Daniel Pink, former Gore speechwriter, discusses selling as a way of life

September 20, 2013

Daniel Pink, the bestselling author of “To Sell is Human,” says one in nine Americans earns a living in sales, but the rest of us spend our days cajoling, influencing and persuading, too. We are all in sales. Pink, a former chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, lives in Washington. And, yes, he says, the president is the salesman in chief. This transcript was edited for length and clarity.

QYou say all of us spend our days selling. Can you give examples?

Persuading your kids to go to sleep. Asking someone on a date. Persuading a gate agent to move you to an aisle seat instead of a middle seat. Getting your friend to help you move.

The old ABCs of selling — “Always Be Closing” — are outdated, you say. What are the new ABCs?

Attunement: Can you get out of your head and into someone else’s head, see their point of view? Buoyancy: Buoyancy is staying afloat in what one salesperson I interviewed called “an ocean of rejection.” Clarity is being able to curate, distill, make sense of information and problem finding, identifying problems people didn’t realize they have.

Is the president the chief salesman?

If you look at the very best presidents, the most effective presidents, they were always decent salespeople. Ronald Reagan was an extremely effective salesman, very tuned to the people he was selling to, very clear in what he was selling, very resilient and buoyant. [Bill] Clinton is probably the most buoyant, resilient person in American political history.

How has the world of sales changed?

We used to be in a world of information asymmetry — the seller always had more information than the buyer. With that kind of imbalance, the seller can take the low road. Today, we are close to information parity. It’s a world where anyone you’re selling to probably has just as much information as you, has lots of choices and all kinds of ways to talk back. And so, the low road is less of an option. You have to take the high road: be more honest, more direct, more transparent.

You say that words like “hoodwinkery” and “sleazebaggery” are associated with sales but that that is from an outdated notion of what selling is.

There is a lot of freight behind the world “sell.” It’s still an icky word. Selling anything — whether it’s your idea, yourself, your product — that process has changed more in the last 10 years than it has in the last 100. It’s a fundamentally different thing. There isn’t a choice today to take the low road (where those sleazy words came from). In the long haul, you get found out and customers talk back. Watch how much customers complain about airlines on Twitter. An airplane passenger riding in a middle seat in coach can suddenly do battle with a large multinational company. That is a huge change.

How can the average person be better at persuading others?

There are all kinds of small and practical things that people can do. You don’t have to be a glad-hander, backslapper, grinning, “Hey buddy, what can I do to put you in a Ford Fiesta today,” kind of person. You’re actually better off just being a better version of yourself. This goes to the research on introversion and extroversion. This idea that extroverts make better salespeople is flatly a myth. It is fundamentally not true. The best people are what researchers call ambiverts. They’re in the middle: a little bit introverted, a little bit extroverted. Very strong extroverts and very strong introverts aren’t good at sales!

What’s the hardest sell?

It’s harder to sell a really bad idea than a really good idea. I think it’s become even harder to sell a really bad idea today because you’re so easily exposed.

How much does confidence have to do with being a great salesman?

Confidence can lead to better performance. There is also a lot of interesting research on interrogative self-talk. If you go into an encounter and try to pump yourself up, saying, “I am awesome!” “I got this!” — it’s more effective than doing nothing, but it is less effective than asking yourself, “Can I do this?” Because questions elicit an active response. You prepare yourself. You go over your game plan. You say, “Yeah, I can do this. Last time, I was a little nervous and talked a bit too fast, so I am going to slow down.” You are preparing. You are like an athlete at batting practice before the game.

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