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Book review: “To Sell is Human”, by Daniel H. Pink

Pink’s To Sell Is Human promises to offer a fresh perspective on the art and science of selling, based on insights from the social sciences. It really delivers on that promise. A lot of books in the Business genre are… unimpressive. This is not one of them. Pink’s style of writing is entertaining and engaging, and he expertly interweaves quantitative research from the social sciences with anecdotes and interviews that make his arguments come alive.

Main Thesis

The thesis of To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others is that the old stereotype of the sales profession as full of greedy connivers and lunkheaded losers is outdated.

Thanks to technology, the information asymmetry that salespeople in the 20th century enjoyed—and often abused—no longer exists. In just a few keystrokes, consumers can find out the pros and cons of different products, compare prices, and read about other people’s experiences with a company.

So the balance of power has shifted. Because of this, honesty, fairness, and transparency are often the only viable path for salespeople. The old Glengarry Glen Ross ABCs—Always Be Closing—have been replaced by the news ABCs—Attunement, Buoyancy, and Clarity.

Important Points

1. Non-sales selling

The traditional view of economic activity as being divisible into one of two categories—production or consumption—needs to be amended. In modern economies, a third type of activity is becoming increasingly important: the act of moving.

Americans spend about 40% of their time at work engaged in what Pinker calls “non-sales selling”, which encompasses persuading, influencing, and convincing others in ways that don’t involve anyone making a purchase. And moreover, people consider this aspect of their work to be crucial to their professional success.

Therefore, the way we conceive of sales needs to be expanded. While some 10% of the workforces in Western countries are actual sales professionals, every one of us is “in sales”.

2. The old way of doing things is broken

In 2001, George Akerlof was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics for his research into the used-car market.

In used-car sales, Akerlof said, the two parties confront “an asymmetry in available information”. The seller is fully informed about the product, whereas the buyer is largely in the dark.

And when the seller knows much more about the car than the buyer, the buyer naturally gets suspicious. What’s this guy trying to hide? Am I getting scammed here? The information asymmetry generates a slew of objections. The buyer may only be willing to pay a fraction of what the car is really worth in order to hedge his risks. Or he may forgo purchasing the car altogether.

Even worse, Akerlof argued, “The presence of people who wish to pawn bad wares as good wares tends to drive out the legitimate business.”

But technology offers ways to get past some of these problems. Buyers can easily look up a vehicle’s history, read reviews about the dealership they’re at, and see how much similar cars are usually sold for. Dishonest salespeople are found out more easily—and more harshly penalized for their behaviour.

3. Salespeople are not money-hungry cretins

Research has shown that money is not the driving force for most people in traditional sales, and many large companies have increased their sales revenue by transitioning from a traditional commission structure to salary-based compensation models. Salespeople are more effective when they focus on serving others, rather than making a transaction happen.

4. Don’t be a narcissist

Attunement is all about seeing things from the other person’s perspective. This idea is related to, but not quite the same as empathy, which is emotional rather than intellectual.

Pinker argues that your ability to move others depends on your ability to understand their perspective, getting inside their head, and seeing the world through their eyes. Experiments have found that negotiators who are able to see things from the other party’s perspective are 76 percent more likely to strike a deal that satisfies both sides.

Attunement can be achieved by starting your encounters with the assumption that you’re in a position of lower power, strategically and subtly mimicking the other person, and striking a good balance between listening and talking.

5. Rejections are inevitable

Anyone who sells must contend with wave after wave of rebuffs, refusals, and repudiations. In order to be effective, you have to find a way to deal with these.

Before an encounter, engage in interrogative self-talk. That means you should ask yourself “Can I sell this product?” or “Can I make a great pitch?”—research has found that this is more effective than positive self-talk. It surfaces intrinsic motivations and elicits answers—and within those answers are strategies for actually carrying out the task.

During an encounter, frame things in a positive manner in order to broaden the other person’s perspective and make them more receptive to your suggestions.

After an encounter, make sure you have a constructive explanatory style. The way we frame past events affects how well we deal with them. Pessimistic explanatory styles diminish performance, can trigger depression, and “turn setbacks into disasters”.

View rejections as temporary instead of permanent, specific instead of universal, and external rather than personal—if you do this, chances are you’ll be a more effective persuader in the long term.

6. Be a problem-identifier, not a problem-solver

The ability to help others see their situations in fresh and more revealing ways, and to identify problems they didn’t even realise they had, is one of the most valuable skills out there.

Think about it: When you know what you should do, you can usually figure out a way to do it on your own. But someone else’s expertise is far more valuable when you’re mistaken, confused, or clueless about your true problem. Problem-finding is more valuable than problem-solving.

7. The purpose of the pitch

The purpose of a pitch isn’t necessarily to sell someone on your idea or product right then and there. A great pitch invites the other person as a creative collaborator, and starts a conversation. It’s much easier to sell something to someone if they feel like they’ve helped shape it in some meaningful way.

8. Learn improv

Pink argues that the skills you pick up in improvisational theatre can help you become a better salesperson or persuader.

  1. Slow down and shut up. Don’t listen for something in specificic; instead, hear what the other person is saying. That’s a recipe for realizing that what might seem like objections are actually often offers in disguise.

  2. Say “Yes, and.”

  3. Make your partner look good. When you make it your goal to help the other party win, you shift your focus to their actual interests, and thus increase the likelihood of striking a mutually beneficial agreement.


Pink’s To Sell Is Human is divided into three parts:

  1. Rebirth of a Salesman: Provides context for the rest of the book; examines how sales has traditionally been conceived of and offers some interesting statistical insight into the sales profession as well as the growing importance of non-sales selling.

  2. How to Be: talks about the new ABCs: Attunement, Buoyancy, and Clarity. This is the high-level prescriptive section, which offers a new way to approach sales that is more appropriate for the 21st century. This section merges theory with practice, and offers both strategic and tactical advice that can readily be implemented.

  3. What to Do: Even more actionable than the previous section, talks about how to pitch more effectively, how to use principles from improv theater to become a better listener and persuader, and how to create good-will by focusing on serving others.

Each section consists three chapters, and each chapter ends with a “sample case”, which offers tactics and methods that help you translate theory into practice. The structure is thoughtful and very practical: information is organised in a way that makes the book easy to read—regardless if you’re just doing an inspectional read or a deep dive.

The mix between description and prescription, theory and practice, as well as quantitative research and anecdotal stories, enriches the reading experience and makes this book very engaging.

My take on the book

Many best-sellers in the Business and Non-fiction genres leave you underwhelmed and disappointed. It seems like a lot of authors just mail it in: poor writing, fluff, and unsubstantiated clichés.

Daniel Pink’s To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others is not one of those books. It offers a unique and thoughtful perspective on sales and persuasion. Pink’s writing style and storytelling really packs a punch: it’s informative, entertaining, and really persuasive. This is a book that I’m going to revisit many times in the future.

Despite all its virtues, the book does lack nuance. In my estimation, Pink is far too optimistic about how big the impact of technology has been on the sales profession. It is clearly still very much possible to be a successful sales professional by lying, cheating, and pressuring people into making ill-advised decisions.

Four and a half stars.

My take on the subject

I think everyone has at least one first-hand experience of a bad salesperson. Belligerent, dishonest, and hell-bent on selling us something we don’t actually need. Sales has a bad reputation, and it’s pretty well-deserved. Unfortunately, this bad reputation has perpetuated the sort of positive feedback loop that Akerlof talks about:

“The presence of people who wish to pawn bad wares as good wares tends to drive out the legitimate business.”

For the longest time, I couldn’t come to terms with the sales aspect of my business. Most of the advice I could find was ethically repulsive to me, and stressed qualities that are totally contrary to my actual personality.

Over the past few months, I have come to embrace a philosophy of sales and persuasion that is more palatable to my own values: one that stresses the importance of facilitation and helping prospects make better decisions, rather than closing the sale at all costs. But something was missing: the tactical aspects, and the conviction that this approach is actually effective. Pink’s book really helped with that.

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