Dan Pink – The Surprising Truth About Moving Others

Dan Pink started his presentation by crediting Neil Davidson for the idea behind his new book, To Sell Is Human. Dan told us about an email he received from Neil and the followup conversations where Neil described how his sales force was gaming the compensation system. Neil tried to modify the compensation system, but every time he did his sales team would figure out a new way to game it. So Neil eliminated commissions for his sales force altogether, and it ended up working phenomenally.

Dan suggests that if/then rewards are extremely effective for simple, repetitive tasks, but fall short for conceptual, creative tasks.

Death of the Salesman

I wasn’t aware of it, but apparently there is this notion that salespeople have become obsolete. But that’s not true. In the US, 15 million people work in sales. 1 out of 9 people worked in sales before the age of the Internet, and today 1 out of 9 people still work in sales.

And of those that don’t have the term sales in their job title, most of them do non-sales selling. Non-sales selling is an indirect form of selling that involves persuading others to give up resources in exchange for something else.

So, what do people actually do day to day at work? A survey of 7000 adults in the US workforce asked: “What percentage of your work involves convincing or persuading people to give up something they value for something you can offer?” The answer: 41%.

Like it or not, we’re all in sales now.

What does sales mean to you?

Many of us may be involved with sales in one way or another, but we don’t like it very much. When asked “When you think of ‘sales’ or ‘selling’, what’s the first word that comes to mind?” most of the responses were overwhelmingly negative. Of the top 25 adjectives, only 4 were positive.

The top responses were:

  • pushy
  • yuck
  • ugh
  • sleazy
  • hard
  • difficult
  • annoying
  • slimy
  • dishonest
  • necessary
  • manipulative
  • challenging

Image credit: @mdclement

(Before revealing these results, Dan asked the audience to shout out what one word they think best describes sales. One person said “hero.” I couldn’t see who it was, but I bet it was this guy.)

But this has nothing to do with sales. Rather it’s about the conditions in which sales take place.

The Information World

In the past the seller always had more information than the buyer. Therefore, the seller could hoodwink the buyer.

Information asymmetry is the perception that the salesperson has an informational advantage over the buyer. This leads us to caveat emptor – buyer beware. But with the age of the Internet and so much freely available information, this world is ending.

We are now in an era of information symmetry, where you can’t rip people off. Information symmetry leads to caveat venditor – seller beware.

How to do sales

If we are all in sales, but sales isn’t what it used to be, how do we do it?

Doing sales in a world of  information symmetry is no longer about Always be Closing.

It is now about

  • Attunement: The ability to take someone else’s perspective. Having a sense of where people are coming from.
  • Buoyancy: The capacity to deal with rejection.
  • Clarity: The ability to share understanding of complex situations with clarity. Identifying problems people don’t know that they have.

Remember it’s not about you. Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame would pull up an empty chair during meetings to remind everyone of the customer. (This is similar to Hubspot’s Molly.)


Attunement is about perspective.

Try an experiment: Stand in front of someone and ask him to draw the letter E on his forehead. Result: high power people are almost three times as likely as low power people to draw a self-oriented E.

Power leads individuals to focus too heavily on their own perspective.

Three laws of attunement:

  1. Increase your power by reducing it. Reducing your power a little will sharpen your perspective taking abilities. One example is to put yourself in a small chair so your guest can sit in a large chair.
  2. Use your head as much as your heart. Think about what the other person thinks, not what the other person feels. Perspective taking is not the same as empathy, but it is similar. Perspective taking and empathy are like fraternal twins instead of identical twins.
  3. Mimic strategically. We are natural mimickers. We do it subconsciously. It’s a form of affinity. Negotiators who mimic their opponents get better deals. Mimic strategically to negotiate agreements that are more likely to benefit both parties.

Who make the best salespeople?

The common wisdom is that extroverts make the best salespeople. But, there is actually no evidence that this is true. The correlation between sales performance and extroversion is .07. However, this doesn’t mean that introverts are better at sales. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

A study was done to determine whether extroverts or introverts were better at sales. The result was that extroverts sold $125, and introverts sold $120. Virtually identical!

It turned out that ambiverts are the best salespeople. Ambiverts are people in the middle that score between about 3.5 and 5 on a scale of extroversion (the peak is at about 4). They are neither extremely introverted nor extremely extroverted.

Image credit: @GoghUA

There’s an inverted U relationship between sales performance and extroversion. This also happens to be the distribution in the population, which suggests that it’s what people do.

Sales Techniques

There are three abilities one should learn to be a good salesman.

  • Pitch
  • Improvise
  • Serve

The elevator pitch is a 20th century relic. Try these pitch techniques:

  • Question pitch: Phrasing your pitch like a question is very powerful. When you ask a question, you force the listener to summon their own answer in their head, and come up with their own reasons to agree with you. And everyone loves their own reasons. This technique is only powerful if you have a strong case. An example of this in use was when Ronald Reagan asked “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” during a debate with Jimmy Carter.
  • Rhyming pitch: Rhymes are highly memorable and perceived to be more credible. Rhymes also make it easier to understand the message. Things that are easier to understand are easier to believe. An example of the rhyme pitch is the famous quote from the OJ Simpson trial, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” The candy company Haribo has a rhyming slogan in all the languages they operate in. The English slogan is “Kids and grownups love it so, have it so in Haribo.”
  • Pixar pitch: Every Pixar story has the same narrative structure. It’s as follows: Once upon a time there was _____. Every day, _____. One day ____. Because of that, _____. Because of that, _____. Until finally ____.

[I’d like to thank Bill Horvath, founder of DoX Systems, for sharing his notes with me.]

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