Thursday, January 10, 2013

"To Sell is Human" by Daniel Pink [Review & Lesson Ideas]

"The salesperson isn't dead. The salesperson is alive. Because the salesperson is us." --Daniel Pink in To Sell is Human.  

Accepting Daniel Pink's premise that we're all in sales now in his new book To Sell is Human (2012) is an idea easy for me to embrace. I've worked in retail, as a waitress, as a telemarketer. Each of these jobs required me to "move" the customer in some way, whether selling customers fashion, desert, or a phone service.

Nevertheless, the most difficult selling I do is in the classroom. Teaching, arguably, is the ultimate selling profession, what Pink calls "non-sales selling," which means that while I don't sell products, I do sell ideas, specifically the idea that a literate student capable of reading and writing at a college-ready level benefits him/herself and all of society more than one who can't read and write well enough to succeed in college.

What surprised me most about Pink's analysis of 21st Century sales? Simply, Pink advocates using improvisational theater as a way to hone one's sales techniques. Pink tells about Palo Alto company Palantir's requirement that all new hires read a book on improvisational theater. That's because rather than the ability to stick to a canned sales pitch, in today's world, a salesperson needs flexibility. Improvisation teaches both flexibility and the listening techniques necessary for developing that flexibility.

Indeed, those in sales no longer have the informational advantage they did prior to the internet and the plethora of online networking sites where customers hold sway and can either promote or pan both products and ideas. Pink illustrates this idea and others through narrative, including weaving the history of the last Fuller Brush salesman, 75 year old Daniel Hall, into the text.

Teachers and administrators and education reformers, especially those who attempt to cram a traditional business model of one size fits all on students, would do well to heed Pink's admonitions, particularly about "Ed-Med." As Pink notes, in education and health care we ask individuals to give us "time, attention, and effort," but how do we accomplish this, especially given the current challenges.

Pink turns to the amazing Larry Ferlazzo. As in health care, moving students from point A to point B is what we do. Ferlazzo tells the story of a student who refused to complete an essay assignment. Instead of giving up, Ferlazzo interviewed the student and learned about his interest in football. Thus, instead of having the student write about natural disasters (the assignment), Frelazzo allowed the student to compose an essay about his favorite football team. As Ferlazzo explains, teaching is

about leading with my ears instead of my mouth. It means trying to elicit from people what their goals are for themselves and having the flexibility to frame what we do in that context.

We teachers can either irritatie or agitate such a situation. Irritation, as Ferlazzo describes it, focuses on what we want students to do while agitation attempts to move a student to do what s/he wants to do. In the case of Ferlazzo's student, he wanted to write about his favorite football team. The outcome still met the objective of honing his writing skills.

Many years ago a colleague from another school told me that I need to determine what I want others to do and then figure out the best way to get the other party to do what I want. That sage advice has served me well on many occasions, and it's the point both Ferlazzo and Pink make.

Indeed, To Sell is Human offers numerous ideas that teachers can put into practice immediately. Among these Pink includes six ways to "pitch" an idea, all of which have application in English classes, whether through book talks or as a quick reading check. I'll be using these techniques in my speech and English classes for a variety of discussion purposes. For example, instead of having students present a traditional book talk, I plan to experiment with having them use a "Pixar Pitch." Pink provides one from Pixar and one of his own to illustrate.

Already, I've had students play both the "Yes, but" game as well as the "Yes, and" game. Two improvisational acting exercises designed to promote listening and to demonstrate how we can close and open conversations; that is, how "yes, but" works to polarize us, and "yes, and" leads us to compromise and to finding common ground. In the dual-enrollment communication class I teach, students practiced the games with their argumentative speech topics, which helped them see both ideas that support their claims and refutation of their contentions.

To Sell is Human works well as a companion piece to Pink's A Whole New Mind, in which he argues that creative minds, those nimble enough to adapt to a changing business environment, those capable of creative thought, those left-brained artistic individuals whose skills can't be outsourced shall inherit the job market in the new millenium.

The book also functions as a natural extension of Pink's phenomenal book Drive: The Surprising Truth about Motivates Us.  Indeed, just as sticks and carrots don't motivate, neither can sellers expect to move people with selling techniques from the 20th Century.

While I enjoyed To Sell is Human and give it high praise, I almost didn't read the book, a sample of which I downloaded on my Kindle. I found Pink's opening a little off-putting, a bit disingenuous. Pink claims that he only realized he's in sales after closely examining his personal calendar and appointments. Really? Pink's own website describes him as a "bestselling author." His previous careers include lawyer and speechwriter to Al Gore. For Pink to claim he only a year ago realized he's a "salesman" seems implausible.

Secondly, Pink misses an opportunity to address burgeoning problems in education. His inclusion of Larry Ferlazzo's expert opinions notwithstanding, I wish Pink had done more to take to task those pseudo-ed reformers who work tirelessly at narrowing the curriculum while pushing to the sidelines the most creative parts of the curriculum. A good salesman knows to anticipate those who would question his product. As a teacher, I want more about how teachers sell from Pink and why the voices of educators like Ferlazzo's should be heeded.

Educators know what the public needs to know and which Pink articulates in such a pleasurable way:

[W]eve'd moved from a world of caveat emptor, buyer beware, to one of caveat venditor, seller beware--where honesty, fairness, and transparency are often the only viable path. 

I just wish those who spend the public money and trust, those who hold and control the purse strings in education would take heed.

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