Sales and Sales Management Blog

March 28, 2012

George Orwell’s Negative Influence on Sales Language


The coincidence of timing: My friend Dan Waldschmidt published a post yesterday on why words matter.  After reading my post on how words a misused, I’d encourage you read Dan’s to see how words should be used.

What words do you use to describe yourself and your products and services?  Are there words you intentionally try to keep out the mind of your prospects or clients?  Do you use euphemisms instead of plain English when making a presentation in order to try to elicit a particular feeling or response from your prospect?

As salespeople, we’ve been taught to frame our conversations and presentations in ways that lead our prospects and clients to the conclusions and decisions we wish them to arrive at.  In order to do this, we are advised by some to refrain from using certain words that may evoke a negative reaction—or to use words that will evoke a negative reaction, depending on what we want our prospect to think or feel.

Much of this advice is based on the idea that if we control the conversation we control the prospect’s attitude, thinking, and ultimately, their decision making process.  In other words, by carefully controlling the words used in the conversation, we can control the prospect’s thought process. 

Some sales trainers even go so far as to recommend we not bring up potential negatives—don’t address a non-existent objection so as not to plant a potential objection in the prospect’s mind.  Or if an objection is raised, deflect it and return to the presentation or closing the sale.  Gloss over the objection and it will go away.    

It seems George Orwell has become the director of sales training.  Orwell’s Newspeak is now the new “sales speak.”  No longer is communicating with a prospect as a rational human sufficient; now we are exhorted to in essence treat them as nothing more than a computer, inputting only the data we want them to compute–as though if we don’t give them the words, they won’t be able to think the thoughts we don’t want them to think.

Orwell believed that words are the keys to thought.  If the words don’t exist to communicate a particular thought or concept, it isn’t possible to think the thought or concept.  Consequently, if you can control the words someone has available to them, you can control not only what they think, but eventually how they act.  Orwell later repudiated the concept.  Unfortunately, a version of this concept has become quite popular in some areas of sales training.

Like Orwell’s world of 1984, some view the world of sales as an arena where words are not simply powerful in influencing thought and behavior; they are the creators of thought and behavior.  If we don’t say it, the prospect will never think it.  If we can frame it using the words we want, the prospect will never think of their own words to describe it or question it.

Rather than trying to communicate, we are told by some that if we create the conversation we wish to have with the prospect, the prospect will unknowingly go along with us.  If only we learn the right words and phrases to use—and the words and phrases to avoid, we can direct the prospect to the ”proper” decision.  Selling in this view is simply an exercise in rhetoric.

So, we learn the right words and the right phrases; we engage the prospect by making sure we eliminate any words that might evoke thoughts, feeling, or concepts we don’t want them to have; and we ask for the order.  Instead of the automatic ‘yes’ we expected, we hear a resounding ‘no.’

What could possibly have gone wrong?  We did everything right.  We used the right words; we avoided the wrong ones.  We were careful to implant the ideas, concepts, and emotions we wanted the prospect to have.  We executed perfectly.  And they said no.  How could this possibly have happened?

Could it be that they did the unthinkable–they actually thought words and concepts that we worked diligently to keep out of their head?  Despite our best efforts to implant the right “data,”  when we pushed the “enter” button they exercised independent thought and rejected our attempt to manipulate their decision making process?

Is it possible the words we use aren’t as important as the communication and connection we make with the prospect?  Is it possible that our attempt to finesse the prospect by trying to direct their thinking through the careful manipulation of language isn’t as effective as we have been lead to believe?  Is it possible that less rhetoric and more communication would serve us better?  Could it be that more listening, more understanding, and more straight answers to prospect questions could prompt more trust in the prospect?

Maybe it is time to rethink the Newspeak of selling and learn instead to listen, to answer honestly and forthrightly, to drop the euphemisms and begin once again communicating with prospects and clients using plain English.  Maybe rather than the belief that the words we use will create the reality we want in the prospect, we should seek try to understand the prospect’s needs, wants, and issues and try to present our best solutions to those needs and wants as honestly and forthrightly as possible. 

The Orwellian experiment has been tried—and failed.  Orwell recognized the failure of the concept before he died.  Certainly, many trainers in the areas of communication and persuasion recognize the legitimate uses of rhetoric in the sales process.  Yet, there are still large numbers of trainers selling the Orwellian concept of easy sales through language manipulation and its false promise of controlling prospect thought and behavior.  There is a difference between the legitimate use of persuasive influence and the intent to deviously manipulation. 

We are selling to independent beings who exercise their capacity to think autonomously of our attempts to stage-manage their actions and decisions.  Our words can influence, they cannot create the reality we want.  Our words can help create an image, they cannot eliminate independent thought.   Our words can create conversation, dialog, and real communication, they cannot produce a pre-determined outcome.  The sooner we recognize their independence, the sooner we can get back to creating relationships built on trust, not on linguistic manipulation.

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3 Comments »

  1. It brings to mind the idea of a used car salesperson always being cheerful and hiding the car’s flaws. It is a failing sales technique in the modern market. People see through false faces and move onto the competition. Today there is no substitute for being genuine and building relationships and trust. With online resources offering the latest info in a few clicks. the best sales approach is open communication without phoniness.

    Comment by Greg — March 28, 2012 @ 1:54 pm | Reply

  2. Paul, I have never achieved success by manipulating or tricking my prospect into anything. I approach every opportunity hoping for a life-time connection if I earn their trust and respect.

    If sales people are sitting through the types of sales training you have referred to, I encourage them to run, not walk to either another company (if the company is sponsoring/endorsing the training) or at least to a different trainer.

    One of the benefits of the internet age is that none of us are ever “stuck” with the training offered to us. Make a statement and demand the best training available on your product/service/industry. Whether through webinars, seminars, ebooks, blogs and conferences the “good” stuff is out there. The smart reps, the ones that are breaking new sales ground, are investing in their own future by seeking the training that reflects the reality of the market.

    Thanks for writing this thought provoking piece. I hope we all take it to heart.

    Comment by Miles Austin (@milesaustin) — April 1, 2012 @ 3:02 pm | Reply

  3. Right on with your point —

    Linguistic Manipulation is for advertising. Listening, Qualifying and Facilitating (and a bunch more) is Selling.

    Comment by Rick Dassler — April 5, 2012 @ 11:26 am | Reply


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