speech, got a rousing applause and didn't have to flee the auditorium in a hurry. I was able to turn my -2 experience into a plus 6 or 7, at the very least.

The third -2 experience was the mistake of tweaking the rules we have at Psychotactics

We have rules because we've run into a problem before and we're not keen to rep area the mistake. Even so, it seems ridiculous to hold on to rules forever. Sometimes we break our own rules.

Retribution follows shortly. This is the story of a workshop where we broke our rules, and things went south very quickly. In fact, there aren't one, but two stories that follow.

The Importance of Keeping to Your Rules

“I don't like the smell of the carpet”. That's the ultimatum we got from a client's wife.

You'd have quickly figured out we're not dealing with a customer, but his wife instead. But what does the wife have to do with the event? And what was the “carpet story” all about?

Rules are meant to be broken, but sometimes we bend over backwards too much, and we pay the price. We've had many such instances where we've sought to bend the rules; trouble has hit us thick and fast. Here are just two instances, where we allowed family members.

Back in the early days, we had a system called the Protégé system

From that Protégé group, we created an Inner Circle which consisted of just a few clients. So few of us, that I thought to myself no harm could come by including their wives or partners.(Just as a matter of clarification: Back then all the clients in our Inner Circle were male, which is why I mentioned wives or partners). Anyway, on with the story.

And that's when our trouble began

We'd booked an intimate boardroom, seeing we were so few. But as the wife of this participant walked in, she stormed right out. “I don't like the smell of new carpet”, she said. I'm not sure what the problem was, or if she was allergic to the smell of new carpet, but we were to start our session, and we were in a fix. She demanded another room, and there was none to be had at the hotel. So she took her grievance to the reception and started berating the staff.

If there's one thing I've learned in life, it's this: When you want to get on a flight, you don't scream at ground staff. And this was no exception. She was yelling at the people who were most likely to help her and help us.

As her screaming got louder, we were forced to step in and take over. As we found out later she'd inadvertently been screaming at the General Manager of the hotel as well. The GM was quite unassuming. You'd never expect that she was the GM because she was low-key and looked more like an employee. And this screaming was aimed at her as well until we decided to take matters into our hands.

With a lot of pleading and apologising, we managed to get another room

The room was super-large, more like a disused meeting room. We were so few of us in the room, and it made the entire proceedings so very un-cozy. However, our little nemesis didn't stop there. When I'd bring up a point in the presentation, she'd object.

She hadn't read The Brain Audit; she hadn't gone through the notes. We thought it was a good idea to have the partners and wives come along, but it was evident she had no context, so she interrupted and argued her way through the day.

At most events and workshops, most clients hang around the meeting room

Unlike other events where people leave shortly after, you'll find that we stick around, and so do most of the clients. We may be around for a good hour or more after we're done, but in this case, we were out of the room like a bolt of lightning. We made our way to our room just to recover our energy and then an hour later to the bar where we inhaled some gigantic margaritas.

But did we learn our lesson?

Apparently not. The lesson was not to allow anyone who wasn't part of the group. Anyone who hadn't read the notes in advance (and we send notes a month in advance) or hasn't read The Brain Audit is not welcome at our events. But there was a pleading tone in the e-mail we got just the day before the event.

Apparently, our client was visiting California with his daughter, a teenager. He asked if we could accommodate her at the back of the room. She'd be very quiet, he said. She would just sit there and not participate, he said.

I don't know why I didn't see the signs

Think of yourself as a teenager. Would you sit through a workshop on Website Strategy for three whole days for no reason? It became evident that there was an ulterior motive, but we only realised it later when going through previous correspondence with this client.

He'd earlier asked us if he could book two seats at the event but finally booked just one. WE didn't think about it at the time. Clients ask all sorts of questions, and we answer, and no one really dwells on such issues. But as the workshop unfolded, so did the chaos.

She didn't participate in the workshop discussions, but in a Psychotactics workshop we have group activities

That's when she'd tow along with her father, which seemed fine at first. Soon enough other clients started complaining. She was butting in, in the discussions, the clients told us. She'd start going off on a tangent, and then her father would defend her, causing a very unprofessional situation in the discussion.

I had to tell the client that his daughter couldn't be in the room or attend any of the sessions

This made him mad. He couldn't see why she wasn't able to attend. It didn't seem to occur to him that she wasn't part of the group, or hadn't even paid for the seat. It was a messy moment and one that we could have avoided. It created a whole bunch of frustration that none of us needed. And while it wasn't exactly a minus two moment, it sure created a bleak, nasty situation.

So what's the learning?

The main learning is never to allow anyone who doesn't have the credentials. In the case of all workshops and courses, those credentials are the purchase of The Brain Audit. If the client hasn't read or listened to The Brain Audit, they're not welcome.

However, at a different level, we needed to stop being overly kind and letting in anyone—wives, husbands, kids or anyone who wasn't required to be at the event. No matter how much pleading is done, this rule is now unshakeable.

And that's how our minus two learning has helped us

In every instance, we've learned more from the bad times than the good. That speaking engagement at the farmer's conference taught me not to wing it and be prepared, even over-prepared. The event in Australia seemed to be a fiasco, but it was a valuable training ground for me, once I started paying attention to what was happening around me.

The event in Wellington, with the insurance agents, taught me never to over-personalise anything. Over-personalisation puts you squarely in the region where you're not the expert. You already have your speech ready, and it's best to do a sprinkling of personalisation and then keep to the original script.

Finally, it was and is important to have our benchmarks when it comes to attendees, whether at events or courses. Making an exception doesn't always lead to chaos, but why bother inviting confusion in the room? Our job is to ensure our clients get the best experience ever and go home with skill. By restricting who's in the room, we end up with a better result every single time.

And then we can enjoy our margaritas. We don't have to guzzle them after an energy-draining day! But these minus two events are only part of the picture.

How do you dramatically increase your rate of learning?

And why do we get stuck when we're trying to learn a new skill? Strangely the concept of boxes comes into play. We move from beginner to average—and then we spin in that middle box, never moving to expert level. So how do we move to expert level? And how can we do that without instruction?

Listen or read about: Not just how to learn, but how to teach as well.


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