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Ad Sales Psychology 101 -- Part I

Posted on Friday, February 28, 2020 at 4:48 PM

The difference between telling and selling.

By William Dunkerley

"I'd like to tell you something about our publication." That's just about the worst way possible to start off a sales presentation. Yet it's a too common approach. I've heard it often from salespeople I've been called in to train.

Ironically, this awful opening actually seems to work some of the time.

It can work if your publication holds a monopoly or near-monopoly position in your field. If a company needs advertising exposure to your kind of readers, you may be the only good choice. It can also work if an advertiser has such a large ad budget that it can afford to be indiscriminate. And it can work if you are selling to your cousin Vinny who owes you a favor. Otherwise, it's an awful approach in my view.

Telling Versus Selling

Why is the approach awful? To understand that you must be aware of the difference between telling and selling. That's because the cited approach constitutes telling not selling.

Merriam-Webster provides differentiating definitions:

--Tell: to give information to
--Sell: to cause or promote the sale of


Obviously, all selling includes some telling. But telling alone is not selling.

When a salesperson considers his or her mission to be telling about your publication, he or she is missing the point. Telling alone is not a successful way of accomplishing selling.

Here's another point of differentiation by analogy to education.

An ineffectual teacher can gas on about a particular subject while the students actually learn nothing. A master teacher, on the other hand, will speak skillfully in a way that promotes learning. A concrete behavioral objective will be attained: The students will be able to demonstrate objectively that they have acquired knowledge.

The same concept comes up in journalism. When trying to relate something to an audience, it is often more effective to "show" it with words than simply to tell it outright. Professor Peter P. Jacobi once shared with us the criticism he gave a student on a writing assignment:

"Show, don't tell: Show me. Don't tell me. How often have I stressed that? In this paper, I get tired of the expository passages. I get even more tired of all the quotes that you parade before me. Give me some action. Give me some description. Give me the closeness of 'show.' Take me there. You're keeping me distant, and that's not fair. How much life your article would gain if you put your heroes in situations that reveal how they live and work. This is far duller than it should be."

In a sales presentation, merely parading out various statements about your publication will have the same effect. You will elicit the same tiring, actionless impression that Jacobi got from his student's article. Once again, telling is not the same thing as selling.

Readiness to Learn

So what's in store for the salesperson who starts off with "I'd like to tell you something about our publication"? He may be talking to a prospect who’s texting a friend about a new movie while pretending to listen to the salesperson out of politeness.

Starting off with "telling" may not be the only mistake here, though. This one has a counterpart in education too: the concept of readiness to learn.

For instance, a first-grade teacher would not think of trying to teach advanced calculus to his students. They're not ready for it. They have a lot to learn before they'll be able to grasp the concepts of advanced calculus, let along be able to perform the mathematical operations. They don't have a readiness to learn.

Seeking Qualified Prospects

In ad sales it's not so much about whether the prospect has had the necessary educational experiences. There could be other reasons that she doesn't have a readiness to receive a sales message.

An obvious one is that the prospect may have no need for the advertising opportunity you’re offering. In that case, what reason would the prospect have to reach your audience? If your readers are for example foodies who enjoy reading about gourmet foods it's unlikely that a seller of fast foods would gain much by advertising with you. That prospect would have an inadequate readiness to buy. In sales terms we'd call him an unqualified prospect.

That's why it is always more efficient to approach prospects that have been prequalified. If you see the prospect's ads in a competing publication, you'll know you've got a qualified prospect. If you know that your readers collectively form a significant marketplace for whatever a prospect is selling, that makes the company a qualified prospect too.

Of course, it's always possible to try qualifying a prospect on the first sales call. But there is a disadvantage to that. The time you take qualifying the prospect can give her time to develop sales resistance. And that could lead to forming an un-readiness to be sold.

How does this relate to "telling" versus "selling"? It has to do with the interactivity of the communication. Telling can be a one-way street. You can tell and tell and tell without getting any feedback from your audience. Selling is different. It has a necessary interactive element. At first the only information you may be receiving is knowledge of whether you have a qualified prospect. The "I want to tell you..." salesperson isn't being very interactive.

There's still a third mistake being made by the salesperson who "tells." We'll pick up on that in Part II.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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