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“To Sell Is Human” by Daniel Pink: Book in a Nutshell

By June 28, 2013June 29th, 2015From The Bookshelf
“To Sell Is Human” by Daniel Pink: Book in a Nutshell

When you think of sales, do you think of pejoratives such as pushy, sleazy and dishonest? Most people do.

Yet in “To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others,” Daniel H. Pink contends that most of us, regardless of job title or salary structure, are salespeople.


Sales, broadly defined, means moving people to action, which people must do well to be successful.

This “non-sales selling” doesn’t involve a purchase—it simply means persuading, influencing and convincing others. Not only does this comprise 41 percent of total work time, according to an international study with 9,057 respondents that Pink paid for, but people say it’s the most productive use of their time.

While only one in nine Americans works in sales per se, the other eight are selling others on learning chemistry, on using new media for marketing, or on exercising more.

What Pink calls “EdMed”—healthcare and education—has a large sales component. This is the biggest job sector in the U.S., with more workers than manufacturing, retail and professional and business services, and projected to grow the most.

Pink, following up bestsellers “A Whole New Mind” and “Drive,” wants to clean up its bad reputation and recast sales not as a way to get the best of others, but to improve the world. As he explains the book’s title, “Moving others doesn’t require that we neglect these nobler aspects [idealism and artistry] of our nature . . . Today it demands that we embrace them.”

Pink’s ABCs Of Sales

Some of Pink’s advice is supported by conventional wisdom but not all; Pink draws heavily upon sometimes surprising social science research.

“Attunement” is the first thing we should learn. If we don’t understand others, how can we hope to persuade them?

It’s about getting into their heads with perspective as well as hearts  through empathy. Powerful people are prone to losing touch with others’ perspectives. So paradoxically, reducing one’s power or becoming humble is a must.

Mimicry helps. If you subtly mirror another’s gestures, you will seem more in tune, but if the other person senses your mirroring is staged, he or she will be turned off.

Surprisingly, extroverts don’t make the best salespeople, but neither do introverts.

What works best is being an “ambivert,” which is most of us in the middle of the bell curve. Extreme extroverts are often awful listeners and can be pushy, while an extreme introvert can lack initiative and the ability to close a deal. Ambiverts who can tack back and forth between extroversion and introversion do better at attunement.

If you think your failures are “permanent, pervasive and personal,” you lack “buoyancy.” Those who bounce back, says Pink, attribute rejection to circumstances: it’s a slow economy, he’s having a bad day.

Positive emotions are contagious, so when negotiating, taking a friendly tone and smiling works better than being adversarial, despite what’s portrayed in movies. Your positive emotions (gratitude, interest, contentment) should outnumber negative (anger, shame, sadness) by at least 3-1 but not going over 11-1. Too much risks detachment from reality—not taking responsibility for what one can control and learning from failures is important.

It’s less important to motivate yourself with clichés like “I’m the best” than to simply ask, “Can I do it?” A question opens you up to problem solving and boosts confidence.

The final attribute, “clarity,” means the “capacity to help others see their situations in fresh and more revealing ways and to identify problems they didn’t realize they had.”

Today people often have all the facts at hand—they just need help applying information. For example, maybe you thinks you need a better presence on Facebook when you’ll find more leads elsewhere, or maybe a bad website is actually holding you back more than your social media strategy—redefining the problem to better meet goals is what standout salespeople excel at.

In this paradigm brainstorming trumps quick fixes and the successful sellers are the ones who take the time to develop relationships and understand their clients.

Putting It All Together

“Pitching,” “improvising” and “serving” are three tactics Pink highlights for putting your skills to work.

He identifies six “successors to the elevator pitch” including:

  • the one-word pitch: President Obama’s re-election pitch, “forward”
  • Reagan’s question pitch: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”
  • the memorable rhyming pitch: “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit”
  • the email subject line pitch: pithy and specific, “10 Selling Tips”
  • the Twitter pitch: don’ts include complaints and “here’s what I had for dinner” (does anyone like hearing that?)
  • the Pixar pitch, a six-sentence structure, part of which often introduces a movie’s trailer: “Once upon a time _____. Every day, _____. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.”

Every sales pitch, Pink shows, can be put into each of these formats.

Pink then visits an improvisational acting coach to understand how improv can expand the repertoire of business people. In her hilarious memoir “Bossypants,” Tina Fey also elaborates on how improv comedy works. Here’s the basics, per Pink:

  • Say “yes and,” not “yes but”
  • Make your partner look good
  • Hear offers

The final suggestion, in what I consider the takeaway of this book, is to be a server, not a taker. Don’t “upsell,” which is a “detestable” word; “upserve,” he exhorts. Treat everyone as you’d treat your grandmother. Rethink the idea of sales commissions.

Have I sold you on Daniel Pink’s “To Sell Is Human?” Please share in the comments below whether you’ve had good experiences with sales and whether you think sales can be ennobling.

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • This is a very thought provoking post. I have had good and bad experiences, as both the person trying to make the sale and the person being sold to. It makes sense that even when we are not selling an item – we are selling the person on our own self. Thanks for sharing!

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      Hey George, I’ve really had to rethink sales over the years because there is such a stigma but when it comes down to it, we have to sell our services – so we may not go door to door and do it the annoying way, but ultimately we all sell!

    • linda rastelli says:

      I agree, Pink always writes interesting stuff. I’m going to try out some of those pitches and see how well they work.