A Book in 5 Minutes: Summary of Dan Pink’s “To Sell is Human”

Don’t have time to read the whole thing? Here’s a quick but comprehensive summary of Dan Pink’s “To Sell is Human,” released on December 31, 2012.

Who should read this: Anyone who wants to be a more effective persuader in work or in life.

Elevator pitch: Almost everyone is now a seller – someone who persuades others to take action – but best practices have changed since the days of slimy used car salesman. This book teaches specific traits and techniques that will improve your sales, and might also improve your life, as well.

Author: Daniel H. Pink, also the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motives Us, and Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself.


We’re all in sales now. Sales has changed in the past 10 years: older door-to-door sales companies have gone out of business, and their practices seem outdated in a world where we can buy and research any product online. But still, 1 in 9 workers are in sales, amounting to over 15 million people. And the rest of us are also selling – not just objects, but ideas and techniques. We are persuading, negotiating, and pitching, like lawyers selling juries on their verdict or public figures selling their personal brand on Twitter. In fact, a study Pink commissioned showed that people spend 40 percent of their work time selling something.

Entrepreneurship, elasticity, and ed-med. The reason we’re all in sales is because the workforce has changed. With the rise in small businesses and startups – thanks to innovations like eBay, Etsy, and Apple’s app store – more employees wear different hats, including a sales hat. Even jobs at large companies are broader and require some selling. And the growing field of education and health services (the largest job sector in the US economy) is about selling: convincing students to pay attention, and patients to follow through with treatments.

From caveat emptor to caveat venditor. Selling does have a bad reputation. Pink writes, “To the smart set, sales is an endeavor that requires little intellectual throw weight – a task for slick glad-handers who skate through life on a shoeshine and a smile” – and deception, of course. But deception was only possible because buyers lacked information or expertise. Now, since buyers have reviews, ratings, and comparison shopping at their fingertips, sellers have more incentives to be fair and honest. It’s “seller beware.”

Attunement. The first trait of successful sellers is understanding the perspective of the buyer, and studies have shown us how to do this: assume that the buyer is the one with the power; focus on understanding the buyer’s thoughts rather than their feelings; and mimic the buyer’s gestures. As it turns out, studies also show that extroverts aren’t the best sellers; that title goes to ambiverts, who score around 4-4.5 on the extroversion scale of 1-7.

Buoyancy. The second trait of successful sellers is “buoyancy,” the combination of “a gritty spirit and a sunny outlook.” To survive repeated rejections, follow three practices. 1) Ask yourself questions beforehand (“Can I succeed?”) rather than pumping yourself up (“I am the best”); they encourage your brain to come up with answers, reasons, and intrinsic motivation. 2) Be mostly positive: it can make the buyer more positive and open to different possibilities (although a little negativity keeps you grounded). 3) Be optimistic: believe that rejections are temporary, contained, and due to external factors.

Clarity. The third trait of successful sellers is the ability to clarify what you’re actually offering, and why the buyer doesn’t want to buy. To the first point: don’t overwhelm buyers with options, emphasize the experiences they will gain (not just the material objects), pick labels and names carefully, list a small negative attribute after the positive ones, and (when selling yourself) focus on your potential rather than your past accomplishments. Then, give buyers a clear method of action to take.

Pitch. The “elevator pitch” isn’t as relevant these days, when people are accessible not just on elevators but by email, on social media, and around the office. However, people are more distracted. The six new ways to pitch are: the one-word pitch, the question pitch, the rhyming pitch, the 140-character Twitter pitch, the subject line pitch (which promises useful content or elicits curiosity), or the Pixar pitch (a six-sentence narrative structure supposedly used in all Pixar movies).

Improvise. If none of the above works, practice improvisation techniques. Listen well and hear the buyer’s answers as “offers,” not objections. Say “Yes and…,” which means agreeing but adding a suggestion. And make the buyer look good – there’s no sense trying to win arguments against them.

Service. Finally, the best sellers adopt an attitude of service. They believe in the value of the product and how it will impact the life of the buyer. And because buyers also care about benefitting others, good sellers incorporate altruistic messages into their selling.

“Selling, I’ve grown to understand, is more urgent, more important, and, in its own sweet way, more beautiful than we realize,” Pink concludes. It is part of human nature, as the title suggests.

What this summary doesn’t cover: Lots of examples. And about 40 exercises to help you learn to understand other people’s perspectives, mimic, prep yourself for a sale, ask questions, pitch, improvise, and much more. That’s enough of a reason to buy the book, if you can squeeze in a four-hour read.

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Written by:
Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.
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