Scientists Make Rotten Salesmen

>> Sunday, June 13, 2010

I was explaining to my husband how I just can't sell squat to anyone, even when I believe in the product. We were discussing good books and what people wanted to buy, and musing that epic type fantasy and science fiction were considered less than hot commodities despite clear examples of their popularity at the movie theater, how it seemed that what was hot just now, the trappings, seemed more important that the caliber of the story. When, in my opinion, movies/stories like Avatar and the Ring Series were great stories with the setting/genre almost immaterial.

Now, that's plenty of fodder for the peanut gallery, so feel free to have at, but we moved on because my husband understood exactly what I meant. His reaction: "Marketing is about selling crap, no offense to anyone. The product might be good or not, but it makes no difference to marketing."

Now, Lee could sell anything to anyone, up close and personal. Me, I never could sell anything, even though I never tried to sell anything that I didn't believe in 100%.

Then it hit me. And I said it. "Scientists make lousy salesmen." See, things are black and white for scientists. Things aren't this or that. They're likely this and data indicates that. We use words like theoretically to describe our best explanation of things. A doctor knows even the best treatments have side effects or don't work on everyone. A scientists knows that long term effects may not be clearly indicated by any single data point (in fact, quite the opposite). A good scientist is ready and willing (or should be) to throw away his most precious pet theories if the data comes in to say something different.

But conviction requires ignorance. To say something is absolutely right or absolutely wrong requires, well, either a lack of understanding on subtleties or a lack of morals. Possibly both. Unfortunately, the public wants conviction; they take it as a sign of honesty (and if they didn't televangelists would be out of business in seconds). They figure the guy who's most convincing must be the one that's right.

But is it true? The oil companies have told us that anything that distracts us from drilling no matter how dangerous or expensive that drilling might be (or who owns the land) hurts us all. The big bankers told us to trust that they knew what they were doing. After all, they were the brightest of the bright and we just wouldn't understand what they doing. It's complicated and takes experts. Surely, the clear recent examples of all the slick talkers that took investors for millions (and their stockholders and their employees) should be reason enough not to equate conviction with actual sincerity.

*Sigh* But we don't.

I love the stuff I write. I do. I believe in it and think it's good stuff. But I can't tell someone it's like X's book, because it isn't. I can't tell anyone that it's a given best seller. Who knows? I can't even say it's the "best" novel ever written. I don't even think so, but, if I did, I know there are too many different definitions of "best" for me to be able to speak for everyone else. Heck, I have more than one myself.

I believe in the book, but I'm not ignorant enough to be a good salesman.

Stinks, don't it?


  • Jeff King

    Yes it does... selling requires the ability to make the "prospect" think the product is better than it is, that he/she can't live without it. You must dress up the good parts and leave out the negatives. Attach the “prospect happiness to the product and give them a sense of being lucky to have an opportunity to buy your product.
    It’s all about hype and the ability to change your pitch depending on your audiences, best of luck.

  • Roy

    I don't agree. I've been in retail sales most of my adult life, and I've never lied about the products I sell, I've always believed in the quality of what I was selling, and as you're well aware, I'm far from ignorant. In fact, to do the kind of selling I've done you have to know your product inside and out and in great detail. In retail sales, product knowledge is the key to success.

    Now marketing is a different story. Marketing involves presenting a product to as wide a range of prospective customers as possible all at once, whereas the kind of selling I do requires one-to-one contact. Pitching a product to a large audience does require exaggeration and fudging, in order to catch as many flies as possible with the least amount of effort. And most marketing firms have no real product knowledge; instead, they come up with catchphrases to capture attention, and those phrases have little or nothing to do with the actual product. Marketing firms and departments are in the business of waving brightly-colored flags around to get attention; they rely on us on the sales floor to actually present the product

    And we won't get into used car salesmen here. Heh, heh!

    As for selling writing, I have no clue. I could sell paintings (and other visual arts), but something as ephemeral as the word on the page is outside my comprehension.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Well, I'll be honest. I was thinking of marketing as opposed to just being a salesman. (Salesman is better for alliteration, but it was inexact.)

    Not that I'm an expert in either. There was a time when I toyed with the notion of getting a real estate license and becoming a buyer, but I knew I couldn't be a seller. I LOVE, however, helping people find just what they're looking for. In some cases, I expect salespeople are doing just that.

    But peddling a particular product, I'm not so good, and my husband pointed out that the same limitations I had were pertinent to scientists trying to bring the implications of global warming to the masses.

  • The Mother

    The problem with science is in its required honesty. We must determine both the pros and cons for anything we put out there--and we have to state them.

    That's scientific method. Not marketing method. Therein lies the paradox.

  • Project Savior

    Having been both I totally agree with you. The big thing is with programming I never had to doubt what I was doing. With selling oil programs not so much.
    One thing with selling books though (as opposed to other things) you don't need to compare yourself to anyone else. You just need to ask will this book be entertaining for the hours that someone spends reading it?
    A lot of books I've read that never made it to a bestsellers list, I enjoyed reading them and it was worth every minute I spent reading it. As an author that's all you can ask for.
    In the end that's all an author has to promise.

  • Stephanie Barr

    I know, the Mother, yet we need to do both.

    Project Savior, I do believe my work is entertaining. But I can't tell anyone they will be entertained. I'd like to think they would be. I am. I know others that would be. But it's a question of taste.

  • Project Savior

    Your work is entertaining. I know. But it is a matter of taste, for instance I can't read Dan Brown but I can see why others would be entertained. I wouldn't feel ripped off if I bought a Dan Brown novel even if I couldn't make it passed the first two chapters because I can see it's just a matter of taste, not a reflection of his writing or style.
    It's the same with anyone who isn't entertained by your work, they'll appreciate the style and have a gift to give someone.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Bless you, Darrell. Sometimes I need to hear it.

  • flit

    BUT... you are very very good at writing characters - so write yourself a really good salesperson/dragon and then have "him" write the letter.

    Simple :)

  • Aron Sora

    Read Seth Godin's work and the book Trust Agents, it will explain why scientists make the best salesmen over the ultra-long term...thoe are really great books.

  • Aron Sora

    Go here and look at time code 11:15 on, you'll see why we need engineers in marketing.

  • Aron Sora

    Check out this link too

  • Stephanie Barr

    *Sigh* flit, when have you ever seen me write an effective salesperson. Remember, all my characters are largely based on me.

    Aron, I didn't see a "first" link. The second one, I can see what he's saying but it's like writing a novel to please the market - not interesting to me.

  • Aron Sora

    Here's the link

    I reread that article, I thought it was like the engineering process, but in someway, engineer build product to the spec, so you are right.

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