[Book Review] To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others

Monday January 28, 2013,

7 min Read

by Daniel H. Pink (http://www.danpink.com)

9 chapters; 260 pages

2012 Riverhead Books (http://www.amazon.com/To-Sell-Is-Human-Surprising/dp/1594487154)

Review by Madanmohan Rao (http://yourstory.in/author/madanmohan)

“A world of entrepreneurs is a world of sales people” -- that is the key thrust of this new book by bestselling author Daniel Pink. Every human is an entrepreneur and therefore every human must learn and perfect the art of selling.

Directly or indirectly, more of us are becoming involved in activities generally regarded as sales – or influencing, persuading and convincing others to do things. The book offers a fresh look at the art and science of selling. The author draws on recent research in social science to bring the practice of selling right into the 21st century of globalisation, economic uncertainty and digital media.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, one in nine Americans works in formal sales as an occupation, with similar levels reached in Europe and soon to be reached in emerging economies such as Brasil, India and China.

The author defines and expands on a new category of activity called ‘non-sales selling.’ Activities ranging from leadership and innovation to strategy and supervision all call for a great deal of the exercise of influence. The ability to ‘sell’ is crucial for our survival, growth and wellbeing; it is not just about heartless commerce but daily transactional contexts.

Whether we are employees pitching colleagues on a new idea, entrepreneurs enticing funders to invest, or parents and teachers cajoling children to study, we spend our days trying to move others. Like it or not, we are all in sales now, the author explains.

“In astonishing numbers, we now go online to sell ourselves – on Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and Match.com profiles,” says Pink; none of these existed barely 10 years ago. (Isn’t it interesting how many of our emails these days cajole us to go to social media sites and do more cajoling?)

Entrepreneurship through startups, SMEs, micro-enterprises and independent entrepreneurs is also mushrooming around the world. The Internet and smartphones are not just improving traditional businesses but creating new digital ones and unlocking value in unprecedented ways.

“Kickstarter surpassed the US National Endowment for the Arts as the largest backer of arts projects in the US,” the author observes, a clear reflection of new online forms of ‘sales’ behaviour.

Search and social networking have reduced the information asymmetry between buyer and seller – but this has re-shaped manipulative sales practices and created new kinds of influence patterns. Job requirements are also becoming increasingly elastic, requiring employees to cross boundaries and functions and communicate outside their specialty.

The book powerfully describes such shifts in the modern reality of ‘sales.’ In earlier years, the word ‘sales’ unfortunately carried negative connotation of ruthlessness, manipulation, greed and unscrupulous character, masked in ‘suits’ and smooth talk. People in sales today should be in harmony with individuals, groups and contexts. They should have more than just tenacity and positive outlooks to overcome the "ocean of rejection" they often face.

The author describes three new principles of attitude (ABC: attunement, buoyancy, clarity – rather than the older sales formula ‘Always Be Closing’) and three principles of action (pitch, improvise, serve), which I have summarised in Table 1 below.

Table 1: Sales Principles and Methods

Principle Activities
AttunementMaster the art of empathy, perspective-taking and ‘social cartography;’ draw discussion maps and mood maps; be chameleon-like in adjustments; be an ‘ambivert’ (extrovert + introvert)
BuoyancyPractice interrogative self-talk, balance positivity with ‘appropriate negativity’ (levity + gravity), cultivate flexible optimism, improve your explanatory style
ClarityFind the right problem to solve, frame your context creatively (in terms of experience and potential), learn how to ask good questions, provide clear action paths, use the ‘five whys’ approach to find hidden problems
PitchMaster the art of the one-word pitch, one Tweet pitch, one email subject-line pitch; use rhymes, questions and even movie storylines (Pixar) to frame your pitch; experiment with multimedia and pecha-kucha formats
ImproviseLearn how to listen, pick tips by observing improvisational theatre, think win-win and mutual benefits, use creativity rather than coercion, adopt a ‘yes and’ approach rather than ‘yes but’
ServePitch with the personal and purposeful touch, move from upselling to ‘upserving,’ tap emotional intelligence, keep asking if you can really help your client/customer and the world in general (integrity)

The book features some profiles of companies using these principles, but many more such case studies would have been useful. For instance, enterprise software firm Atlassian deploys computer scientists in the field, so that they not only tackle customer queries with authority but also identify new problems the customers might not even know they have.

The Future Project, an educational non-profit organisation in the UK, has an executive with the title Chief Movement Officer. Sales in some form happen in all roles and at all times in forward-thinking organisations. “Every day is a sales day,” says Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX.

The role of perspective is key – instead of trying to find how to sell vacuum cleaners, a company may be better off selling a weekly cleaning service, or new kinds of carpets, or stronger window screens to keep out the dust. Problem solving should be replaced by problem finding, via better customer immersion and perspective.

Examples of ‘one-word equity’ in branding include Google (‘search’), MasterCard (‘priceless’), and Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign (‘Forward’). Rhyming can improve pitch recall (I would also add alliteration).

Shorter forms of pitch have been accelerated by Twitter (and I would also add SMS). Investor Stowe Boyd even requires that startups frame their enquiries to him via a ‘twitpitch,’ and the University of Iowa required aspiring business students to summarise the strength of their application in a tweet! Research initiatives at CMU, MIT and Georgia Tech have been analysing the implications of such ‘micro-blog content value.’

The ‘Pixar pitch’ involves summarising your offering as follows: “Once upon a time, < >. Every day, < >. One day, < >. Because of that, < >. Because of that, < >. Until finally, < >.”

The author shows this format in action by summarising the movie Finding Nemo, and showing how this format could be used by an AIDS awareness organisation or an urban project planner. After each kind of pitch, you should be clear about what you want the target audience to know, feel and do.

Some reviewers have dismissed this book as ‘pop science’ and missing out on lots of other published research, but interested readers can certainly dig deeper into the cited references to draw their own conclusions.

The material is easy to read (and skip in some sections), with a mix of personal anecdotes, interviews, sample cases and cited research publications. The writing is quite witty and humourous and makes for an interesting read. Other recommended books are Robert Cialdini's ‘Influence,’ Patricia Ryan Madson’s ‘Improv Wisdom,’ Chip and Dan Heath's ‘Made to Stick’ and ‘Switch.’

In sum, selling is a significant part of our entrepreneurial DNA, and the author does a good job of increasing the reader’s appreciation of the importance of the sales instinct and how to master it. The book is particularly useful for entrepreneurs and startup founders, and for broader organisational audiences as well. And for those who have never read a book specifically on sales, this is a good fresh introduction.

Author Profile:

Daniel Pink (https://twitter.com/DanielPink) is the author of four books, including ‘Drive’ and ‘A Whole New Mind.’ ‘Drive’ focused on motivational behaviour. ‘A Whole New Mind’ addressed creativity in the workplace, education and culture.

Pink’s books have been translated into 33 languages and have sold millions of copies. In 2011, ‘Harvard Business Review and Thinkers 50’ named him one of the top 50 business thinkers in the world. A graduate of Northwestern University and Yale Law School, Pink lives in Washington, DC.

[Follow YourStory's research director Madanmohan Rao on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MadanRao ]

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