Bestselling author Dan Pink has opened millions of minds to practical insights from social science that can help all of us be better communicators. In this Q&A, I asked Dan to share top takeaways from his number one New York Times bestselling book To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. You’ll take away insights and ideas you can use to communicate with maximum motivating power.
The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Doug Hattaway: Dan, it’s great to see you again. The last time we spoke, we talked about your book The Power of Regret, which made The New York Times bestseller list in 2022. This time, I wanted to dig into some oldies but goodies that aren’t really that old, but they have insights people can use right now.
I’d love to start with your book called To Sell is Human. It says that, officially, one in nine Americans works in a sales job. But you point out in the book that, in fact, the vast majority of us are trying to move people in some way every day. Let’s dig into that. First, how do you define “selling”? Why should people who work in a government agency or a nonprofit organization or foundation that is not a business, why should they see themselves as salespeople?
Dan Pink: Because if you look at the guts of what they do every day, whether they like it or not, they are selling. We did a very large survey where we asked 7,000 adult full-time workers in the United States questions that went something like, “How much of your time do you spend trying to convince other people to give up something they value for what you offer?” I am describing sales without saying the s-word because the s-word is freighted, [but] we can come back to that.
What we found was that there were teachers trying to persuade their students to do something, to pay attention, or to do their homework. There were bosses trying to get their employees to do something different or do something in a different way. There were teammates trying to get another teammate to [work] on their project rather than another project.
I think that’s especially true at foundations and nonprofits and in government. A big part of what people do, whether they like it or not, is trying to move people. Even though, as you mentioned, one out of nine people in this U.S. economy are officially categorized as having a sales job, which is a lot, the other eight in nine, the rest of us, we’re selling too. You’re not a salesperson, but you are. I’m not a salesperson, but I am. I think that’s the way of white-collar work today.
Doug: [Selling] on one level, it’s a word everybody can relate to. But you said it’s also freighted or fraught. Why is that?
Dan: For this book, we asked people, “When you think of sales or selling, what’s the first word that comes to mind?” You know a lot about survey research. You can ask people questions on a Likert scale, 1–7, about their beliefs. Do you strongly agree? Do you strongly disagree? Are you somewhere in the middle?
I like this question, “What’s the first word that comes to mind?” because you get a more visceral sense of what people believe. We asked this question, “What’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear ‘sales’ or ‘selling’?” We got a parade of horrible words, man. Pushy, aggressive, sleazy, slimy, and duplicitous, those kinds of words.
I think that it’s freighted in that way, which I actually think is a mistake because most of what we know about sales and selling, most of our muscle memory, at least for people over the age of 25 or 30, has come from a world of information asymmetry, where the seller of anything always had more information than the buyer. When the seller has more information than the buyer, the seller can rip you off. That’s why we have “buyer beware.”
But in the last 10 years, we now live in a world of information parity, and increasingly, unfortunately, in a world of information distortion. If you look at some of the most fundamental selling and buying experiences in the economy today, they are materially different from the way they were 15, certainly 20, years ago.
Doug: The word “engagement” has become the big buzzword in this space. It’s not top-down marketing or broadcast communication. It’s engaging people.
Dan: That’s a big part of it. Go back to those words like sleazy, slimy, duplicitous. It’s harder to take the low road today. It’s not impossible, but it’s harder to take the low road today because you’re probably going to get found out. If you just look at the relatively basic commercial transactions of buying a car, car dealers and car buying were almost the paragon of that smarminess and sleaziness.
Recently, in my house, when we went to buy a car, when we went to Jim Coleman Toyota in Bethesda, Maryland, my wife walked in there with the factory invoice price of the car that we wanted. There’s no way we could have done that 15 years ago. Now, there’s information parity, or something closer to it, which means that to sell anything—your idea, your concept, your cause, your set of beliefs, the actions you want someone to take—you can’t be as aggressive, sleazy, slimy, pushy, and duplicitous. You have to draw on another set of aptitudes.
Doug: Those perceptions are around commercial sales, as you said, the fast-talking salesperson, that sort of thing. Let’s shift the focus to the movement leader, the manager, the nonprofit person, or the public health person trying to get people to adopt a new way of seeing things or a new behavior that will be healthy for them. What are some lessons for people in that position? Because they do not see themselves as salespeople.
Dan: Yeah. Although they’re not selling like I’m talking about, it’s pretty important to recognize. In the domain that you’re talking about, I think that one thing one has to reckon with—and it’s a very, very hard problem to solve—is that with certain kinds of political beliefs and political actions, and even assessments of any politically freighted facts, we are much more persuaded by the beliefs of our tribe and being consistent with the tribal rights and customs than we are about actually evaluating the facts. That makes it a little bit harder for a [foundation or nonprofit] person.
But in general, I actually think that the underlying principles are relatively simple and straightforward. One of them, fairly fundamental, is what I call attunement, which is that you have to be able to take the other’s perspective. You have to be able to get out of your own head and see things from someone else’s point of view. I have found that sometimes movement leaders or cause leaders have a difficult time doing that. They’re so convinced of the rightness of their cause that they can’t imagine that anybody would be skeptical, and that’s dangerous.
There are techniques that we can use to get out of our own head, see things from someone else’s point of view. One reason that people don’t like sales of any kind is that you’re going to get rejected a lot, and human beings don’t like rejection. There are some techniques about how you stay afloat in what in many cases is an ocean of rejection.
Then there are other kinds of things about fostering clarity. This is actually really important in any kind of profession, in your profession as well; it used to be that you gained expertise by having access to information that nobody else had. Now, everybody has access to that information. But there’s so much information out there. The abilities that matter most are not accessing information necessarily but [rather] curating information, taking this wealth of information that’s out there and making sense of it for people to use.
Then, one final thing here is that problem-solving now matters less than problem-finding, especially in a world of large language models. It used to be, especially in professional services, that your job was to solve the problem that your client gave you. But now, your client can find a lot of those solutions on their own. What you have to do is make sure that they’re actually solving the right problem.
Doug: Absolutely. Everything you said is very much applicable to people who are leading organizations of all kinds or communicating with audiences for all kinds of reasons.
Dan: Think about public health, [where] we are awash in information. In the old days, the public health leader was the only source of that information. Now, you have other sources of information, some of which are right and some of which are wrong.
I think that public health officials, as a great example, or public health organizations, have a curatorial function. People are being bombarded with [questions] such as, “Does this drug work? Is this safe? Is this not safe?” The public health official’s job is to sort that out, to curate that and say, “This is true, this is not true. This is meaningful, this is not meaningful.”
Doug: It’s so much more than being persuasive per se. That said, in the book, you have five frames that help people be more persuasive. What are the five frames?
Dan: We all want to be more persuasive. The way to be more persuasive is actually not necessarily to say, “I’m the expert because I have information that you don’t have.” It’s to say, “I’m the expert. Let me show you I’m the expert by separating out the signal from the noise in this massive [amount of] information we’re dealing with. I’ll also try to help you discover what’s the right problem to solve on a tactical level.”
A lot of the framing is about clarity. The whole point of a frame is to isolate some things and disregard everything else. One of them is what I like to call the “less frame.” A lot of times when we’re giving people options, we’re trying to help people decide; we think that having a lot of options is better. Literally, I just came back from the Starbucks in my neighborhood. There are, like, 47 gazillion possible combinations for coffee.
At some level, people have a little bit of an overload. There’s some interesting research showing that actually restricting people’s choices and offering fewer options is a way to get more assent. That is, people are going to be less satisfied, in general, with eight options than they are going to be with three options.
There’s also a really good lesson for persuasive leaders. When we’re trying to persuade somebody, we want to give people reasons for changing their beliefs or changing their action. What the research shows is that one argument is better than zero arguments, no surprise. Two arguments are better than one argument, okay. Three arguments are better than two arguments. But four arguments are worse than three arguments. That when people know that you’re trying to persuade them, you want to find the three best ones and stop there. Again, we’ve heard it before, but it’s true empirically. Less is more.
Doug: That’s a good rule of thumb, actually, because so many organizations have lots of arguments, lots of data, lots of expertise. As we try to educate our clients, TMI, too many ideas, too much information overwhelms the audience. Our work is relevant to what you’re saying about choice.
We saw a dynamic in working with a public health organization around birth control and making choices about birth control. It was clear in our research. Some of the social science pointed out that people who grow up without a lot of resources and weren’t given choices and options —What do you want for dinner tonight? What do you want to do this weekend? that sort of thing—actually don’t have that same experience of making choices.
Dan: That’s a great point, it [gets at] how to become a better persuader. You become a better persuader by being relentless about editing and by curating and by really narrowing it down. So simplicity: fewer is better than many, simple is better than complex. Also—you know this from politics—repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition.
You’ve probably worked with clients who say, “Well, I already said that yesterday.” That’s nice, but they have to say it tomorrow and [the next day, and the next day after that]. If you do it for two years, someone out there might say, “Hey, I think this dude’s trying to tell me something.”
Doug: Back to the five frames. What are some other frames that would be useful for folks in business, government, and nonprofits?
Dan: Well, there’s something that I called the label frame. I think that a lot of the folks in nonprofits and foundations and so forth might have an intuitive sense of this. Basically, what you label something, what you call something initially has a pretty big effect on how people perceive it.
There are a couple of classic experiments here in social psychology. One was giving people the famous game of the prisoner’s dilemma, where you have two people, and if they cooperate, they both go free. But if only one person cooperates and one person doesn’t, then one person goes free and the other doesn’t. You have to figure out what’s the best. It’s a classic problem about trusting others. If you and I were in the prisoner’s dilemma, the ideal outcome would be for me to trust you and for you to trust me.
All of which is to say that when you give people this game or you put people in other kinds of games that simulate certain behavior, and you tell people, “We’re now going to play the Wall Street game,” more people act selfishly. If you play the exact same game with the exact same kind of participants and call it the Community Game, people are much more likely to cooperate.
There’s another famous study from the Chicago school system, probably 50, 40 years ago, where they took a group of students in a certain grade, maybe third grade. They randomly divided them up, but they told half the teachers, “These students have very high potential.” They told the others, “These students are just your regular students.”
[They] basically identified them, called them, “These are high potential students, these are just your ordinary students.” At the end of the year, the students who were identified, who were called high potential, did a lot better because the expectations were higher. Labels matter more than we think. What I like about the label frame and a lot of these techniques is that it doesn’t cost anything. You don’t need a budget; you just have to call it a different name.
Doug: Yes, naming is a powerful form of framing.
Dan: Another one of my frames, this changed my view on things, is what I like to call a blemish frame. A lot of times when we’re trying to make our case to somebody, whether we’re selling an apartment building or whether we’re trying to sell a donor on something, let’s say we have a pretty good offer, but suppose it’s not perfect. There’s a blemish on it, there’s a downside, there’s something that isn’t great about it, which is often the case.
The question is, do you reveal that flaw, or do you conceal that flaw? For me, I always held my breath and said, “I hope this doesn’t come up.” It turns out that that might not be the right thing.
There’s a fascinating piece of research out of Stanford [where] they put two groups of people in front of a computer and said, “We’re going to show you some hiking boots, and you have to decide whether you want to buy these hiking boots.” They showed the first group the hiking boots and they gave them a long list of positives on how great the hiking boots are. They have waterproof soles and indestructible laces, [and they’re] endorsed by a hiking magazine.
With the second group, they gave the same long list of positive attributes, but at the very end they said, “But unfortunately, they come in only two colors.” Long list of positives followed by the small negative. It turned out that people were more likely to buy the hiking boots when there was a long list of positives followed by a small negative, that the addition of the negative enhanced people’s propensity to buy.
It’s a really important point, “Compared to what?” People don’t make decisions in absolute terms. They make them in relative terms. Bob Cialdini has talked about this for 50 years, what he calls the contrast principle. The addition of that small blemish triggered the contrast. You look at that long list of positives, it’s great. You look at that long list of positives followed by a small negative, and people actually do a little bit more work. They say, “They only come in two colors? Well, what difference does that make? Because look at this long list of positives.” That is, they more autonomously come up with their own reasons for agreeing with you, and that ends up being more persuasive.
Doug: It seems to also signal integrity. You’re being upfront, which is a trust-building thing to do.
Dan: That’s another good point. And you want people to come up with their own reasons for doing what you want them to do because people are more likely to believe those reasons if they come up with themselves and adhere to the behavior once they do.
The counter side of that is part of the reason for the durability of those beliefs, is the repetition we were talking about before. That is when people hear something repeated. It’s just how our minds work. When people hear something a lot, they actually believe it more, whether that thing is true [or not].
Doug: Back to the word of engagement. It’s engaging people in certain ways, such as curating information, giving that information in a way that makes it as easy as possible for them to think it through to get the outcomes you’re talking about.
Dan: I think engagement is a really good way to look at this because there are different ways to engage people. One way you engage people, obviously—charities have known this for a long time—is we’re more likely to engage one-to-one than at scale.
This is why charities raising money for hunger, for instance, will say “X number of people in this country are hungry,” and some people will be persuaded by that. But if you show one kid and tell people that kid’s name and show the conditions of that one kid’s life, oftentimes people are more persuaded by that, exactly for the reasons you’re talking about. They are engaged. They are exposed.
This is one of the reasons behind one of the most remarkable and durable attitude changes in our nation, the change around perceptions of marriage equality. It’s a good example of this because part of it was actually the framing of the name, talking about it in terms of marriage equality.
But another part of it was just people’s day-to-day exposure. The people who wanted marriage equality mowed their lawns and walked their dogs and made packages, and when people saw this in their lives they realized, my God, the world isn’t coming apart. Instead of having this thing that’s abstract, people became much more engaged on a regular level. That personal engagement is also very powerful. You listen to people, you engage, and you have a slightly better shot at changing their minds.
Doug: Yeah, absolutely. It’s interesting you mentioned the marriage equality movement, which we worked with for some time on the communication side. A lot of researchers remarked how quickly public opinion seemed to shift on that. But it really did start with what you were talking about, which was a precursor to that in the LGBT movement, getting people to come out and tell their stories.
That really laid the foundation. Of course, smart framing and strategic storytelling and campaigns built on that.
Let’s switch gears to your book called Drive, which I personally found very helpful in building a business that takes a thoughtful approach to management and motivating people. It talks about the surprising truth about motivating others. What’s the big idea in this book that surprises people?
Dan: We tend to think that if you want people to do something, the best thing to do is to dangle some reward, particularly money, in front of them and to make those rewards as high stakes and contingent as possible. What I like to call “If, then” rewards. If you do this, then you get that.
What we have now is almost 60 years of research showing that “If, then” rewards are good for some things, simple tasks with short time horizons, but they’re far less effective than we think. For complex tasks with long time horizons, they just don’t work nearly as well as we suspect.
They often distort behavior and sometimes can reduce performance, particularly on creative tasks. But essentially, the recipe is fairly straightforward. Hire great people, pay them well, and offer some autonomy, some control over what they do, how they do it, when they do it, where they do it.
Give them avenues to get better at something that matters, and a purpose, so that they know that they’re making a difference out there in the world, which is what your clients are doing, or they’re simply making a contribution internally. That’s harder to do. But it’s a much more sustainable form of motivation.
A lot of these contingent rewards, high stakes, “If, then” rewards, are essentially coal. You’re just shoveling more coal in and burning it off. It burns off quickly. It creates all kinds of externalities. It offers some power in the short run, but in the long term, it’s really not sustainable. A more renewable form of energy is paying people well, but then really focusing on autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Doug: You mentioned externalities, and that’s extrinsic motivation, right? We’re talking about motivation coming from outside the carrot and stick.
Dan: Yeah. The research does not say people are not motivated by money. They are. It’s not so much about money, it’s about contingency. If I say to you, “If you do this, then you’ll get that,” and I give you a high-stakes reward, I’m going to get your attention. There’s no question about that.
For certain things that require a narrow focus, it’s going to work pretty well. It’s just that the research tells us that for things that require creativity, long-term thinking, a more expansive view, those “If, then” rewards just don’t work very well. They narrow people’s focus when you actually want to widen people’s focus.
Human beings need extrinsic motivators. You need to be paid, no question about it, and you need to be paid fairly. But the idea that human beings, particularly at work, are easily and predictably motivated by dangling a carrot or stick, it’s just not empirically true. Or at least it is not true as often as we think it is.
Doug: Interesting. I saw some recent research on this. It was in the category of mindfulness and being mindful about what you’re doing no matter what it is, and that bringing in the extrinsic motivation, such as, “Do this to earn the bonus,” actually distracted people. Their engagement in the work was less, interestingly, versus having a sense of purpose. As you said, feeling mastery, such as when you’re doing something you’re good at and you’re learning, keeps you engaged in a very meaningful way, and it’s longer lasting.
What about some takeaways from Drive? We’ve got purpose, autonomy, mastery. Any other tips or tricks for people to think about?
Dan: Sure. I think for the people who are bosses out there [with a] purpose, we have some pretty good evidence that purpose is the single most cost-effective performance enhancer you have as a leader. There’s no question about it because it’s free.
I do think that there are two kinds of purpose. One kind of purpose is a big, transcendent purpose. I am feeding the hungry. I am addressing the climate crisis. But there’s another kind of purpose inside many organizations, which simply goes like, “Hey, I’m helping out my teammate. I’m helping get that report out the door. I’m helping that client or constituent solve their problem, even though it’s not going to have some great transcendent effect on humankind.”
Let me give you a specific takeaway here. If you’re a boss out there, this week or the week you’re reading this, [try having] two fewer conversations about “how” and two more about “why.” One of the things that you’ll discover once you try this is that if you’re a boss, you have a lot of “how” conversations. You’re always telling people how to do stuff, and that’s cool. That’s part of your job. But if you just turn that “how” conversation into a “why” conversation, I think you’ll see an uptick in performance. There’s some good evidence of this.
Doug: It reminds me of some research out of Stanford on happiness that says people striving to achieve a specific, concrete goal makes them feel happy about what they’re doing, whether it’s in work or other aspects of life. Not big, abstract pie-in-the-sky stuff, but very specific things.
Dan: I think there is a tendency, particularly among very well-educated, very smart people in top jobs, to approach things at sometimes too high a level of abstraction and [without being] specific or concrete. But the best persuaders are people who can toggle between those two.
Doug: That reminds me, I want to go back to the talk of purpose. I love how you broke it out in a couple of ways because that’s become quite the buzzword in the business world, because people are hearing about the power of it particularly for productivity. Then there are lots of clumsy ways to go about it, such as blundering into political debates. You probably don’t need to be blathering about it. What’s your take? Are there smarter, more and less effective ways to think about and act on instilling a sense of purpose in employees and others?
Dan: Yes. Here I am a firm believer in simplicity, having been on the boards of some nonprofits that spend a year working on their mission, vision, and values only to have those things live in a PDF somewhere that no one can really remember. When you think about purpose, I think the purpose is generally simple and often relatively concrete.
I also think that purpose in some ways is emergent rather than imposed. What I mean by that is there’s a line of research on what’s known as simple beacons. That’s the phrase, simple beacons. What it showed was that in organizations that were truly animated by a sense of purpose, the way that people talked about it was very simple and consistent. They weren’t mouthing the mission statement or the set of values. They were talking about it organically in a way that both demonstrated and then subsequently shaped the purpose.
The classic example of this has to do with NASA in the 1960s, when they realized that their purpose wasn’t space exploration or anything abstract like that. It was to put a man on the moon. Put a man on the moon—six one-syllable words. Those kinds of simple beacons that are often emergent can be really powerful. A leader’s job is to listen for them, but also when you start hearing things that are compelling, to amplify those things.
Doug: Any other takeaways for managers and movement leaders?
Dan: In terms of the day-to-day dealing with managing people, I’m very persuaded by some of the research, a lot of it done by Teresa Amabile at Harvard Business School, that the single biggest day-to-day motivator on the job is making progress in meaningful work. The days when people are making progress, they’re motivated.
As a leader, one of the things that you can do is help people see the progress they’re making, give people very quick, not like every twice a year, but in-the-moment feedback on the progress they’re making. Even as individuals, take a moment at the end of the day to write down three ways you made progress.
I’m a big fan of that particular technique. At the end of each day, just list three ways you made progress that day, and that helps you actually see. What I found is that on some of the most frustrating days, that is often the most useful time for that technique.
But I would say one of the things that frustrates people out there in the real work land is that they are working, they do care, they’re trying to do stuff, but they don’t know whether they’re moving forward, and they don’t know whether what they’re doing matters at all.
A leader who can answer those two questions, “Here’s how you’re making progress, here’s what you did today or this week,” actually matters. Those are really powerful motivators. Again, it requires effort, but it doesn’t require a massive budget at all.
Doug: Fascinating. As always, Dan, super insightful, really interesting and actionable things that we can all do right away without, to your point, spending a lot of money but that are really powerful ways to power up our effectiveness.
Dan: I’m a big believer in people trying small things, and if they work, keep doing them. If they don’t work for you, stop doing it and then try something else. Small experiments can lead to small wins, and eventually they cascade into really big, meaningful, positive change.
Doug: That’s a great note to leave it on. Thank you very much. Great to see you again.
Dan: A pleasure.
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