Daniel H. Pink: ‘We All Work in Sales’

Everyone works in sales now. 'Meetings and conventions? Those are ‘sales festivals, in many ways.' And not just on the show floor.

The latest numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics say that one in nine American workers — more than 15 million people — is in sales. That fact is surprising enough, Daniel H. Pink writes in his new book, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, when you consider it in light of “the two seismic economic events of the last decade — the implosion of the global financial system and the explosion of widespread Internet connectivity,” which were supposed to have gutted the sales profession.

But the real surprise comes from Pink’s overarching conclusion in To Sell Is Human: We all work in sales, even if we’re not specifically “trying to convince someone to make a purchase.” Pink calls it “non-sales selling,” and makes a case for it as an integral part of an economy that traffics in ideas and information as much as in goods and services. There’s even a whole new ABC to replace the classic sales adage “Always Be Closing” popularized by the movie “Glengarry Glen Ross”: attunement, which involves “bringing oneself into harmony with individuals, groups, and contexts”; buoyancy, “a quality that combines grittiness of spirit and sunniness of outlook”; and clarity, which Pink defines as “the capacity to make sense of murky situations.”

“If you look at what people do each day on the job, they’re spending a lot of time selling in a broader sense,” Pink said in a recent interview at his office, a quiet, light-filled space behind his house in a leafy Washington, D.C., neighborhood. “They’re persuading people, they’re convincing people, and they’re cajoling people. What they’re doing is, they’re orchestrating an exchange — you give me this, I give you that.

“What is interesting about that particular exchange that so many people are doing is, the cash register isn’t ringing, money isn’t changing hands,” said Pink, whose previous books include the bestsellers A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future and Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. “What is really important is the denomination isn’t in dollars — it’s time, effort, energy, attention, and commitment.”

What does this mean for people who aren’t specifically in sales? Is it just an interesting new way of looking at things, or does it have implications for how they do their job?

I think it changes how you go about doing your job big time. You realize how much of your time you’re spending doing this kind of stuff. Like, your project isn’t going to go as well if you can’t get this great person to join your team; that’ s a sales job. Your project might not go as well if you can’t get your boss to give you a few more resources; that’ s a sales job. If you’re a boss, you can’t get your objective executed if you can’t convince Employee X to do things differently or to do different things. I think it has a huge effect on people’s effectiveness, and I think we’re not conscious of that…. Yet we’re all doing it a lot, and if you do something without the awareness that you’re doing it, you’re probably not doing it as well as you could.

The sales component of meetings and conventions on a certain level is very obvious, especially if you have a show floor or exhibit hall. But is there a certain amount of non-sales selling going on as well — professional networking, ideas being pitched by speakers, and so on?

Meetings and conventions are sales festivals, in many ways. There’s so much selling going on. To start, you’re trying to sell people on the idea of coming. You have this whole floor of vendors who are trying to sell people on maybe buying what they have or picking up a card or getting some free candy and a free pen, or leaving your business card in a fishbowl so you can be in a drawing for an iPad. People who come to these things, some of them will try to sell themselves and their ideas. If you think about a typical bazaar, a marketplace, it’s sort of like that. A giant, buzzing marketplace, but what is being sold aren’t rugs, vegetables, or anything like that, but ideas, insights, perspective, relationships, and all those kinds of things.

In the section on clarity, you discuss the importance of framing information and experiences, which is another way of talking about curating. That’s a hot term in the meetings industry right now — the idea that meeting planners are curating content.

It’s a great point. Let’s take a trade association meeting or a company meeting. The people who are coming have access to huge amounts of information, but at some level they’re overloaded, so they come to the meeting for, in some ways, the editorial function of the people who are running it. [The meeting’s organizers are] basically saying, “Come in here, because what we’ve done is we’ve kept out the noise and let in the signal. If you come here — there’s a wealth of information out there that you aren’t sure is relevant; we did the dirty work of clarifying it for you. If you come in here, you’re going to get the stuff that’s relevant and meaningful, and you don’t have to wade through that much in order to get it.”

If you’re not a salesperson but start to think more consciously about selling, does your behavior change? Do you become more efficient or effective?

I think so. To me, the stuff about buoyancy — I’ve just become aware of that kind of thing. I’m more aware of saying, okay, I’m going into an encounter, I’m going to pitch an idea or I’m going in to make the case to some bookseller that they should carry more of my books. I think about buoyancy, I think about the lessons of interrogative self-talk. [Editor’s Note: In To Sell Is Human, Pink describes a buoyancy strategy called interrogative self-talk as an alternative to the sales world’s more typical positive self-talk. When faced with a challenge, rather than “[d]eclaring an unshakable belief in your inherent awesomeness,” ask yourself if you can do it — because that will get you to think about when you’ve accomplished similar things before, and how you can accomplish this now.] I don’t say to myself, “You can do it,” anymore. I’m not a pump-up person anyway, but there have been many times where I said, “Okay, you got this. You’re good.” Instead, I actually use that interrogative self-talk myself. Simply being aware of it, you begin to deploy it.

One of your suggestions for implementing the lessons of To Sell Is Human is to use “emotionally intelligent signage,” which “tries to move others by expressing empathy with the person viewing the sign… or by triggering empathy in that person so she’ll understand the rationale behind the posted rule.”

You could do that at meetings and conventions, too. I think that would be really good. Signage in general is a big part of our lives, and it’s fairly thoughtless. If you think about it, especially at big conventions and meetings, signs matter a huge amount. People are coming to a place they’ve never been before so they need some way finding, and most of the signs are pretty bad. There are some hassles being at large meetings — sometimes you have to wait in long lines, sometimes there’s a long walk from point A to point B, sometimes you might not get into the session you want to get in — and the signage can actually change the experience of people in that space. It’s another form of service.

It’s also on some level related to attunement, because you’re seeing the experience of coming to a meeting or convention from the eyes of the convention-goer rather than the organizer…. That is basically empathizing with people and understanding what people’s experience is in a space. If you go to the Vietnam [Veterans] Memorial [in Washington, D.C.], there is the wall and there is a strip of sidewalk and then some grass, and there is a sign that typically says, “Keep Off the Grass,” but instead it says, “Honor Those Who Served, Please Keep Off the Grass.” Better form of enforcement with that little addition.

The chapter called “Pitch” is really interesting, especially the six alternatives to the classic elevator pitch that you suggest. The idea of a one-word elevator pitch, for example, sounds like a great possibility for conference theming.

That’s interesting. I was thinking about the pitching not on the side of the convention and meeting planners, but [rather for] the sites, because they’re going to pitch: “Have your convention in St. Louis.” “Have your convention in Milwaukee.” But it’s a good discipline for conference themes. A lot of conference themes end up being anemic — they all sound alike. You can take something from a convention of rutabaga growers and a convention of arms dealers, and they might have the same theme of “growing through connections.” Allowing yourself to use all those words makes it a little bit more flaccid, so the discipline of having that one word might be useful.

Pitching also has implications for people who are interacting at a meeting, whether they’re networking one-on-one or trying to close a deal on the show floor.

I think the most important thing there is not so much the pitches themselves but — and this was really useful to me personally — what is the purpose of the pitch. This research on Hollywood [cited in To Sell Is Human] shows that actually the purpose of a pitch and the effect of pitches is really [to extend] invitations. They’re not things that we convert or not [to a sale] in that one moment. It’s basically ways to invite people in, to begin a collaboration. Conventions can do that really well, because people are dealing with each other face-to-face. If you’re attending a convention or a meeting, you have the opportunity to issue those kinds of invitations and bring people in as partners and collaborators and folks to talk to. If your initial pitch isn’t that inviting, you blow the opportunity.

One of your tips when you’re meeting someone for the first time is to switch from asking “What do you do?” to “Where are you from?”

I use that all the time. I think it’s really profound, and it’s a great icebreaker question in any kind of meeting or convention. The other thing is, it’s a more expansive question, so if you’re at a trade association conference for accountants and you see somebody standing in line in front of you, asking them what they do — they’re probably an accountant. Asking people where they’re from, what I like about that is it gives them a number of different ways to answer the question. I just think about how I would answer that question. It would really depend on the context. At some point I would say Washington, D.C., because that’s where I live. In a certain context I might say Columbus, Ohio, because that’s where I grew up. In another context, I would say I’m from Riverhead Publishing, because I might be at a book convention. Any one of those gives people room to build on.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.