To Sell Is Human: An Interview With Daniel Pink

By Robert Half on January 10, 2014 at 8:00am

In To Sell Is Human, author Daniel Pink makes the point that everyone is in the sales business now. Yes, everyone. Even you.

While you might not be a salesperson in the traditional sense, trying to motivate others to take a specific action – whether it's encouraging a client to accept a color choice or talking colleagues into going along with your tagline idea – is likely a big part of your job today.

In fact, bestselling author and business thought leader Daniel Pink says people now spend 40 percent of their workdays engaged in "non-sales selling," which he defines as "persuading, influencing, and convincing others in ways that don't involve anyone making a purchase." 

I interviewed Pink about how creative professionals can use the insights and sales techniques highlighted in his latest book, To Sell Is Human, to improve their effectiveness at work.

Creative professionals typically do a great deal of non-sales selling in their daily dealings with clients, colleagues, managers and vendors. Do you expect the amount of time creatives spend persuading, influencing and convincing others will continue to increase? If so, what soft skills should they be honing today to prepare? 

I'm not sure the amount will increase, largely because the current amount is already so high. The skills that are most necessary – at least according to a rich batch of social science – are attunement, buoyancy and clarity. Attunement is perspective-taking. Can you get out of your own head and see things from someone else's point of view? Buoyancy is the ability to stay afloat in what one salesman calls "the ocean of rejection" that creatives must deal with every day. And clarity for creatives now depends less on solving existing problems and more on identifying problems that clients and prospects don't realize they have.

To get really good at selling, whether it's design concepts or used Hondas, you believe people need to challenge their beliefs about what it actually involves. You argue that many of us hold an antiquated and unfairly harsh view of sales as a slimy, smarmy practice. How can reframing our concept of sales help us get better at it?

That's a really important point. Most of what we know about sales comes from a world of information asymmetry ­– that is, the seller always had a lot more information than the buyer. When the seller has a huge information advantage – and the buyer doesn't have many choices or ways to talk back – the seller can take the low road. That's the reason we have the principle of "buyer beware."  

But today the information asymmetry that defined that sales relationship is disappearing. Buyers now have lots of information, lots of choices and lots of ways to talk back. That's a world of "seller beware." Whatever you're selling – your idea, your product, yourself – it's tough to take the low road. The way to succeed is to be more honest, direct, transparent and human.

You note that when a person is making a pitch, his or her objective shouldn't necessarily be to move the other party to immediately say "yes" and adopt the idea. Instead, you write that the goal should be to simply begin a conversation and invite the other person to collaborate. Can you elaborate?

There is some great research out of Stanford University and the University of California-Davis that followed a bunch of Hollywood writers to their pitch meetings with producers. The ones who were most successful didn't use their pitches as an attempt to convert. They saw them as invitations to the other side. The more the pitch invited collaboration, the more effective it was. 


Your book busts the myth that the best salespeople are extraverts. You write that the individuals most equipped to move others to action are neither extroverts nor introverts, but ambiverts. What are the attributes of an ambivert?

The answer is in the prefix: ambi. Think ambidextrous. Ambiverts are neither extremely introverted nor extremely extroverted. They're in the middle. And that turns out to be the sweet spot for effective sellers and persuaders. Strong introverts talk too little. Strong extroverts talk too much.

Ambiverts are more versatile. They know when to talk and when to listen. They know when to speak up and when to shut up. They know when to push and when to hold back. In some ways, it's a form of emotional bilingualism. They understand both languages. And that's what makes them so effective. [Find out where you fall on the introversion-extroversion scale by visiting]

You spotlight the importance of listening, which you say is a commonly neglected skill. You note that after making a pitch or floating an idea, many people falter by either interrupting their conversation partner or formulating a response while impatiently waiting for the chance to speak again. But slowing down and actively listening is critical to selling isn't it?

It is. But for some people ­– I'm looking in the mirror now – it's tough. That's why one of my favorite exercises from the book, and something I've tried mightily to do myself, is to wait a beat or two before responding. That extra click of silence isn't nearly as awkward as we imagine. Indeed, it can be quite positive.

It shows that you're truly listening. And it forces you to let the other person's words settle before you burst out with your own words. Lots of people – especially people with a Y chromosome – think that the opposite of talking is waiting. It's not. It's listening, truly listening. And that's a skill on which we all could improve.

To Sell Is Human is Daniel Pink's fifth book. Pink is also the author of Drive, A Whole New Mind, Free Agent Nation, and The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need

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