To Sell Is Human: Summary & Review

to sell is human book cover

In To Sell Is Human, author Daniel Pink looks at sales and how it’s changed in the era of the digital revolution, new scientific research.
Pink says that an ethical approach to sales is the most effective approach you can take in this day and era.

Bullet Summary

  • Manipulation only works when there is an asymmetry of information, and that’s not the case today
  • Focus on service-selling: sell from a position that seeks to improve people’s lives and the world
  • When you get rejected make sure that you don’t read it as a personal rejection and as an eternal rebuttal of your personal worth

To Sell Is Human – Summary

About the Author: Daniel Pink is an American author. He has a degree in law and worked in politics as the chief speechwriter of Al Gore.
He also wrote Drive and When.
I find Pink to have a knack for mixing good scientific research, psychology, and great storytelling.

In a way, Danie Pink’s books are somewhat similar to Malcolm Gladwell but, in my opinion, more scientific and rigorous.

Manipulation Works in Sales With Information Asymmetry

Daniel Pink says that manipulation and unethical approaches to sales can work as long as sellers know more than buyers.

When sellers have more information than buyers can ever gather, buyers are at the mercy of the sellers and they must beware.

That’s when Daniel Pink introduces Joe Girard, the poster child of the lying salesman who’d say anything to create a fake bond and make a sale.

Also read:


Manipulation Doesn’t Work In The Digital Age

In the information age when a laptop can give potential buyers all the information they want and need, the low road of lying and manipulating doesn’t work anymore.

People can also much more easily share information about lying salesmen and poor companies, making the costs for cheating potentially much higher.

Also read:

The Three Steps to Prospect Taking

Daniel Pink says that research shows there are three steps to effective prospect-taking:

  1. Reduce your power to sell better (power selling rests on information asymmetry, today you need to attune to customers, and  people who feel in high power are less able to attune)
  2. Use your head as much as your heart (focus on what the prospect thinks, not just how they feel)
  3. Mimic strategically

My note:
Step two was rather unclear to me and not very helpful from a practical point of view.

Extroverts Are Poor Sellers

Most people believe that extroverts excel in sales positions because they naturally like people and enjoy people’s interactions.

However, the link between extroversion and income is tenuous or non-existent.

To be clear, extroverts do hold an advantage over introverts in sales positions, but they don’t do nearly as well as ambiverts do.

Ambiverts are people who are in the middle of the extroversion spectrum and present traits of both introversion and extroversion.

Extroverts hold a slight advantage over introverts, but they often fail in sales because they tend to talk too much, ask too few questions, and, to use Daniel Pink’s words “stumble over themselves”.

Also, read here on how to become an ambivert:

Explanatory Styles Explain What Best Salesmen Do

Daniel Pink delves into Martin Seligman’s studies here.

But the short of it is:

Martin Seligman found out that dogs -and later, people- give up trying when they (mistakenly) learn that they cannot do anything to change their circumstances.
When that happens, of course, there are no chances of succeeding because the organism simply fails to take action.

In human beings, learned helplessness is usually a consequence of negative explanatory styles.
Explanatory styles are different forms of self-talk that take place after the event has happened.

A negative explanatory style after a boss has yelled at you would look like this:

My boss hates me because I am such a good for nothing and it’s probably true I am worthless

People with a negative explanatory style explain events as:

  • Permanent (negative conditions will endure)
  • Pervasive (the causes are universal instead of specific to the circumstances)
  • Personal (they are the ones to blame)

Research also shows that salesmen with an optimistic explanatory style oversell those with a negative style by 87% (top 10% VS bottom 10%).

Also read:

Three Sales Principles From Improv Theater

Researching for “To Sell Is Human” Daniel Pink visits a sales training that has its roots in improving theater.

The rules for good selling from improv theater are:

  • Hear Offers

Don’t focus on the “no” or the lack of “yes”. Often behind a lack of yes there are ideas and paths that can lead to success and win-win.

Explore them by getting out of the mindset that you must “overcome objections”.

  • Say “Yes And…”

Don’t say “yes, but…”, which is a major rapport breaker.

Use “yes” and then redirect and go along with the prospect instead, which will help you listen and empathize instead of a combative mindset of “overcoming rejections”.

  • Make Customers Look Good

Daniel Pink mentions “Getting to Yes” and “7 Habits of Highly Effective People“, two best-sellers that popularized the idea of looking for win-win negotiation.

On Saving Face also read: How to Win Friend and Influence People.

Leverage Pro-Social Behavior For Persuasion

Robert Greene, author of “The 48 Laws of Power” said that “self-interest is the currency that makes the world go around”.

Yet research shows that appealing to the interest of our customers can yield much better results (for example: nurses reminded to wash their hands for the patients’ benefit).

to sell is human book cover

Real-Life Applications

  • Drop The “Overcome Objections Mindset”

If you take one thing away from this summary of “To Sell Is Human” is to please drop the mentality that you must overcome objections.

That mindset makes you an annoying dic*head.

  • Use Mild Profanity

Using some mild profanity such as “damn” in your speech will increase the persuasiveness of your speech.

  • Limit Choices

Too many choices can lead to decision paralysis (also read “The Paradox of Choice“).

  • Consider Adding A Blemish

Adding a small drawback in an otherwise good list of positives increases sales as long as the blemish is last and the prospects are not in “full critical mode” but instead slightly distracted.
What happens psychologically is that the weak negative information increases the salience of the positive information (contrasting principle).

  • Ask Why They Didn’t Pick a Lower Number

If someone doesn’t want to do something you can try to ask how much they want to do it from 0 to 10.
If they say 2, ask why it’s 2 and not a 0. Now they are explaining why they want to do it.

  • Go First If You’re The Incumbent, Last If You’re The Challenger

The challenger is better off presenting last. The market leader first. 
Read an overview of how sequence and numbers affect pitches.


  • At Times It Felt Naive

To Sell Is Human” ends by inviting the readers to ask themselves if people’s lives and the world will improve after they’ve done the sale.
That reminds me a bit of the spirit behind “The Go-Giver” and “The Greatest Salesman In The World“.

I love the spirit and the idea of adding value to people and the world. But it’s also somewhat naive to expect that success can only come with that mindset.

  • Old Message “We’re All in Sales” Is Misleading

The message that ” we are all selling” is an old cliche often repeated in many sales books.
Somewhat, I don’t fully agree: there is a big difference between “selling yourself and your ideas” and “selling products as a profession”.

  • Misleading Research Attributions

As “How to Lie With Statistics” shows research and statistics can be used to make any point, and in my opinion, they are even more dangerous because they can provide a semblance “of truth”.

There were a few instances in which I felt that the words “research says” were used to give a semblance of certitude where there cannot be any certitude.

  • Misleading Generalizations From Research

I felt that the author jumped to some misleading conclusions with some research.
For example, he says that granular numbers are more effective than coarse numbers, but then the comparison was not between similar products, and “effective” is a major generalization considering the research only measured a very specific product characteristic.

  • Somewhat Disjointed

To Sell Is Human” moves from self-promotion to sales ethics and morals to when to present for maximum effectiveness, as well, as what to improve theater teaches how to sell better.
It feels somewhat disjointed at times and more like a random collection of research and psychology papers.

  • Some Bad Advice For Self-Development

In my opinion, some advice was poor.

For example, the author says to “count all the rejections you got” to understand that rejections don’t kill.
But unless one already has an antifragile ego, focusing on rejection can be both painful and harmful.

  • Some Bad Selling Advice (The Customer is Doing You A Favor)

The author presents Seth Godin, introduced as a “marketing guru”, to advise selling from a position where the customer is always doing the salesman a favor.

This connects to the principle that “lowering your status” can help in attuning to the customer.
But I disagree here: it’s a big generalization that doesn’t hold true in many selling situations.


  • Wonderful Psychology

Daniel Pink delivers some great pearls of wisdom when it comes to the psychology of selling and the psychology of happiness and self-development.

For example, he debunks the common misconception in sales that it’s best to always tell oneself that “you can do it, you’re the best”, which is bandied by basically all sales books.

He explains that too positive self-talk has an upper limit and that some negative or critical self-analysis is helpful (also read: how to leverage failure).

  • Great Humor

I absolutely loved the sarcasm of these two lines:

Joe Girard is the world’s greatest salesman. 
I know, because he told me.

LOL, priceless :D.

Then, a little later, says Pink:

But there is one more thing you need to know about Joe Girard. He hasn’t sold a car since 1977. 
He quit his business more than three decades to teach others how to sell.

  • Wonderful audiobook voice

Daniel Pink actually reads his audiobook himself. I appreciate that, and the other listeners will too because he can make that writing come alive.

To Sell Is Human – Review

I don’t fully agree with the idea that an ethical approach to sales -and success- is the best and most effective approach for your bottom line.

To me, it’s very polly-annish.
I wish that an ethical approach to anything in life was the most effective.

The evidence that any critical observer can gather is clear: an ethical approach to life offers no inherent advantage when it comes to personal success.
Also read:

Aside from that, I absolutely loved “To Sell Is Human”. 
It’s a wonderful book and, for my personal taste as a sociologist, a  psychology buff, and a lover of the scientific method, it’s also the best book I have ever read on sales.

Get the book on Amazon

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