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PROFIT & Canadian Business publisher Ian Portsmouth, whom I hired out of an internship when he was just a kid, found out that I recently attended an in-person audition for the popular TV quiz show, Jeopardy! So he challenged me to come up with an article describing the top business lessons you can learn from the show. Here it is.

  1. Ya gotta have a gimmick. When TV talk show host Merv Griffin was dreaming up ideas for a new game show, his wife suggested reversing the usual role of questions and answers. If the “answer” was 5,280, the contestants would have to answer, “How many feet in a mile?” NBC liked this twist so much that it bought the show without requiring a pilot episode. How do you differentiate your business, product or service?
  2. When you’re selling, it’s essential that you spend more time listening to your prospect than you spend talking about the product. For instance, if a customer asks you to list the best features of a new car, ask what kinds of features they are most interested in before you start listing them off willy-nilly. Jeopardy! sets the perfect example by insisting that your answers take the form of a question.
  3. Jeopardy! is called that because when you buzz in to answer a question, you suffer a penalty if you get it wrong: you lose the same amount of cash that the right answer would have won. Real life rarely treats us so harshly. But this is a good reminder that if you don’t know what to say in a sales conversation, there’s likely a cost to opening your mouth and spouting off anyway.
  4. Jeopardy! play is divided into two full games: regular Jeopardy and Double Jeopardy, where the amounts you can win are doubled. Jeopardy! champs know you must keep your cool in the first half; even if you fall behind, you can easily make it up by acing Double Jeopardy. Similarly, when discussing business deals, stay calm and focused in the early going, because the pressure will only increase as you move toward a conclusion.
  5. The Olympic Games celebrate finishing second and third, but in business deals and Jeopardy!, winning is everything. Jeopardy! winners may take home $10,000 or more from a single game—plus they can play again the next day. Second-place winners receive a $2,000 consolation prize, while the third-place contestants get $1,000. In business and Jeopardy!, you have to go for the win.
  6. Despite the above rule, Jeopardy! strategists have observed that most contestants play defensively; for instance, if they’re behind late in the game and get a Daily Double, they rarely bet enough to close the gap with the winning player—ceding them a decisive advantage in the Final Jeopardy showdown. Moral: Know when to play it safe—and when not to!
  7. Many Jeopardy! champs say the difference between winning and losing on the show isn’t whether you know the answers but how well you can time the buzzer that enables you to answer a question. Press your device too late, and the brainiac beside you will beat you to the punch; press it too soon (before host Alex Trebek finishes reading the question), and you’re locked out for a precious split-second that will give the brainiac a chance to edge you out. Luck and timing are as important in Jeopardy! as they are in business.
  8. Finally, Jeopardy!’s winningest champion, Ken Jennings, has noted the difference that longevity makes. When he was in the middle of his 75-game run in 2004, he realized he had a marked advantage over his parade of new challengers. He was used to the bright TV lights, he knew how to play the buzzer, he understood the show’s rhythms and he recognized how intimidating it was for others to compete against a celebrity champ. In Jeopardy!, as in business, experience counts. Make the most of your built-in advantages while you can.

Rick Spence is the Toronto-based author of the Canadian Entrepreneur blog and a consultant on marketing, strategy and business growth. You can reach him at rick@rickspence.ca.

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