‘To Sell is Human’ skillfully does its job

Posted Feb.15, 2013

“To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others”
Daniel H. Pink


Daniel H. Pink’s new book, “To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others,” is prefaced – predictably and almost obligatorily – with a quote from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman:” “The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is, you’re a salesman, and you don’t even know it.”

Daniel Pink bookPink argues that due to the realities of the fast-paced digital age we live in, where career-hopping and bouts of self-employment are becoming increasingly common, the idea of “sales” has crept into other traditionally “non-sales” fields, especially what he calls the “ed-med” industries (education and healthcare), which are both among the fastest-growing sectors of the economy.

How do professions in education and medicine incorporate sales techniques? Pink quotes a sixth-grade teacher; “I’m selling my students that the science lesson I’m teaching them is the most interesting thing ever.” Quoting a physical therapist, he writes, “Medicine involves a lot of salesmanship…I have to talk people into doing some fairly unpleasant things.”

It’s a bit of a stretch, but you can see where he’s going – we all have to “move” others in order to reach our goals. Much of the time, that requires us to sell them on the idea that cooperation is more mutually beneficial than the self-centered behavior we’re sometimes inclined towards.

As the quote from the preface suggests, Pink’s latest work pushes back against the idea that “sales” is solely the realm of greasy-haired empty suits, prowling the asphalt at the used car lot, looking to unload a lemon on some unsuspecting chump. As Pink puts it, “we’re all in sales now.”

Citing the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate that the United States’ twenty-one million “non-employer businesses” (i.e., self-employed contractors, consultants, and the like) constitute the majority of businesses in the country, Pink argues that, these days, “[d]esigners analyze. Analysts design. Marketers create. Creators market…A world of entrepreneurs is a world of salespeople.”

With another almost inevitable cultural reference to Alec Baldwin’s memorable monologue in the film version of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” Pink seeks to put a new twist on the “old-school” salesman’s motto, “A.B.C. – Always Be Closing.” Pink’s argument goes like this: the sales world has undergone a revolution whereby the axiom “caveat emptor (“buyer beware”) has been replaced by “caveat venditor (“seller beware.”) This is due to the change in the balance of what Pink calls “information asymmetry.”

Before the advent of the Internet (and especially smartphones,) consumers were often dependent on manufacturers and salespeople for information about potential purchases. Buyers had to “beware” the inescapable bias and potential for dishonesty in the sources of their information. However, with buyers’ increased speed and ease of access to unbiased sources of information about goods and services (think Angie’s List and Ripoff Report), in Pink’s words, “[t]he low road is now harder to pass and the high road – honesty, directness, and transparency – has become the better, more pragmatic, long-term route.”

To illustrate this point, Pink returns to the aforementioned stereotypical example of the pre-owned automobile business. Pink points out that at CarMax locations, no longer do slick-talking shysters babble at customers about brake pads and bumper strength until they finally get fed up and walk away or relent and “sign on the line which is dotted.”

Rather, prospective buyers sit down at a computer with a sales rep and access all the same information available to the potential seller. They can ask questions, do Google searches, and ultimately approximate as closely as possible the economist’s ideal of the “fully-informed, rational consumer.”

On the flip side, through social media and other web-based platforms, experiences with poor service and/or defective goods can be easily and instantly shared with even the furthest reaches of a dissatisfied customer’s social circle – hence Pink’s coinage of the phrase “caveat venditor.

So, what is Pink’s new take on Baldwin’s old-school A.B.C. acronym? “Attunement, Buoyancy, and Clarity.” Attunement involves what is known as “perspective taking” (as Pink quotes from a research paper, it is “more beneficial to get inside [the] heads [of one’s customers] than to have them inside one’s own heart.”)

This does not mean being cold, manipulative, and deceitful. Putting oneself in the other’s shoes can “attune” us to their motivations and reservations, which is more effectual than the pushy and aggressive steamroller approach favored by advocates of “Always Be Closing.” As Pink reminds us, “[t]o sell well is convince someone else to part with resources – not to deprive that person, but to leave him better off in the end.”

Buoyancy involves confronting and overcoming the “ocean of rejection” that comes with the territory of life in general, but especially the sales world. Getting back on the proverbial horse is an essential part of selling, and Pink highlights research showing that people’s individual “explanatory style” can help or hinder their comeback efforts.

According to Pink, the best strategy lies in the middle of the road – not excessive pessimism or optimism, but what he calls “optimism with its eyes open” – an approach that neither completely ignores a lack of success nor attributes too much significance to minor setbacks, but rather sees failure as an impersonal learning experience that will contribute to future success through perseverance.

The final link in the chain is “Clarity.” As Pink writes, becoming skilled at the act of “pitching” ideas requires “the ability to distill one’s point to its persuasive essence.” Concision is key.

Continuing with the theme of technological change, Pink contends that the “elevator pitch” of a bygone era has been replaced by the even-briefer “Twitter pitch” – 140 characters or fewer. He cites the example of Barack Obama’s one-word campaign slogan, “Forward” (which, along with a well-coordinated social media and internet campaign, worked out pretty well for him.) In a society where people’s attention is constantly up for grabs, your message has to pack as much punch per millisecond as possible.

One other theme of the book is the power of questions – specifically the simple question “why?” Referencing another research paper, Pink writes that statements often go in one ear and out the other, but that questions lead to a “more intensive processing of message content.” This concept applies to attunement and perspective taking (“What would I do if I were him/her. Why?”) as well as to buoyancy and explanatory styles (“What can I learn from this experience? Why did I fail/succeed?”), but it is uniquely applicable to selling.

Pink illuminates this point with then-future President Ronald Reagan’s famous question to voters, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” This worked much more effectively than a statement like “You’re not better off now than you were four years ago,” because it forced people to think about why they weren’t better off (hint: it was Jimmy Carter’s fault.)

Pink has also written about business and technology for the The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, and a number of other publications. “To Sell Is Human” is a #1 best-seller according to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, following on the heels of “A Whole New Mind,” published in 2006, which examines the potentials of  “right-brain” thinking and 2011’s “Drive,” which deals with human motivation and performance – both of which were well-received best-sellers.

In “To Sell Is Human,” Pink highlights some new and interesting social science research on the cognition and psychology behind persuasion and decision making (this line of writing seems to be his “thing”) and although it’s an engaging read, Pink doesn’t reveal anything truly earth-shattering here.

On the whole, the book seems like a mash-up of some fairly basic concepts from psychology, sociology, communication, and game theory and a few fun, but relatively anecdotal supporting studies and examples. Still, Pink has certainly done his research and he knows what he’s talking about – and like any good salesman, he knows a thing or two about presentation.

Pink illustrates his points with interesting real-world stories and case studies. He writes in a conversational voice that shows off his narrative cleverness – but he sometimes takes his pop culture references into distractingly and unnecessarily awkward terrain – like when he refers to the Fuller Brush salesmen in their heyday as “Lady Gagaesque in [their] ubiquity.”

He also gives Tony Robbin-esque life-coachy tips about how to practice the lessons derived from his research, which are helpful if you’re using the book as a how-to manual, but were usually less fascinating than the findings themselves. Nevertheless, though his prose may not always be the most elegant, compared to plowing through the dozens of articles and academic references cited in each chapter, Pink’s unraveling of the story behind “sales” is certainly a preferable method of information delivery.

While Pink is obviously a highly intelligent and creative thinker and an entertaining writer, a lot of his conclusions seem like dressed-up versions of textbook concepts. Then again, he’s writing for a popular audience, not for academics. His skill lies in “distilling the essence” of commonly dense academic research into easily digestible ideas, and to that end, “To Sell Is Human” is both a testament to that talent and an enjoyable read, whether for personal betterment or simply for pleasure.

  • “To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others”
  • Daniel H. Pink
  • Published: Dec. 31, 2012
  • Publisher:  Riverhead Books
    ISBN:  978-1-59448-715-6
  • Price:  $26.95

2 thoughts on “‘To Sell is Human’ skillfully does its job

    • Don’t bother – I’ll send you my copy. And I’ll throw in a book about how to improve your wordplay, too.

      “Well, I am sold,…” (hyuck hyuck)

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