Daniel Pink Sales Tips: Clarity Is Key to Selling

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "To Sell Is Human" by Daniel H. Pink. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does clarity mean in the context of sales? What are the seven components of clarity?

Daniel Pink, sales guru and author of To Sell Is Human, puts high importance on the new ABCs of selling: attunement, buoyancy, and clarity. There are seven components to clarity and if you master them, you will be able to close more sales.

Here is what Daniel Pink says about clarity in sales.

The ABCs of Sales: C Is for Clarity

Daniel Pink’s sales book, To Sell Is Human, discusses the new ABCs of selling. This article will focus solely on C for Clarity. Clarity in a sales context is the ability to help people restructure their perspective of whatever is occurring for them, support them to discover problems they didn’t know they had, and facilitate the process of developing solutions. For buyers, there are two key obstacles to clarity. 

Problem 1: Buyers often lack clarity when making a purchase because they have a hard time weighing immediate rewards versus delayed rewards. We are more inclined towards instant gratification even if delayed gratification better serves our own self-interest.

Solution 1: Give the buyer a way to do the “right thing” by default. In a sales context, this means offering the buyer a solution that they can access immediately, and requires no decision-making on their part.

  • Example: Let’s say you’re trying to convince a buyer to purchase a gym membership. They can buy it for the full annual price, or on a month-to-month contract. You can move them to actionable clarity by highlighting the benefit of paying annually over monthly. You can remind them that a one-time payment will inspire them to keep their commitment to their health by default, rather than giving them the opportunity to change their mind each month.

Solution 2: Remind the buyer of the long-term consequences of accepting short-term solutions, and the long-term benefits of delayed gratification. You want to show the buyer how their purchase is going to improve their life in the long term, even though it will cost them resources in the short term.

Example: Let’s say you’re selling an iPhone, and you want the buyer to purchase insurance with the iPhone. You can remind them that although it will cost more upfront, it will save them money in the future if anything ever happens to their phone. On the flip side, you can make sure they understand that the short-term gratification of spending less money can cause them greater pain in the future by leaving their device unprotected.

Problem 2: Research shows we are not able to make an emotional connection between our present and future selves. Therefore, the idea of making choices based on our future self rather than our present self is unappealing (it feels like making choices for a stranger).

Solution: Paint an image of the future self in a way that is familiar, yet improved. In certain contexts this can be an actual digital image, but in general, it can be done through description alone.

Example: Consider the gym membership example from above. To get the buyer connected to the long-term impact of their purchase, you can describe to them an image of who they might be, or how they may look and feel after a year of working out. 

The Seven Components of Clarity

#1: Problem-Finding

Traditional sales is about having access to information that buyers don’t, and modern sales is about being able to curate information so that the buyer is supported to solve problems that are most relevant to them and their needs. Traditional sales is about answering questions, while modern sales is about asking questions.

You’re more likely to allow others to provide you a service when you have problems you’re not aware of or need further understanding of. If you are aware of your problem, you don’t need help from others, you can just solve it yourself. If you don’t have knowledge of your problem, that is when you need the support of others. Therefore, “movement” is less about problem-solving and more about problem finding

That means the people who are most valuable in sales are not people who can quickly close a sale, but people who seek to discover problems with the buyer and determine pathways for a solution together. It’s not about making the sale (problem-solving), but evaluating a buyer’s needs, and providing them with new clarity (problem finding). These people are thorough, they cross-reference a variety of different pieces of information, experiment with many angles, are flexible and adaptable, and take their time completing tasks or achieving goals. 

For example, say you sell houses, and you’re working with a buyer who has a family of four. If you’re focused on problem-solving, you might simply find the buyer a few houses in his price range with 3-4 bedrooms. If you’re focused on problem-finding, you will take the time to ask the buyer questions about his family to identify their specific needs, provide him with a variety of options that meet those needs, make adjustments if necessary, and work with the buyer until a house is found that truly satisfies him.

#2: Contrast

Clarity is enhanced by contrast (and in fact, depends on it). Research shows we are better able to understand or comprehend something when we see it alongside something else. You can move others to deeper clarity about their needs by showing them a reality that contrasts with their own. This makes, “Compared to what?” a critical question in the selling process. Contrast allows you to display the virtues of an option by, for example, displaying the ills of another option. A sales example is comparing your product to a competitor’s product, and demonstrating the differences to a buyer.

#3: Fewer Options

More options drive more initial interest, but fewer options increase likelihood of positive results. Reducing the options available allows you to hone in on them, which provides clarity.

In a well-known Columbia University research study, researchers set up booths at a grocery store for jam sampling. The first round provided 24 options, and the second round reduced that number to 6. The study found that more people engaged with the booth in the first round, but the second round yielded more actual purchases. Cutting the options from 24 to 6 made a purchase ten times more likely. The implication is that framing options in a restrictive way builds more clarity. Why? It prevents buyers from becoming overwhelmed by possibilities and allows them to fully evaluate available choices.

#4: Emphasis on Experience

People prefer experiences to material goods. What’s the difference?

  • Material purchases are tangible and intended to be kept for sentimental or practical purposes. 
  • Experiential purchases are purchases for which the intention is to experience events or activities you can share with others or keep in your own memory. 

Experiences create opportunities to share stories and connect with others, with the bonus of enhancing self-awareness, which allows you to develop deeper clarity. Framing a “sale” through the lens of experience rather than material acquisition is significantly more likely to move buyers. For example, let’s say you’re trying to sell a customer a basketball for their son’s graduation party, but the customer is not sure she needs one. You can help the customer develop clarity by describing how the basketball might be used to enhance the party. You might describe how basketball can help to create an experience of community and entertainment for partygoers. The customer might realize that is exactly the experience she wants partygoers to have, and with that clarity, decide to purchase the basketball.

#5: Clear Tone

Your tone matters. Ascribing positive labels to a product or experience changes the behavior of the buyer, particularly if you frame the product or experience by using comparison (for example, you can describe the experience as one that most will never have, and show the buyer why they are special if they have that experience). 

There is value to including negative labels as well, to a point. People are more likely to make a purchase after receiving mostly positive labels and small numbers of negative labels than they are to make a purchase after receiving entirely positive labels. This is called the blemishing effect, and it uses a minor negative aspect of something to frame or enhance the positive.

The blemishing effect operates well under two conditions. 

Condition #1: Buyers need to be in a “low effort” state of mind—meaning they aren’t in a hurry to find a solution to their problem. An example is someone whose attention is on other things, like a busy producer always on their phone who just wants someone else to take care of the problem as soon as possible.

Condition #2: The negative information needs to be shared after the positive. The comparison of positive followed by negative moves the buyer to clarity. An example would be talking up a used car to a buyer, and then after highlighting all its best qualities, pointing out a minor negative detail. This minor negative detail frames the positive details more dramatically.

#6: Potential

Studies show that the possibility of one day being skilled at something is a more appealing narrative than already being skilled at that thing. Why? Uncertainty. According to research, being uncertain makes you think more deeply about whatever is causing the uncertainty. This encourages you to imagine more possibilities and become excited by their potential. When selling yourself, frame your potential rather than your existing value. For example, if you’re seeking a promotion, share your goals for the position with your boss. In a sales context, emphasize the potential of a product or service. For example, get a buyer excited about a new iPhone to replace their current one. 

#7: An Exit Route

Providing clarity is not just about clarity of thought, it’s about clarity of action. What moves people is not simply the identification of a solution or a goal, but a roadmap that gives them clarity on how to reach the solution or goal. After determining a problem, and framing it successfully, the last component of clarity is giving buyers an “off-ramp.” Giving someone an “off-ramp” means giving them a clear path to the resolution of a problem. 

The Solution: Practices for Developing Clarity

Here are some practices to develop clarity.

Practice #1: Jolts of Uncertainty

Clarity needs comparison. You can find it by jolting yourself with unfamiliar experiences.

  • 10 Volts Jolt: Make a single choice you wouldn’t normally make, like taking the bus instead of driving or going to a store you would never normally go to.
  • 50 Volts Jolt: Put yourself in an unfamiliar environment for a day. For example, if you’re a doctor, spend your day at a construction site.
  • 100 Volts Jolt: Put yourself in an extremely unfamiliar environment for an extended period of time. For example, live in another country for a month. 

This practice is valuable whether you’re a salesperson or not because it helps you to develop new perspectives and identify personal strengths or weaknesses. This clarity contributes to your ability to sell yourself. If you’re a salesperson, the practice keeps you open to new possibilities, and you improve at identifying problems and solutions. This equips you to better support potential buyers to develop clarity.

Practice #2: Operation Curate

Historically, accessing information was difficult. In the modern world, we have unlimited access, so curation is the greater challenge. Curation is about identifying relevant information and dismissing irrelevant information. Beth Kanter has developed three steps to curation.

Step #1: Seek

Identify the area or topic you’re gathering information on, and locate as many sources for that information as possible. Look at those sources every day, at least twice a day, for at least fifteen minutes, and keep track of the most interesting info. 

Step #2: Sense

Do something that will help you to personally make sense of the information. Write a private blog, or make a spreadsheet of the sources and information.

Step #3: Share

Once you know you’ve found meaning in the information you’ve gathered, share what you’ve curated with others, in any way that makes sense for you (for example, by making your private blog public, making an Instagram post, calling up some clients or friends who care about the area you’ve studied, and so on.)

The value of this practice is that others get to see things from a new perspective and identify problems they didn’t know they had (in a selling context, this creates a need for service). You can take your service (or product) and use the practice to deepen your understanding of it, as well as of the needs of those who might purchase it. 

Practice #3: Ask Good Questions

We’re conditioned to seek answers, but in our modern world of selling and movement, asking good questions is even more important than finding answers. If you’re preparing for a sales opportunity of any kind, these steps will support you to develop a great set of questions you should be able to use in most cases.

Step #1: Generate 

Write down as many questions as you can think of that may be relevant to the details of your interaction or transaction. Refrain from editing, and write them quickly, without curating. 

Step #2: Enhance

Put each of your questions into one of two categories: Open-ended, or close-ended. Observe your lists, and consider the strengths and weaknesses of both styles of questions. Choose a couple close-ended ones, and create some open-ended variations. Do the same vice versa. 

Step #3: Prioritize

Narrow your questions down to the three most powerful, or significant. Edit them again to be sure they make sense. This practice will give you tools for creating clarity in your interactions with those you are trying to “move.” You can use these questions as a way to speculate on the general needs of buyers, but you can also ask these questions directly to buyers to build connections in a sales transaction, or a non-sales selling interaction.

This is valuable for salespeople, but also for those who engage primarily with non-sales selling. For example, let’s say you have a job interview. You can use this practice to develop a great set of questions for your potential employer.

Daniel Pink Sales Tips: Clarity Is Key to Selling

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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