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To Sell is Human - Book Review

1 May 2014

Dr. Moria Levy

Daniel Pink's new book, published in 2012, undeniably encapsulates the essence of courage. Its intent goes beyond appealing solely to salespeople, as it seeks to strike a chord with all readers. This approach assumes that many of us harbor reservations about salespeople and perceive ourselves as distinct from them. Nevertheless, Pink fearlessly addresses a broader audience, resisting the temptation to opt for more reader-friendly titles that align closely with the book's content. Perhaps his confidence in doing so stems from his established reputation, bolstered by the success of his prior bestsellers, such as "Drive" and "A Whole New Mind."


This book attributes sales qualities to all individuals, whether in selling goods or ideas, dissecting the essential qualities and skills necessary to persuade in this modern era. The book delves into various topics, including:

  1. The fundamentals – exploring the commonality that makes us all salespeople.

  2. The evolving landscape of sales.

  3. Characteristics of the contemporary salesperson.

  4. The concept of buoyancy.

  5. The importance of clarity.

  6. The three essential skills for success in sales:


    - Mastering the art of pitching.


    - Developing improvisational skills.


    - Cultivating a service-oriented approach.


The fundamentals – exploring the commonality that makes us all salespeople

Daniel Pink's book opens with a groundbreaking assertion: that every one of us is, in essence, a salesperson. This statement often catches people off guard. We've grown accustomed to perceiving salespeople as those who employ pushy tactics to gain entry or find alternative routes through the window when obstructed. As traditionally understood, salespeople occupy a distinct professional realm, not a minor one by any measure. Despite the colossal surge in online shopping, a significant fraction, approximately 1/9 of people in the US, identify themselves as full-time sales professionals. However, this only partially elucidates Pink's claim.


In contrast, 8/9 of the population is engaged in many professions. What's novel here is the transformation of this perception driven by two key factors:

  1. Currently, 90% of the Western society's populace is employed in organizations with less than ten employees. In developing societies, this percentage is even more pronounced. A substantial proportion, about 30%, are self-employed. In small businesses, there may need to be more room for a dedicated salesperson. Still, the responsibility for sales is distributed among various employees, making nearly everyone function as a salesperson within their job roles. Even individuals in roles like consultants, managers, or developers are expected to aid in acquiring new customers and retaining existing ones.

  2. What about the remaining portion of the population? Many large organizations are transitioning from their traditional models to more flexible ones where engineers and other employees are also expected to be versatile in defining their roles, encompassing interaction with the public and sales as part of their responsibilities. This shift isn't prompted by resource constraints but rather by a practical perspective: when engineers and developers comprehend the potential customer base and engage with it; they can create superior products and services. Additionally, activities previously not associated with sales incorporate sales aspects. Pink conducted an extensive survey and scrutinized various occupations throughout the day. The time we spend persuading others about the ideas we wish or need to promote, whether in managerial, peer, or subordinate roles, isn't idle. According to the study, 40% of our daily time is dedicated to motivating others. What else could this be if not a form of salesmanship? Notably, Pink contends that even those in education and healthcare, who traditionally never considered themselves salespeople, must motivate others significantly. Welcome to the new world; we all play the role of salespeople.


The evolving landscape of sales

The sales landscape is undergoing a significant transformation, with the internet playing a pivotal role in this evolution. It serves various functions in this context:


  1. Information Access: In the past, sellers held a knowledge advantage over buyers, creating an information imbalance. Nowadays, most buyers can access information and compare before interacting with the seller, whether in person or online. Buyers can swiftly verify its accuracy if the seller offers new or additional information. This leads to a more equitable distribution of knowledge during the decision-making process.

  2. Online Purchases: A growing proportion of purchases is now conducted online.

  3. Post-Purchase Feedback: People often voice their grievances when dissatisfied with a purchase. They may communicate directly with the company they purchased from, but more frequently, they share their experiences with friends, acquaintances, and online networks. Companies face challenges manipulating customers into unfavorable situations, as complaints and claims spread rapidly on the internet. Any gains they may have made from a single transaction can quickly become losses if they deter future purchases.

  4. Shifting Purchase Models: Gradually, our purchasing behavior is evolving almost imperceptibly. Previously, companies focused on convincing customers to buy products and services through pre-sale persuasion. Nowadays, many solutions are initially marketed as free products, whether for a limited time or in limited editions. Once users become accustomed to these products and require additional features or capabilities, they are asked to pay. The engineers, developers, and a dedicated team behind these solutions work to ensure a seamless transition from free to paid options. They also offer support to assist users in understanding their needs and provide the best possible assistance. This shift in the purchasing model is becoming increasingly common, often escaping notice.


Characteristics of the contemporary salesperson

Selling prowess isn't an inherent trait; we must embrace the notion that selling is a skill that can be nurtured and cultivated. Pink asserts that these skills can be developed, and the key ones are as follows:

  1. Attunement: The primary attribute crucial for a successful salesperson is the capacity to attune themselves to the individual they aim to inspire. Attunement involves aligning your thoughts, context, and actions with those you intend to connect with. Three fundamental principles that facilitate this alignment include:


    - Empowering through reducing power: Rather than selling from a position of asymmetry with superior knowledge, trade from the standpoint of understanding the other person. This involves comprehending their perspective and adopting their point of view.


    - Inclusive use of intellect: While acknowledging that sales involve emotions and personal connections, generating attunement and alignment often necessitates an analytical approach to understanding the situation and the key players involved. Understanding who wields influence and how they do so in a given context helps you identify with whom it's worthwhile to build this alignment. This analytical process, called social cartography, draws from social network analysis (SNA).


    - Imitation: Mirroring expressions, movements, and speech fosters alignment between individuals and springs from it. Observing your conversation partner and adapting your actions and mannerisms to resonate with them strengthens your capacity to "tune in."


Salespeople are advised not to lean excessively towards introversion or extroversion. While extroverted individuals may make more sales, Pink's research suggests that those with a balanced approach often succeed tremendously. Here are some recommended strategies for personal adjustment:

  • Training in the art of natural observation and adaptability.

  • In meetings, symbolize the customer's presence by leaving an empty chair and acknowledging their importance.

  • Training in creating decision maps and analyzing the key speakers and influencers.


The concept of buoyancy

A crucial point to remember is that throughout our lives and professional pursuits, we will inevitably encounter rejection. Even the most accomplished manager, skilled salesperson, or anyone striving to sell or motivate others will hear "no." Buoyancy, the ability to stay afloat in the face of various circumstances, distractions, or potential annoyances, is an essential skill for anyone involved in sales or motivation, and it's a quality expected from all of us. Here are some recommended strategies for handling rejection:

  1. Before selling or motivating: Have faith in your abilities and your potential for success. Unsurprisingly, those who believe in their success are more successful than those who fear failure. However, a third group outperforms both: those who ask themselves, "How will I succeed?" This question implicitly triggers a search for a path to success and arises from intrinsic motivation. Therefore, it's advisable to inquire, "How will I succeed?" Pink refers to this approach as the "Bob the Builder Method," drawing inspiration from the children's animated series where Bob regularly asks, "Can we fix it?"

  2. While selling or motivating: Maintain a positive dialogue and mindset. Positive thinking and emotions offer numerous advantages, surpassing negativity and intimidation. However, it's more complex than pure positivity. Studies suggest that the optimal ratio between positive and negative emotions, words, and thoughts is 1:3. This implies that portraying the world in a positive light is not only unrealistic but also insufficient. It's crucial to address challenges and difficulties as well. Negative feedback is essential for learning and improvement, so it shouldn't be disregarded. Find the right balance between positivity and addressing challenges.

  3. After the sale or motivational attempt: Analyze and explain what transpired. Pink recommends a thoughtful approach to explaining failures to help us improve if success isn’t achieved. The explanation should involve:


    - Regarding failure as something temporary rather than permanent.


    - Considering the failure to succeed as specific to the situation, not universal.


    - Viewing the failure to thrive as external rather than inherently personal.


Those who can analyze and explain failures based on these principles will learn more effectively and better cope with setbacks. Seligman, whom Pink references, calls this perspective "flexible optimism."


The importance of clarity

In addition to intention and positive coping, the third crucial skill is the ability to perceive with clarity – the capacity to identify the precise problem that necessitates a solution. We often focus on problem-solving, but Pink reminds us that, in many cases, the most effective approach involves redefining the problem and addressing it accordingly. Success in closing a sale or completing a persuasive process often depends on the ability to be creative, engage in meaningful discussions, and brainstorm with the person in front of you. You can pinpoint the right opportunity and chart the correct course of action through these interactions. Identifying the problem is not always as straightforward as it may seem, much like sifting through the inundation of information we encounter can be challenging. To uncover possibilities and grasp the core issue, one must be adept at asking questions and possess the skill of active listening. It's vital to help the overwhelmed individual in front of you attain clarity, whether for making a purchase or gaining persuasion. Here are five reframing tips that can elevate your selling and motivating skills:

  1. Limit the number of alternatives: Presenting too many options can overwhelm the person you're trying to persuade. It's easier for them to decide or be convinced when the choices are manageable.

  2. Connect to personal experiences: Relating the conversation to unique experiences, rather than abstract functionality, can make it easier to persuade someone.

  3. Utilize conformity to expectations: If someone identifies with a specific label, guiding them in that direction is more accessible, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  4. Employ the marginal negative: Introducing a minor negative aspect after presenting positive information can be beneficial. It's essential to ensure that the negative addition is not significant and should follow the positive information. This comparison encourages the desired outcome.

  5. Believe in the potential: Surprisingly, people are more inclined to emotionally and physically invest in the potential of something rather than certainty. People prefer substantial promises over smaller, less significant ones, and this applies to various aspects, including finances. However, there are exceptions to this approach, and it may only work in some circumstances.


One final recommendation concerning clarity is to conclude by presenting a clear path to action, as this can have a significant impact.


The three essential skills for success in sales:

Mastering the art of pitching

We are all familiar with the concept of the "elevator pitch" – the art of presenting your idea so effectively that, if you happen to find yourself in an elevator with the most senior person in your industry, you can sell them your idea within 60 seconds before parting ways when you exit the elevator. Pink argues that this perception needs to evolve for two primary reasons: first, the world is becoming increasingly interconnected, with access to senior executives through various communication channels; and second, people are often preoccupied while in elevators, engrossed in conversation, checking emails, or glued to their smartphones. Here are various techniques for transforming a speech into a compelling one:

  1. Single Word: Encapsulating an idea into a single word (or two) is invaluable. Use this word as a brand to represent your core message. Simple ideas tend to resonate more effectively. For example, Google is synonymous with "Search," and MasterCard's brand essence is "Priceless."

  2. Questioning: Crafting a thoughtful question that encourages the person you're selling to or persuading to contemplate can be more effective than simply stating a sentence. However, use this technique judiciously, as it's only potent when your argument is robust, and the questions lead to the desired answer. Otherwise, it may backfire.

  3. Rhymes: Expressing an idea using rhyme makes it more memorable. Consider these examples: "Woes unite foes" and "What sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals."

  4. Essence: Your argument's essence should embody three qualities: useful, intriguing, and focused.

  5. Brief Messages: This technique is related to the first one but allows for slightly more elaboration. Think of it as presenting your idea like Twitter, using just a few words.

  6. Story Structure: Consider structuring your speech using the framework of Disney stories, which includes:


    - "Once upon a time, only some people worked in sales."


    - "Every day, they sold things, and everyone was happy."


    - "One day, everything changed: we all switched to sales, and the nature of sales changed."


    - "That's why we had to learn new abilities of attunement, positive coping, and clarity."


    - "That's why we had to develop speech, improvisation, and service skills."


    - "Until finally, we realized that sales are less barbaric than we thought, and it's something we can do better by being more human."


While it's impractical to incorporate all these techniques into a single speech, it's essential to consider their appropriateness and apply them as needed.


We are developing improvisational skills

I've adhered to the term "improvisation," the concept Pink has chosen for the "improvisational theater" domain that business managers are increasingly integrating into their training. However, I must admit that I have some reservations about it. Nevertheless, here are the fundamental techniques relevant to our context:

  1. Actively Listen to Others: This goes beyond staying silent while the other person speaks. It involves deeply engaging with their words, pausing briefly after they've finished, and then responding. This approach enhances our understanding of others and generates better ideas for more effective persuasion. Additionally, it aids in the process of persuading the other party.

  2. "Yes, and also" Approach: Instead of immediately rejecting ideas you disagree with, adopt a "yes, and also" attitude. Begin by agreeing ("yes"), indicating your alignment with the other person, and then follow with your concerns ("and also"). This approach goes beyond mere politeness; it signifies a shift in mindset. By saying "yes," you acknowledge agreement with the other party while raising issues with their argument (the "and" part). This technique can be repeated multiple times, bringing issues to the forefront and facilitating understanding and consensus. It also helps reduce frustration during the discussion.

  3. Elevate Your Colleague: This technique forms the basis for seeking win-win solutions. Its primary objective is to learn from the other party during the process, ultimately reducing their resistance to cooperation.


We are cultivating a service-oriented approach

To excel in serving, salespeople must first acknowledge that their ultimate goal is to serve their customers. The most effective techniques for serving employees, colleagues, managers, or customers include:

  1. Personalize the Approach: By making the sales or persuasion process a personal endeavor, we get to know the person in front of us and invest ourselves in the idea or product we are promoting. This personal touch significantly enhances our ability to sell effectively.

  2. Act with Intent: While every sale appears to be driven by intent, Pink encourages us to go a step further – to act with intent and meaning that transcends our self-interest. For example, studies have shown that adding hospital signs reminding staff to wash their hands to prevent patient illness significantly increases hand hygiene compliance. A similar sign emphasizing handwashing to avoid illness employee is more effective than one with no mention of intent but less effective than the one focusing on preventing patient infections. People are more likely to act when it's tied to a higher purpose or goal related to others. Pink's discussion of intention revolves around the idea of meaning. To further explore this concept, you may want to read Pink's book, "A Whole New Mind."


Throughout the book in general, and on this subject in particular, Pink guides us toward a more humane perspective on selling and persuading. This chapter should serve as the conclusion, encapsulating Pink's overarching message throughout the book.


Note: Throughout the book, Pink offers practical tips and ideas for developing the qualities and skills he presents. The critical question is not whether one can learn but whether Pink has convincingly conveyed that this is the way. My examination of the book, much like a cobbler who doesn't go barefoot, has motivated me. I certainly intend to adopt several recommendations from the book, and I recommend you do the same.


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