Daniel Pink: The New ABCs of Selling

“The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell.
And the funny thing is, you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that.”
— Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman


No matter what you do for a living, you’re in sales. That’s the conclusion Daniel Pink draws in his book To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, a thought-provoking book on “sales” that debunks some of the assumptions behind what we traditionally understand about sales. It’s about how to move people with passion and authenticity.

I’m convinced we’ve gotten it wrong. This is a book about sales. But it is unlike any book about sales you have read (or ignored) before. That’s because selling in all its dimensions—whether pushing Buicks on a car lot or pitching ideas in a meeting—has changed more in the last ten years than it did over the previous hundred. Most of what we think we understand about selling is constructed atop a foundation of assumptions that has crumbled.

It might be an idea, it might be yourself, it might be a product, but you spend more of your time selling than you think.

Some of you, no doubt, are selling in the literal sense— convincing existing customers and fresh prospects to buy casualty insurance or consulting services or homemade pies at a farmers’ market. But all of you are likely spending more time than you realize selling in a broader sense—pitching colleagues, persuading funders, cajoling kids. Like it or not, we’re all in sales now.

Selling doesn’t have a good reputation. These clips from the 1992 movie Glengarry Glen Ross, based on David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play by the same name, play to what most of us think.

Pink takes one of the old adages of sales ABC — “Always Be Closing” and proposes a new ABC — “Attunement, Buoyancy, and Clarity.”

To sell well is to convince someone else to part with resources—not to deprive that person, but to leave him better off in the end. That is also what, say, a good algebra teacher does.

Most selling used to take place in a world where the salesperson knew more than you did. Asymmetrical information created all sorts of problems for consumers. The person you needed to trust was also the one most able to deceive you. The seller knew more about the product than the buyer. This made buyers suspicious. And largely we remain as such. Thanks to the internet, this is no longer the case, but some of the problems still exist.

In a sort of Gresham’s Law, George Akerlof wrote (In The Market for “Lemons”), “Dishonest dealings tend to drive honest dealings out of the market … The presence of people who wish to pawn bad wares as good wares tend to drive out the legitimate business.”

In To Sell is Human, Pink picks up on this.

… prospective purchasers are on notice. When sellers know more than buyers, buyers must beware. It’s no accident that people in the Americas, Europe, and Asia today often know only two words of Latin. In a world of information asymmetry, the guiding principle is caveat emptor—buyer beware.

Imagine a world not of information asymmetry, but of something closer to information parity, where buyers and sellers have roughly equal access to relevant information. What would happen then? Actually, stop imagining that world. You’re living in it.

Buyers today aren’t “fully informed” in the idealized way that many economic models assume. But neither are they the hapless victims of asymmetrical information they once were. … The belief that sales is slimy, slick, and sleazy has less to do with the nature of the activity itself than with the long-reigning but fast-fading conditions in which selling has often taken place.

The balance has shifted. If you’re a buyer and you’ve got just as much information as the seller, along with the means to talk back, you’re no longer the only one who needs to be on notice. In a world of information parity, the new guiding principle is caveat venditor—seller beware.

Many of the common sales-practices of yesteryear don’t adapt well to information parity. In the new world, we need to re-cast the ABCs, Pink argues, to Attunement, Buoyancy, and Clarity.


Attunement “is the ability to bring one’s actions and outlook into harmony with other people and with the context you’re in,” Pink explains. It hinges on three principles.

1. Increase your power by reducing it.

… “power leads individuals to anchor too heavily on their own vantage point, insufficiently adjusting to others’ perspectives.” … The ability to take another’s perspective mattered less when sellers—whether a commissioned salesperson in an electronics store or a physician in her diploma—studded office—held all the cards. Their edge in information … gave them the ability to command through authority and sometimes even to coerce and manipulate. But as that information advantage has withered, so has the power it once conferred. As a result, the ability to move people now depends on power’s inverse: understanding another person’s perspective, getting inside his head and seeing the world through his eyes.

2. Use your head as much as your heart.
… Perspective-taking is a cognitive capacity; it’s mostly about thinking. Empathy is about emotional response; it’s mostly about feeling. Both are crucial. … (but) one is more effective when it comes to moving others. (Perspective-takers).

Pushing too hard is counterproductive, especially in a world of caveat venditor. But feeling too deeply isn’t necessarily the answer either – because you might submerge your own interests. Perspective-taking seems to enable the proper calibration between the two poles, allowing us to adjust and attune ourselves in ways that leave both sides better off.

This second principle of attunement also means recognizing that individuals don’t exist as atomistic units, disconnected from groups, situations, and contexts. And that requires training one’s perspective-taking powers not only on people themselves but also on their relationships and connections to others.

“I do this in every sales situation,” says Dan Shimmerman, founder of Varicent Software, a blazingly successful Toronto company recently acquired by IBM. “For me it’s very important to not just have a good understanding of the key players involved in making a decision, but to understand what each of their biases and preferences are. The mental map gives a complete picture , and allows you to properly allocate time, energy and effort to the right relationships.”

3. Mimic Strategically

Human beings are natural mimickers . Without realizing it, we often do what others do— mirroring back their “accents and speech patterns, facial expressions , overt behaviors, and affective responses.” The person we’re talking to crosses her arms; we do the same. Our colleague takes a sip of water; so do we. When we notice such imitation , we often take a dim view of it. “Monkey see, monkey do,” we sniff. We smirk about those who “ape” others’ behavior or “parrot” back their words as if such actions somehow lie beneath human dignity. But scientists view mimicry differently. To them, this tendency is deeply human, a natural act that serves as a social glue and a sign of trust . Yet they, too, assign it a nonhuman label. They call it the “chameleon effect.”


How to stay afloat amid that ocean of rejection is the second essential quality in moving others. I call this quality “buoyancy.” Hall exemplifies it. Recent social science explains it. And if you understand buoyancy’s three components— which apply before, during, and after any effort to move others— you can use it effectively in your own life.

Like attunement, Pink boils buoyancy down to three components—” which apply before, during, and after any effort to move others.”

1. Before: Interrogative Self-Talk

We human beings talk to ourselves all the time— so much, in fact, that it’s possible to categorize our self-talk. Some of it is positive , as in “I’m strong,” “I’ve got this,” or “I will be the world’s greatest salesman.” Some of it— for a few of us, much of it— is negative. “I’m too weak to finish this race” or “I’ve never been good at math” or “There’s no way I can sell these encyclopedias.” But whether the talk is chest-thumping or ego-bashing, it tends to be declarative. It states what is or what will be.

However, the person whose example you should be following takes a different tack. His name is Bob the Builder. And if you haven’t been around preschool children in the last fifteen years, let me offer a quick dossier. Bob is an overall-clad, hard-hat-sporting, stop-motion-animated guy who runs a construction company. His TV program, which began in England in 1999, now entertains kids in forty-five countries. Bob is always finding himself in sticky situations that seem inevitably to call for traditional sales or non-sales selling. Like all of us, Bob talks to himself. But Bob’s self-talk is neither positive nor declarative. Instead, to move himself and his team, he asks a question: Can we fix it?

… Those who approached a task with Bob-the-Builder-style questioning self-talk outperformed those who employed the more conventional juice-myself-up declarative self-talk.

The reasons are twofold . First, the interrogative, by its very form, elicits answers— and within those answers are strategies for actually carrying out the task. … The second reason is related. Interrogative self-talk, the researchers say, “may inspire thoughts about autonomous or intrinsically motivated reasons to pursue a goal.”

2. During: Positivity Ratios

The broadening effect of positive emotions has important consequences for moving others. Consider both sides of a typical transaction. For the seller, positive emotions can widen her view of her counterpart and his situation. Where negative emotions help us see trees, positive ones reveal forests. And that, in turn, can aid in devising unexpected solutions to the buyer’s problem.

Positivity has one other important dimension when it comes to moving others. “You have to believe in the product you’re selling— and that has to show,” Hall says. Nearly every salesperson I talked to disputed the idea that some people “could sell anything”— whether they believed in it or not. That may have been true in the past, when sellers held a distinct information advantage and buyers had limited choices . But today, these salespeople told me, believing leads to a deeper understanding of your offering, which allows sellers to better match what they have with what others need. And genuine conviction can also produce emotional contagion of its own.

(Negative emotions, however, are valuable.)

(They) offer us feedback on our performance, information on what’s working and what’s not, and hints about how to do better.

3. After: Explanatory Style
In human beings, Seligman observed, learned helplessness was usually a function of people’s “explanatory style”— their habit of explaining negative events to themselves. Think of explanatory style as a form of self-talk that occurs after (rather than before) an experience. People who give up easily, who become helpless even in situations where they actually can do something, explain bad events as permanent, pervasive, and personal. They believe that negative conditions will endure a long time, that the causes are universal rather than specific to the circumstances, and that they’re the ones to blame. So if their boss yells at them, they interpret it as “My boss is always mean” or “All bosses are jerks” or “I’m incompetent at my job” rather than “My boss is having an awful day and I just happened to be in the line of fire when he lost it.” A pessimistic explanatory style— the habit of believing that “it’s my fault, it’s going to last forever, and it’s going to undermine everything I do” —is debilitating, Seligman found. It can diminish performance, trigger depression, and “turn setbacks into disasters.”

In other words, the salespeople with an optimistic explanatory style— who saw rejections as temporary rather than permanent, specific rather than universal, and external rather than personal— sold more insurance and survived in their jobs much longer. What’s more, explanatory style predicted performance with about the same accuracy as the most widely used insurance industry assessment for hiring agents. Optimism, it turns out, isn’t a hollow sentiment. It’s a catalyst that can stir persistence, steady us during challenges, and stoke the confidence that we can influence our surroundings.

Finally, we reach Clarity.

The problem we have saving for retirement, these studies showed, isn’t only our meager ability to weigh present rewards against future ones. It is also the connection— or rather, the disconnection— between our present and future selves. Other research has shown that “thinking about the future self elicits neural activation patterns that are similar to neural activation patterns elicited by thinking about a stranger.” Envisioning ourselves far into the future is extremely difficult— so difficult, in fact, that we often think of that future self as an entirely different person. “To people estranged from their future selves, saving is like a choice between spending money today and giving it to a stranger years from now.”

trying to solve an existing problem— getting people to better balance short-term and long-term rewards— was insufficient because it wasn’t the problem that most needed solving. The researchers’ breakthrough was to identify a new, and previously unknown, problem: that we think of ourselves today and ourselves in the future as different people. Once they identified that alternative problem, they were able to fashion a solution: Show people an image of themselves getting old. And that, in turn, addressed the broader concern—namely, encouraging people to save more money for retirement.

This conceptual shift demonstrates the third quality necessary in moving others today: clarity—the capacity to help others see their situations in fresh and more revealing ways and to identify problems they didn’t realize they had.

Good salespeople, we’ve long been told, are skilled problem solvers. They can assess prospects’ needs, analyze their predicaments, and deliver the optimal solutions. This ability to solve problems still matters. But today, when information is abundant and democratic rather than limited and privileged, it matters relatively less. After all, if I know precisely what my problem is— whether I’m hoping to buy a particular camera or I want to take a three-day beach vacation— I can often find the information I need to make my decision without any assistance. The services of others are far more valuable when I’m mistaken, confused, or completely clueless about my true problem. In those situations, the ability to move others hinges less on problem solving than on problem finding.

One final note on clarity, it’s important to give people clarity on how to think about a problem, but to maximize potential, you should give them clarity on action as well.

To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others reminds you that you’re always selling. You just might not be aware of it.