Daniel Pink, former chief speech writer for Vice President Al Gore and best-selling author, joins our “Micro Management Stories” video series. He speaks to The Washington Post’s Mary Jordan about the leadership lesson that came in the form of a memorable call from the White House.
While speech writer, Pink had worked hard with Gore on an address delivered in Baltimore. When it was over, Gore called him and asked, “How do you think it went?" Pink pointing out the not so good, along with what worked. Ten minutes later, his phone rang. A top aide at the White House was scolding him, saying the next time the vice president asks for a critique, “you have three possible answers: ‘excellent’, ‘outstanding’ and ‘one of your best.’”
In the video above, hear Pink tell the story. You can read more from his interview here:
Q. What was your reaction to the White House advice?
A. After about a year, I finally had the courage to actually tell the VP about this, and he laughed. He said to me, "I really hope you don’t do that, that doesn’t do me any good and it doesn’t do you any good." I think that’s a really important lesson. Too often when you are close to people in power, you’re trying to make them happy, you’re trying to tell them what they want to hear. But I find that really good leaders don’t want that, they want the truth. And you do them a service, and yourself a service, by just being honest and straightforward.
Q. In your new book, “To Sell is Human,” you say one out of nine Americans earns a living in sales, but all of us spend our days selling. Can you give examples?
A. Persuading your kids to go to sleep. Asking someone out 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.
Q. The old ABCs of selling -- “Always Be Closing” -- are outdated, you say. What are the new ABCs?
A. 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: being able to curate, distill, make sense of information, and identify problems people didn’t realize they have.
Q. Is the president the chief salesman?
A. In a lot of ways, he is. And, I don’t think that is a bad thing. 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. Clinton was super attuned to other people to the point where he talks about feeling other people’s pain. Clinton is probably the most buoyant, resilient person in American political history.
Q. How has the world of sales changed?
A. 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 could 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 and less of an option. You actually have to take the high road: Be more honest, more direct, more transparent.
Q. You say words like "hoodwinkery" and "sleazebaggery" are associated with sales, but that they come from an outdated notion of what selling is.
A. 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.
Q. If average people want to be better at influencing and persuading others, what do they do?
A. There are all kinds of small and practical things that people can do. You don’t have to be a glad-handing, backslapping, 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. Like ambidextrous, they’re in the middle: a little bit introverted, a little bit extroverted. Research shows that most of us are ambiverts. Some of us are very strong introverts, some of us are very strong extroverts -- but very strong extroverts and very strong introverts aren’t good at sales.
Q. Which are you?
A. I would come up on that seven-point scale at about a two and a half. I’m more introverted than extroverted. I like one-on-one conversations. I tug at my wife’s sleeve to ask to go moments after walking into a party.
One of the things I’ve learned how to do is move a little bit more toward the center. I can’t change fundamentally who I am, nor should I. Nor should anyone. So someone like me, I’m not going to be a six. But I can be a three, and three is a very good place to be.
Q. What’s the hardest sell?
A. It’s harder to sell a really bad idea than a really good idea. I think that’s always been true, but I think it’s become even harder to sell a really bad idea today because you’re so easily exposed.
Q. How much does confidence have to do with being a great salesman?
A. 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?”
Questions elicit an active response. In answering your question, you prepare yourself. You go over your game plan. You say, “Yeah, I can do this. Last time I did it, but 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.
Daniel H. Pink’s latest book is “To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others.” He will be talking and signing books on the National Mall this Saturday, Sept. 21, at the National Book Festival.