To Sell Is Human
Daniel Pink
Riverhead Books, 260 pages, $28.50


Your first instinct might be to deny it, but you are probably a salesperson. Most government executives are, even if the public service is seen as galaxies away from the grubby world of commerce and sales.

Sales, after all, at its core, need not involve money.

That shouldn’t be an unusual proposition. But it’s a reality that most of us who don’t normally see ourselves in sales haven’t fully faced up to.

Dan Pink hadn’t until recently. He’s an author and onetime chief speechwriter to U.S. Vice-President Al Gore. But when he kept track for a two-week period of his activities, from emails and blog posts to interactions with others, he discovered he spent a significant portion of his day trying to coax others to part with resources. In some cases it involved money, but mostly it was in the field of notions, from convincing an editor to give up a silly idea, to persuading an old friend to help him solve a problem, to urging his nine-year-old son to take a shower after baseball practice. His speechwriting years ago for the vice-president, or course, was a sales job, as is most communications work.

He dug into the statistics and found that one in nine people in the U.S. are categorized as salespeople. In Canada, “sales and service occupations,” which is broader than the American classification, makes up more than 25 percent of the work force. But he contends that those figures only point to traditional sales; the reality is most of the rest of us fall into what he calls “non-sales selling.” In particular, he pinpoints a fast-growing sector he labels “Ed-Med,” education and health services, in which jobs involve moving people to do things. “We’re persuading, convincing, and influencing others to give up something they’ve got in exchange for what we’ve got,” he writes in To Sell is Human.

He offers a quiz for readers to check their own situation:

• Do you earn your living trying to convince others to purchase goods or services? That is traditional selling, and although many people in government don’t fall into this classification a good number are selling services.
• Do you work for yourself or run your own operation, even on the side. If so, you’re in sales, probably a mixture of traditional sales and non-sales selling.
• Does your work require what he calls “elastic skills,” the ability to cross boundaries and functions, work outside your specialty, and handle a variety of different things during the day? If so, you’re in non-sales selling. Elastic skills is a delightful term, giving a name to what envelops many government executives.
• Do you work in education or health care? If so, count it as non-sales selling.

He argues that only if you answered no to all four questions are you not in sales. And I suspect for most government executives at least one question was answered affirmatively. Welcome to the world of sales.


That might be your reaction, since sales is not why most people enter public service. Nor is it their self-image. Pink found himself after checking his own routine now living uneasily in a neighbourhood – the sales community – that he had thought was for someone else, someone without his values and approach to life.

After all, traditional sales seems somewhat grimy. When Pink asked in a survey what individuals thought of sales, the most common word was pushy, followed by others like sleazy, yuck, ugh, hard, difficult, annoying, dishonest and manipulative. Not your self-image, I’ll bet.

Pink believes one reason for our distaste for sales is the approach dramatized in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross when Alec Baldwin, as Blake, points to a green chalkboard on which he’s written the first three letters of the alphabet and then harangues the struggling salespeople: “A-B-C. A – always. B – be. C – closing. Always be closing. Always be closing.”


The reality is that such a single-minded quest for the sale is actually no longer at the heart of most selling systems, which are consultative and aimed at satisfying real needs. But the image persists and we still run into Always Be Selling types. Looking at research, for sales and non-sales selling, Pink has revised ABC for the modern situation: Attunement, buoyancy, and clarity.

Attunement is the ability to bring your actions and outlook into harmony with other people and the context you’re in. The analogy Pink uses is of operating the dial on a radio, honing in on a signal. Power gets in the way of attunement, since you will feel less compelled to need other people. So Pink suggests assuming in non-sales selling situations that you’re not the person with power, since you will then need to be more attuned to your context in order to be effective.

Attunement sounds like empathy. But he distinguishes between emotional and intellectual empathy, arguing it’s not about emotional empathy. You want to get into other people’s heads, not their hearts. An attunement technique you might want to follow comes from Jeff Bezos, founder of, who includes at all important meetings an empty chair, intended to remind those assembled of customers, and the need to consider customer needs.

Buoyancy allows us to keep going after our sales efforts are resisted, again, and again, and again. He says it involves interrogative self talk, in which you question whether you have what it takes to handle a forthcoming selling situation, and answer yourself by giving reasons to expect success.

Positivity counts. Research suggests during selling efforts your positive emotions should outnumber your negative emotions three to one. And, of course, if finally rejected in your efforts, buoyancy will help you to explain the situation in a positive way.

Want to practice? Pink suggests counting the nos you get during a week and then celebrating them. You may not be able to put them on the wall, as Jay Goldberg – founder of an art gallery and memorabilia store in New York City – did with the 25 rejection letters he got from major league baseball teams when he sought a job in their ranks, the memory reminding you, like him, to persist. “The letters gave me a little smile every time I looked at them,” he told Pink.

Clarity is the ability to help others see their situations in fresh, revealing ways and to identify problems they didn’t realize they had. These days many salespeople consider themselves problem solvers, part of the modern consultative approach. But Pink argues it’s more important to be a problem finder, discovering the right problems people have that need solving. You’ll improve your ability to provide clarity if you learn to contrast your proposals with less appealing alternatives.

Pink adds to those three mental states three activities that will help you be successful at sales: pitching, improvising and serving. He stresses that “the purpose of a pitch isn’t necessarily to move others immediately to adopt your idea. The purpose is to offer something so compelling that it begins a conversation, brings the other person in as a participant, and eventually arrives at an outcome that appeals to both of you. In a world where buyers have ample information and an array of choices, the pitch is often the first word but it’s rarely the last.”

He says you will be more successful at selling if you learn the tactics of improv groups. You need to listen carefully to what the other person is saying and keep the conversation going with a “yes, and” approach, supporting what is being said rather than brushing it aside. Finally, make your partner in the situation look good.

One of the reasons we instinctively dislike selling is it seems self-serving. But Pink argues that success at selling requires a mentality of serving others. He urges you to always ask yourself: If the person you are selling to agrees to buy, will his or her life improve and when the interaction is ended will the world be a better place? That’s the kind of sales attitude that will make government executives more comfortable with their new self-image as salespeople.
Harvey Schachter is the Globe and Mail columnist for Managing Books and the Monday Morning Manager, and a freelance writer specializing in management issues.