Creative Thinking

Like It or Not, We’re All in Sales: Daniel Pink Explains the New Psychology of Persuasion, Part II

By Nicola Brown on May 14, 2018

This article is the second in a two-part series covering Daniel Pink's insights about sales, marketing, and behavioral science in his book To Sell Is Human. Check out part one for an explanation of why sales has historically been an unsavory word in many people's dictionaries, how things are changing, and the three skills needed to move people today.

Whether or not we like the term, selling is a fundamental part of what many of us do on a day-to-day basis. Daniel Pink dives into the new psychology of persuasion in his book To Sell Is Human and uncovers how the concept of sales and the skills needed to succeed in it have evolved over time.

The New Face of the Elevator Pitch

The elevator pitch is a hallmark of sales, but pitching today happens in a much broader variety of contexts and via different digital platforms. Mastering the art of pitching is all about distilling your point to its most persuasive essence. Pink introduces six successors to the elevator pitch:

  • The one-word pitch forces you to identify the single concept that encapsulates what your brand or your offering represents.
  • The question pitch can be more persuasive than a statement when it elicits a strong yes or no response.
  • The rhyming pitch boosts processing fluency in the brain; we equate smoothness with accuracy.
  • The subject-line pitch requires utility ("Is this directly useful for me?") or curiosity ("I want to find out more!").
  • The Twitter pitch should contain questions, should provide new info and links, and can be self-promoting so long as it is viewed as useful.
  • The Pixar pitch follows this structure: "Once upon a time ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally, ___." It's an appealing and concise story framework that can help distill the essence of your offering.

elevator pitch

Try this pitching exercise

Start by writing a 50-word pitch for your product, your brand, or whatever it is you'd like to persuade someone on. Reduce it to 25 words, then reduce it to six. See if you can extract the single word that represents the most distilled version.

This is really difficult! Remember it's not intended to be the only word you use to persuade someone in any given context. After all, simply yelling "Reliable!" to someone you've just met would be a little weird. But it helps to clarify what your most important aspects, characteristics, and values are. It takes you through the challenging process of distilling to the extreme, and in so doing you're forced to think long and hard about what's most important.

When Things Go Wrong, Improvise

Figuring out how to reach an audience is a constant challenge for marketers. Pink believes it's better to be able to improvise when things go sideways than to have a rigid script you're not able to adapt. Improvising is all about having a flexible two-way conversation with people that is natural and authentic.

The first step is to listen very carefully to people to hear what they have to say. Listening is something we don't often practice enough, so don't assume it's something that comes naturally to you. The key is to listen to what people are "offering" you in what they say rather than just waiting to speak. Is there something they've said that you can do something with?

The second step is to practice saying "yes, and" instead of "yes, but." This way you build on what the other person has offered rather than shutting it down or opposing it. This is an open and constructive way to converse, and will lead to options and opportunities.

Finally, make your partner look good. Identify options for mutual gain and frame things in a win-win perspective. Moving and persuading people isn't just about you, and it isn't just about them. It's about both of you together.

Try this improvising exercise

Take one day this week and designate it your "slow day." During this day, whenever you have a conversation with someone, take five seconds before responding to what they've said. Forcing yourself to pause before responding can help you ensure you're listening to everything your partner has said, waiting until they've fully finished expressing their idea, and processing what they've said properly before responding.

You might be surprised by how this changes your conversations with people. You may learn more from your partner, and you may find yourself formulating your own ideas better.

Approach Persuasion from a Service Perspective

The key to moving people today is to make it personal and make it purposeful. We've all watched the rise of ethical marketing, which is an indication of our desire for a higher purpose from the brands and products we interact with.

Moving people becomes meaningful for us personally and for society when we think of it as more than just an exchange of resources. Consider the human element behind the work you do.

Pink explains: "Among the things that distinguish our species from others is our combination of idealism and artistry-our desire both to improve the world and to provide that world with something it didn't know it was missing. Moving others doesn't require that we neglect these nobler aspects of our nature. Today it demands that we embrace them. It begins and ends by remembering that to sell is human."

Sign in a wooded area reading

Image attribution: Isaac Quick

Try this serving exercise

A fun exercise is to try "emotionally intelligent signage." We encounter signs everywhere; they're a ubiquitous feature in our communicative environment, but they're not often employed in a sophisticated way. Mostly they provide information or they announce rules. But they don't often bother to make it personal or purposeful. For example, "Pick up after your dog" can be more persuasive when written as: "Children play here. Pick up after your dog." You're inviting people to consider the broader context of your request. Try changing a bland sign in your office to make it an emotionally intelligent sign.

Why Selling Is Not Just for Salespeople

If you've read this far, you've seen any number of ways in which "selling" in a non-traditional sense is actually a big part of what we all do every day. Maybe you're a marketing manager trying to convince your CMO you need a bigger budget. Maybe you're a creative director pitching an edgy idea. Or maybe you're a freelancer trying to win a new client.

What I learned personally from Daniel Pink's To Sell Is Human is that I needn't shy away from the idea of selling, even if I've never considered it part of my repertoire. It's come a long way from the greasy used car salesman stereotype. Today, selling is about the psychology of persuasion: It's about how to reach an audience and how to move others. It requires a nuanced and sophisticated skill set, and it means the difference between success and failure in a broad range of roles and industries.

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Featured image attribution: LinkedIn Sales Navigator


Nicola Brown

Nicola is an international award-winning writer, editor and communication specialist based in Toronto. She has stamped her career passport all over the communication industry in publishing, digital media, travel and advertising. She specializes in print and digital editorial and content marketing, and writes about travel, food, health, lifestyle, psychology and personal finance for publications ranging from the Toronto Star and WestJet Magazine to Tangerine Bank and Fidelity Investments. Nicola is owner and principal of communication consultancy Think Forward Communication, and Editor-in-Chief at Nicola revels in the visceral, experiential side of travel, and will passionately argue for its psychological paybacks, especially after a few glasses of wine. You can contact her at