A Summary Of To “Sell Is Human – Daniel H. Pink”

When you think of a salesperson, what comes to mind? List the first three words you would use to describe a salesperson, are any of them positive? The main idea Dan Pink is trying to promote in this book, is that sales does not only not deserve its bad reputation (anymore) but is actually an incredibly useful skill that all of us can learn to become more successful.

We Are All Salespeople

Pink quotes a survey that says most workers in the west actually spend as much as 40% of their time in what he calls “non-sales selling”: persuading, influencing and convincing others in ways that don’t involve them making a purchase. The same survey also found that many businesses and successful people consider these soft skills to be essential to their success and provide much greater returns than the effort they put in.

The survey found that 1 in 9 people are in traditional sales, but the other 8 in 9 spend so much time to non-sales selling or “moving people” as Pink says, that we are all in sales too.

How We All Became Salespeople

What is your job title? How much do you do that specific thing? For example, if you are a software developer, how much time do you spend just coding? If you’re an engineer how much time do you spend just building things? If you’re an accountant, how much time do you spend just doing financial calculations? If you answered above 80% I am willing to bet you work in a large company and be in a highly specialised role.

Larger companies tend to have enough people that they can hire people who each have a narrow specialism, so if Janet the developer can’t manage projects for her clients, that’s fine, Emma the project manager can do that instead. In smaller companies though, each worker tends to be less specialised “designers analyse. Analysts design, marketers create. creators market.” (I changed the spelling of analyse to match UK English). Pink calls the ability to adapt to different roles like this, elasticity. He argues that the job market changes so quickly and so often nowadays that elasticity is becoming a critical skill for people who want career longevity.


What’s Ed-Med? I hear you cry? It’s not a weird spin-off of Ed, Edd and Eddy (90s Cartoon Network anyone?). It refers to Education and Medicine, the two fastest growing industries at the time “To Sell Is Human” came out (2012).

Moving people is a skill that can make a huge difference in any industry, but how could a teacher use sales? They don’t have any products to push, they do have students they need to encourage, though. They need to persuade children to learn now, to improve their prospects in the future. Teachers need to agitate their students.

Agitating students sounds like a bad idea. Why would you purposefully be annoying? Let me explain:

In moving people there’s irritation and there’s agitation.

Irritation – Getting people to do what you want them to do.

Agitation – Getting people to do what they want to do.

So agitation is actually giving people the push or the nudge in the right direction to do what is best for themselves.

There is a good example in the book. Pink meets a nurse, whose patients stick to their treatment plans at a rate significantly higher than the national average. When he interviews her, she tells him that she works out the treatment plan with her patients, by allowing them to be a part of the process. Rather than just telling them what she believes to be right, she gets their buy in, so they feel more compelled to keep up the treatments once they are at home and no longer being watched. Patients want to get better and because this nurse has asked for their opinion and their help to figure out the best plan, the patients feel listened to.

Does Sales Deserve Its Bad Reputation?

Earlier, I asked you what your first thoughts were when you think of a salesperson. Pink created a word cloud of the results he got when asking people the same question, the most common word…Pushy. Difficult, yuck and sleazy also featured heavily among the list. Only 5 of the 25 listed words were positive, including “necessary”, “challenging” and “fun”. Positive words were mentioned much less often than negative words, in general for this survey.

This doesn’t have to be the case. Pink explains how this may have been true in the past because traditionally the salesperson had more information than the buyer. Now that everyone has access to the same information the balance of power has been shifted to be more… balanced. In a world where the buyer and seller have the same information, dishonesty isn’t going to provide any benefit, the buyer will see through it. Instead a salesperson who wants to find the best results for their customer and does everything they can to get their customer the best solution will be most successful, like the nurse earlier. So the most successful sales people today actually work for their customers, not against them.

A New Kind of Sales

Famously, the ABCs of selling in Glengarry Glen Ross were “Always Be Closing”. This high pressure strategy may have worked well when sales was one-sided, the salesperson had all the power and all the knowledge. Now, Pink says the ABCs of selling are :




I’ll explain what each of these terms mean and share my favourite tips from the book.

Attunement – Understand Thy Customer

Attunement is the ability to take the perspective of others. It’s about empathising with the person you wish to move, so that you can understand their needs better and then find the best solutions for them. It is not just about getting some money off them and having no idea if you have helped them at all or worse, knowing you screwed them over.

There are 3 main principles of Attunement:

1) Increase Your Power By Reducing It

When was the last time you felt more powerful than the person sitting across from you? Did you know something, that they didn’t? Did you care more about the outcome for yourself or the other person?

Now imagine a situation where you are the one with less power, such as interviewing for a new job that you really want. You are probably much more conscious of what the other person is thinking, how they may react to your body language, the things you say and what you do. You’re trying to take their perspective. Become more attuned to them.

When we are in a position of lower power than the person we are talking to, it becomes easier to shift our mindset to assume the other person’s perspective and this makes it easier to move that person. So if you are the one with more power, but you want to better understand the other person, try reducing your power. Give them more knowledge or ask them about a topic they are already more knowledgeable than you, so they can feel more powerful. Having a better understanding of the other person gives you more power to move them.

2) Use Your Head as Much as Your Heart

Perspective taking involves thinking (head) and empathy involves feeling (heart). Using a healthy dose of both is much more effective than using one and not the other.

If you can successfully take someone else’s perspective, you have the best chance of ensuring the best outcome for both parties. You can figure out a solution that solves their problem, without giving away too many of your own resources, so both sides leave the table happy.

You also need to understand who has the most influence in a situation. I could spend all day every day proving to someone at the same level as me at my company that I am the greatest employee ever. But, someone at my level doesn’t decide my pay or whether or not I get a promotion, my boss does, if I use my head, I can figure out who best to impress.

3) Mimic Strategically

People tend to like people who they view as being similar to themselves. This goes back to ancient times, when we humans would stick together in small tribes and survival meant everything. If someone was from your tribe, they were likely similar to you and familiar. Someone unfamiliar could be from another tribe, a dangerous tribe. So today we still associate similarity to ourselves as being more trustworthy due to an outdated survival instinct.

That’s where mimicry comes in. You can copy the body language of people you wish to move and even use phrases they use to make yourself seem more like them and therefore more trustworthy. But, if you get caught copying them, you will irritate them and end up alienating that person, rather than convincing them you’re worthy of their trust.

Buoyancy – Just Keep Floating, Just Keep Floating

Sales people get rejected. A lot! Think how many sales calls you reject before even hearing what they have to say. I’m not judging, we get cold calls where I work all the time and I can’t stand it. It just wastes my time and theirs. However, I imagine it’s probably even worse being the cold caller and just getting person after person hanging up on you not wishing to speak to you or even being plain rude and hanging up (I don’t do this, unless dear reader, you are a cold caller, in which case I definitely do this, so don’t cold call me…)

Interrogate Yourself!

Me: Hey You!
Also Me: Who? Me?
Me: Yeah, You! Are you able to finish this blog post?!
Also Me: Yeah, I guess so. I mean I’ve finished blog posts before, so I should be able to do it again.
Me: Good, well done. Keep going.

You just witnessed a conversation between two very charming gentleman. The first character seemed a little aggressive at first and the second, a little timid for my liking. But, look closer, the first character, was actually convincing the second character to convince himself that he was capable of finishing this blog post. Why didn’t the first character just tell the second guy that he was capable? I’ll explain why.

Should You Really Question Yourself?

When you hear a statement, you don’t tend to process it very deeply. You just absorb the information passively. When saying something nice to yourself, you do get a small emotional boost because you have been positive to yourself, but this boost fades fast. For a longer, more effective self-boost, trying questioning yourself. There are 2 reason this works:

1 – When you hear a question, you are being engaged, so you respond to the question, even if it’s in your heads. As a result, you process the information more deeply. Asking yourself if you would succeed, actually prompts you to remember times you have succeeded before. Remember the conversation from earlier? This was me persuading myself I could do finish this blog post, so I felt compelled to carry on. You are reading the result now.

2 – When you ask yourself why you want to do something, you are more likely to think of ways to motivate yourself from within. Take the conversation I had with myself, it will feel good to complete this blog post, so I want to do it. Motivating yourself with inner feelings of goodness is much more effective than with outside rewards (material goods) like gummy bears or a new car or whatever things you like.

3-to-1 On All Positivity!

Moving people can feel like an “endless sea of rejection”, so you may turn to some positivity to make you feel better. Maybe, listing all your good points will help raise your spirits. Actually, no it won’t.

Studies have found that the ideal ratio of positive to negative comments, for keeping your spirits up, is 3 positive comments to every 1 negative comment. The 3-to-1 ratio of positivity to negativity, is best for your wellbeing and for staying resilient. Strangely, studies also found that if you surpass a ratio of 11-to-1 you actually do more harm than good, so be nice to yourself, just not too nice.

Nothing Lasts Forever, Not Even Rejection

I’m not going to pretend that failing at something isn’t a horrible feeling. But, it is a temporary one. If you can learn to see your failures as “temporary rather than permanent, specific rather than universal and external rather than personal” you can become much more resilient. You will can keep going longer and achieve more int he long run, than people who give up. No one wins every time, but it’s the people who get back up and try again that become truly successful. It’s not about blind optimism either, it’s about being to bounce back when you take a hit, its about staying buoyant.

Clarity – I Can Sell Clearly Now The Rain Has Gone

Clarity is being able to help others see their situation objectively and identify problems they weren’t aware they had or weren’t aware could be solved.

Framing It Right

Contrast is key to moving people. If I offered you 10 coins of an unknown currency in exchange for your phone you wouldn’t know if that was a fair deal. But if I offered you 10 pounds for your phone, you would know that’s a bad deal for you because you understand the difference in the value between 10 pounds and your phone. Changing the frame of reference for the person you are trying to move can help you to move them.

The Less Frame

I don’t know about you, but I get choice paralysis for the most minor of things. I will be at a vending machine struggling to decide which sweet is worth my 50p. There are just so many to choose from, what if the skittles aren’t as good as the wine gums?! Instead, if you offer someone fewer choices, they are actually more likely to make a decision and therefore a purchase. It’s easier to choose between two products than forty. So reduce the number choices your customer needs to make to make their decision easier.

The Experience Frame

Think back to the greatest holiday of your life, now think back to the greatest item of clothing you have ever bought, which evokes stronger feelings of joy? Most people get stronger, longer-lasting happiness from experiences than material goods.

You can frame you offer by the experience the customer will get from it, rather than the quality of the product itself. That’s all well and good for people trying to sell holidays, but what to do if you’re selling material goods? Find the experience. Kodak don’t sell cameras, they sell memories. When Apple came out with the iPod, they didn’t sell music players, they sold “1,000 songs in your pocket”.

The Potential Frame

Not all non-sales selling is about you giving to a customer, you may be convincing someone to give to you. Like getting an interviewer to give you a job. When you go to a job interview, if you focus on how much you can grow as much as you focus on your past experience, you actually paint a better picture of yourself. Talk about your potential to grow with in the role as well as your past experience in order to seem like a better candidate for the job.

Pitch, Please!

If you never make your offer, how will anyone get it? Making an offer, is called a “Pitch”. Below are some tips on crafting effective pitches.

The Subject-Line Pitch

When you’re at work, you are busy, you can’t reply to every email. You have things to do and you only want to use your attention on the most useful information brought to you. If this is true for you, it’s going to be true for the people you’re emailing, too. How then, do you get their attention?

Busy people answer useful sounding emails. If you can’t solve a problem at work, the person who solves that problem for you is going to feature pretty heavily in your good books. So, next time you need your boss to reply to your email, try to phrase the headline in a way that sounds most useful to them. Do they need to someone to cover this weekend and you want that overtime pay? Put “I can work this weekend” as your subject-line. Subject-lines are the email equivalents of headlines, they’re all you’ve got to grab the reader’s attention, make them count.

The Specific Ocean

Specificity is key in getting people’s attention. If you read the headline “How To Write Better Pitches”, that could be any number of tips, to anyone for any situation. Therefore, you don’t know if it will directly apply to you, so you don’t care that much. Instead the headline “5 Ways To Pitch Your Promotion To Your Boss, Today”, you now know there are 5 tips, for employees who want a raise and want it today. If those details apply to you, you’re much more likely to read the second post than the first one. When you try to get everyone, you get no one. Better to grab the attention of people who can benefit from your offer.

The One-Word Pitch

The world moves fast, attention moves faster. I don’t have long to draw you in. I need to get my message across, fast. Imagine I could get you to think of my brand every time you hear just one word. Seems impossible right? Lets try it with some other brands.



Did you think of Google, then Mastercard? If you can get to people in one word, then you have their attention in the shortest time possible. So figure out a way to associate one word with your brand and your brand with one word, to people’s attention instantly.

Tom Cruise And The Dalai Lama Are At A Starbucks…

THE classic improv scene. It turns out, improvisation is incredibly useful in moving people. You can’t prepare for every possible outcome, so being able to think on your feet becomes useful. There are 3 rules of improvisation that make it work.

1) Hear Offers

To really be able to move people, you should be able to really listen to them. Sales isn’t about being able to talk anyone into doing anything you want them to do. It’s about understanding their needs, so you know how you can help them. You have the best chance of understanding if you learn to listen well, with no agenda.

Even phrases that seem like objections can be offers if you learn to listen for them. “I couldn’t possibly pay £100” is the same as saying, I will pay, if you lower the offer. “I can’t make Wednesday”, what about Tuesday? It gets easy to hear offers, once you start listening.

2) Say “yes, and”

You’re trying to get your friends to all go on holiday. Tabitha keeps coming up with excuses. Tabitha is bad at improvisation and doesn’t help solve the problem. Here are Tabitha’s Yes, buts

“Yes, but we can’t afford it”
“Yes, but we can’t make the time”
“Yes, but we will never find a room for all of us”
“Yes, but” just leads to a never ending cycle of excuses where you never make progress.

Instead, try “yes, and”. This leads to positivity and progress towards solving the problem.

“Yes, it is expensive, and we can book ahead to make it cheaper”
“Yes, it’s a lot of time, and if we plan ahead, we can make it work”
“Yes, there are a lot of us, and there is a hotel with enough rooms for all us on this website here…”

Much better to say “yes, and”, right?

3) Make Your Partner Look Good

Negotiation isn’t a zero-sum game. If the other side wins, that doesn’t mean you lose, this isn’t football. In negotiations there can be win-win situations. You can find the best solution for your customer and get a rewards for your offer. Just like in improv scenes, where if you and your partner have a good scene, you both look good, win-win.

If you make your customer look good, they are more likely to feel good and depending on the industry they will become a repeat customer or be more likely to spread good word of mouth about you, so you get more customers, win-win. See the pattern?

Salesman, At Your Service

As a salesperson, you have the opportunity to improve the lives of others. You can solve problems and create joy. The two rules of service are:

  1. Make it personal
  2. Make it purposeful

Make It Personal

A study found that when radiologists were given scans to look at with photos of their patients attached, so they were looking at the person they were helping at the same time as seeing an abstract scan that could be doesn’t evoke any feeling, they were 80% more likely to spot issues not related to the original reason for their hospital visit. This means they were 80% more likely find a cyst when looking at a broken arm, that they wouldn’t have spotted otherwise, and end up saving a life or sparing someone some pain.

To personalise yourself to your customers you could add a picture of yourself to your website, you could write a bio about your story. Now you’re no longer just some faceless business, you’re a human, trying to help. Are you more likely to buy a pie from PieMart inc. or from aunt Deirdre who’s passion for baking pies lead her to quit her job, start up a bakery and make each and every pie with the same love and devotion she gives to the pies she bakes for her nieces and nephews.

Make It Purposeful

In a call centre where the staff were cold calling people to try and raise money for scholarships and other funds for university students, some employees were offered the opportunity to meet some of the scholarship students their calls had brought in donations for. When they heard about how the money they brought in had made university affordable for these students and allowed them to get an education they other wise couldn’t afford, the callers realised why they were doing their job. This resulted in a dramatic increase of donations made as the callers were dialling more and feeling more impassioned in their pitches, now they knew what a difference their job made.

Think about how you will improve the life your customers and you will feel much better than thinking about how much money you will make from the transaction. You will find it more motivating and more fulfilling than trying to make some money.

If you have a recommendation for my next read or have comments about this book summary, please let me know in the comments below.

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