“The Art of War” is an ancient Chinese military handbook written during the 5th century BC by Sun Tzu. Probably only few people have read the entire book, but there are plenty of great takeaways in it for business leaders, executives, and strategists.
And though a customer should never be your enemy, and a sales presentation should never be a battle (not even with yourself), Sun Tzu’s enemy may be regarded as a metaphor for a business opportunity to pursue, and the war as the process of conquering your audience’s heart, mind, and wallet.
Below are a handful of my favorite Art of War quotes (taken from the 1910 English translation by Lionel Giles), and how yours truly interprets and applies them in his daily job as a corporate marketer, business developer, and B2B storyteller.
First, always make sure you know your customers, the environment in which they work or live, and the opportunities and challenges they face prior to addressing them:
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.” (from chapter 10: Terrain)
As Sun Tzu clarifies at the beginning of his treatise, “Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons,” and “Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.” But also, know your own strengths and weaknesses as they may set limits to what you can tell, do, or commit to.
Based upon this knowledge – of both your audience and yourself – you can then adapt your sales strategy and customer value proposition properly:
“Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.” (from chapter 6: Weak Points and Strong)
Preparation is key. It’s all about you being ready to face the market and the customers. Build a message house, define your pitch, craft your presentation, and plan your meeting carefully.
“The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.” (from chapter 8: Variation in tactics)
Support your presentation with proper visuals and multimedia testimonials (a.k.a. gongs, drums, banners, and flags)
“On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough: hence the institution of gongs and drums. Nor can ordinary objects be seen clearly enough: hence the institution of banners and flags.” (from chapter 7: Maneuvering)
But, always remember – as I have emphasized many times before in my blog posts – look and feel matter! Be direct and indirect. Be creative and consistent. Be subtle and clear.
“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.” (from chapter 5: Energy)
“There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.” (from chapter 5: Energy)
“There are not more than five cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted.” (from chapter 5: Energy)
Finally, always choose your battle and don’t waste your (or your customer’s) time if there’s no real opportunity for growing your market or creating new business.
“The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided. The preparation of mantlets, movable shelters, and various implements of war, will take up three whole months; and the piling up of mounds over against the walls will take three months more.” (from chapter 3: Attack by Stratagem)
“Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.” (from chapter 6: Weak Points and Strong)
“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.” (from chapter 7: The Attack by Fire)
I realize that making connections between ancient warfare and today’s business environment is not straightforward. Still I see Sun Tzu’s Art of War as a timeless and priceless masterpiece that may help marketers and sales people to develop successful strategies, make better decisions, run effective campaigns, deliver powerful presentations, and consequently generate more business.