the magic of selling

Several weeks ago Bloomberg BusinessWeek published an article about Steve Jobs entitled, The Last Pitchman.  It documented Jobs’ seemingly inexplicable ability to sell practically anything, as evidenced by his glorious pitch for the iPhone 4, a “new” product which the news media had already gotten hold of and detailed weeks before.  I tore the pages out of the Magicianmagazine as is my habit with content which proffer good fodder for blogposts.

Although the article was fascinating, I struggled with how to make sense of it — until last Sunday when I read a New York Times interview with Aaron Levie, co-founder and CEO of Box.net.  Levie used to do magic shows as a teen, and he says some of his most important leadership lessons come from the hobby:

“…it’s all about getting in front of people and telling a story, something that people buy into that is hopefully entertaining.  It’s all about capturing people’s imaginations and getting them excited about what’s possible.”

I realized that’s exactly what makes Jobs such an effective pitchman – magic.   Let me break this down a little.

Levie says magicians “tell a story.”  Jobs creates his own narrative.

Jobs’ story usually involves naming an enemy and fighting fiercely against it.  The BusinessWeek article reports that Jobs describes the iPad as “a weapon of freedom – ‘freedom from programs that steal your private data…freedom from programs that trash your battery…Freedom from porn.’

By using an enemy to create a dramatic storyline in which the Apple product is the hero, Jobs ignites his audiences’ passions.  They’re rapt as they await the climax of the tale – the unveiling of the product or a specific feature – in the same way that great magicians get their audiences on the edges of their seats in anticipation of the “ta da!” moment.

Levie says magicians “capture people’s imaginations.”  Jobs inspires people with the promise of what’s possible.

At the risk of overstating things, it seems Jobs gives people hope.  With the deft of a skilled evangelist, he paints a picture of an almost utopian-like world his products can produce.  In the Times article Kelly O’Keefe, executive director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter, comments, “We need something to believe in.  People believe in Apple.  They believe in Jobs.

Levie says a magician is “entertaining” and “gets [people] excited.”  Jobs uses theater to entertain and excite.

Jobs’ version of theater isn’t flashy like what you’d experience at, say, a Sony presentation.  But it’s no less a staged spectacle.  Just like a magician who can use a simple hand gesture to spark a collective gasp among his audience, Jobs’ uses simple techniques like dramatic lighting, provocative language, and Spartan slides to create excitement.

None of the above is intended to diminish the value of what Jobs is selling – Apple’s products are truly remarkable, so he certainly has great raw material.  But his selling technique is what really fascinates me – and challenges me to think differently about the way I sell.

Whether it’s selling my ideas when speaking to an audience, selling an engagement when meeting with a prospect, or selling a point of view when making a recommendation to a client, I find so much of what I do is sales. Maybe you can relate?

I think using the approach of a magician might help us sell better – we will be able to do what the BusinessWeek piece says is Jobs’ forte:  channeling desire.

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  • Psychoanalyst Carl Jung said there are different types of magic. People shop to solve problems, and clinical research convinced Jungians we expect specific sorts of problem solvers in our lives. Here are the five big ones, using my adaptation of the language of Jungians:

    The Superhero takes responsibility for rescuing us. The customer expects the Superhero to magically go above and beyond what most salespeople are able or willing to do. Of the five types, Steve Jobs might fit best into this category. But it’s not the only way to work magic.

    The Coach reassures us. The customer expects the Coach to be available until the problem is solved and to magically encourage the customer to acquire and mobilize whatever is needed.

    The Guru brings experience and a sharp mind. The customer expects the Guru to magically know the customer’s needs without asking lots of questions.

    The Playmate loves fun. The customer expects the Playmate to make the shopping experience feel magical. Playmates are salespeople who are primarily interested in how the shopping experience feels and only then in how the product or service works.

    The Rascal exploits other people. Customers with strong morals don’t like being around the Rascal. But there are plenty of shoppers who count on the Rascal to help them solve problems by taking advantage of others—more of a devious trickster than a gregarious magician perhaps.

    Jung and his students discovered that people throughout different cultures of the world all use these same five roles in their thinking. This convinces Jungians that each of us arrives in the world with these templates inside our brains. Not only are we born to shop, but we’re also born with clear expectations of shopkeepers.