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The New ABCs of Selling and Persuading

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The nature of sales and persuasion is changing, according to author Daniel H. Pink, and extroversion and aggressiveness aren’t the answers anymore. 

Pink, whose new book is To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others, spoke at the closing session of the recent annual conference of the American Society of Association Executives. While his presentation was directed at association professionals in particular, he included a number of insightful ideas and examples of use to fundraisers.

Pink began by recalling a scene from the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, where actor Alec Baldwin reminds a group of real estate salesmen that they should follow the ABCs of selling: Always Be Closing. However, Pink explained, this approach doesn’t work anymore because the flow and availability of information has changed dramatically. Buyers—and in the philanthropic realm, donors—have access to as much information about a product as the seller—or charity—does now.

While “caveat emptor” (buyer beware) used to be a common phrase when referring to selling and negotiations, the most accurate term is now “caveat venditor”—seller beware. Claims and statements now can be verified, and if a buyer or donor doesn’t like what the seller or charity is saying or doing, there is so much competition that the buyer/donor can find another potential partner very quickly.

The New ABCs

Pink unveiled a new set of ABCs for persuading others, based on a wide variety of research he has conducted recently: Attunement, Buoyancy and Clarity.

Attunement refers to listening to and understanding the other person—seeing through another person’s eyes—which is something many fundraisers already focus on. But Pink pointed to new data that underscore just how critical attunement is.

In an exercise involving negotiations, one group of participants was asked to try to understand what another person was thinking, while a second group was asked to try to understand what another person was feeling. Negotiations went better for the participants who tried to understand the other party’s thought process rather than the person’s feelings. While empathy and understanding emotions are important, understanding someone’s thinking tends to be more significant.

Of course, in a philanthropic situation feelings and emotions may prove just to be as powerful as someone’s rational thinking. Nevertheless, donors will still have to act in order to make a gift and create change, so understanding their thinking remains important.

Buoyancy refers to being optimistic and resilient, especially given how many times people will say no to a solicitation to give. As fundraisers already know, people who love and believe in what they’re doing make the best sellers and persuaders.

While extroverts are traditionally considered the most effective personality type associated with sales and fundraising, Pink noted that his studies didn’t confirm that. Instead, he found that “ambiverts,” those falling in between introverts and extroverts on a personality scale, typically did the best in sales and persuading others.

Extraverts tended to talk too much, didn’t know when to listen and often tried too hard to be right all the time, while introverts didn’t always speak up at the right time. Ambiverts were able to rely on both skill sets at different times.

Clarity is especially important because of the increasing amount of information that may overwhelm people. Pink noted that the best sellers and persuaders tend to be good “curators” who are able to take all of the relevant information and form it into a short, easy, compelling summary that identifies the precise problem or issue.

Sellers and fundraisers should be focused on identifying problems rather than problem solving. In his studies and experiments, Pink found that people responded better in conversations when the other person helped them identify the problem. According to Pink, there is probably enough information available to allow a person to find a solution. However, because there is so much readily available information, people have more trouble identifying what the specific problem is rather than actually solving it.

Three Rules

After identifying the new ABCS of selling and persuading, Pink emphasized three skills that are necessary to make the gift happen:

  • Mastering the pitch or, in the fundraising arena, mastering the ask. Use your case statement and what you know about the donor to inspire him or her to do what you want—to make a gift!
  • Improvisation. This is important because things will change quickly and unexpectedly, and fundraisers must be ready when they do.
  • Service. Fundraisers serve the cause and the donor, and it’s important that both sides of a negotiation or gift see and get value out of the transaction. Effective sellers and persuaders ensure everyone is served through a gift or exchange.

Finally, Pink said that in nearly all negotiations and transactions, the more power one side gives up the more it has. By giving up power—and thereby listening more, trying to attune themselves to the other party and showing their commitment and authenticity—people will have a much better chance of persuading the other party. It’s a bit contradictory, Pink admitted, but ultimately it leads to the outcome you want—a gift that will please the donor and help your organization advance its mission.

Daniel H. Pink is the author of four books about the changing world of work, including A Whole New Mind and Drive. His books have been translated into 33 languages. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and their three children.