“Delaware Closed” read the large sign over the highway at the Delaware border. And for an hour and a half, it appeared true. As Herb Cohen described in his book, You Can Negotiate Anything, lines of cars “squealed to a halt. Vehicles pulled off the highway. Confused drivers stepped out and approached (the Candid Camera representative), who stood beneath the sign as hidden movie cameras recorded the event.
Scores blurted variations of “Hey, what’s the story on Delaware?” (The Candid Camera representative) merely pointed overhead and replied, “Read the sign!” The drivers frowned, scratched their heads, then tugged their lower lips. One asked: “When do you think it’ll reopen? I live there, and my family is in there.”
The power of the written word can be awesome. So when, where and how can you effectively harness this power for your negotiations?
First, understand that written documents — solely due to their appearance — provide parties with more credibility, legitimacy and the appearance of being more definite and inflexible than equivalent oral statements. We believe what we read and see more than what we hear.
Second, strategically determine how to use documents to accomplish your goals. Sometimes putting it in writing can be counterproductive. In some negotiations, you want an air of informality and flexibility. The use of written documents can counteract this.
You also might know that your counterpart does not think well on his feet. If this is true, and you have good skills here, meet in person. (Of course, you could meet and share written documents in that meeting.)
Third, writing things down, even if you don’t use the document, can be productive. I find that writing helps me organize my ideas in a logical way and helps me to fine-tune exactly what I want to communicate.
Fourth, using written documents reduces the chance of a miscommunication destroying your negotiation and/or the trust you’ve developed. Writing confirmation letters to your counterpart after certain oral commitments have been made often makes sense.
Finally, certain written documents provide more power than others. Here are five common written documents used in negotiations, and how and where to effectively use them:
THE WRITTEN OFFER OR COUNTER
I’m a big fan of written offers and counters. Why? Because how you make an offer will impact its likelihood of acceptance. It’s also easier, in a written vs. an oral offer, to be clear, specific, organized, detailed, and to include persuasive justifications underlying your offer.
Plus, you can carefully choose the exact message you want to convey. This is especially critical if you want to point out certain leverage elements in your offer, like what might happen if your counterpart rejects it.
I’ve spent many hours crafting written offers or counters. In fact, I regularly send potential clients a proposal for my services, even if I’ve already provided them with much of the information orally.
But isn’t this a waste of time? Absolutely not. These proposals confirm the legitimacy of my offer, reiterate its elements so my potential clients have no misunderstanding about what I propose, and lay out in a comprehensive, detailed and analytical way what I tried to communicate orally — but am not certain I did.
THE WRITTEN AGENDA
The written agenda is one of the most efficient and effective negotiation tactics ever devised. It rarely takes much time to prepare. Yet, most will simply follow it once it’s presented. And even if your counterpart wants to negotiate the agenda, you likely will have succeeded in organizing the issues in ways you find productive.
THE WRITTEN STANDARD
Lawyers and business people regularly use written standards, such as experts’ opinions, to assist in their negotiations. Written appraisals or business valuations, written market-value research, written policies and the list of written standards goes on. Each has more force in writing than if simply shared orally.
You can improve your leverage by sharing, in certain instances, a written document that describes your best alternative to an agreement with your counterpart.
I recently sent a counterpart a copy of her competitor’s bid. I wanted to show her the details of what I wanted her to beat price-wise. I also wanted to underscore the seriousness with which I viewed her competitor and to get her competitive juices flowing. Plus, I wanted to give her some ammunition to get more authority from her boss. She subsequently came down over 20 percent off her offer.
THE WRITTEN AGREEMENT
Finally, you almost always want first shot at drafting negotiated agreements. That way, your first draft becomes the template off which all subsequent negotiations proceed.
Even in an era of easily revised and shared documents, it’s still an advantage to start with your draft and your standard terms. Make your counterpart offer up suggested changes. Then you are in the power position, with the ability to get credit for being reasonable and accepting the changes they might request.
Most believe what they read. Remember that next time you drive through Delaware. I doubt it still will be “closed.”
Published October 4, 2002 The Business Journal