How To Sell A Pen (According to Neuroscience): Selling Tips You Can Use Anywhere!

The interview was going well. We discussed corporate culture, service and we had finally come around to the sales position for which I was applying.

 “Sell me this pen.” the interviewer said. 

I picked the pen up off the desk, looked it over once and stuck it in my coat pocket. 


“Beg your pardon?” His brow had more lines than a pickup artist. The look of surprise alone was worth the drive to the interview.

“Why do you want this pen?” I asked. 

“Because I like the way it writes. The ink flows well but dries quickly so there are no smudges. It has a very professional style, and comes with different colored refills.” 

“No smudges? Is that important?”

“Yes”, He said, “I do a lot of writing. That pen allows me to let my thoughts flow without worrying about the ink spotting or smearing.”

“I’m curious about something, what do you do a lot of writing about?” I asked.

“Well, a lot of plans for my team, strategies, notes from meetings, things like that.”

“Ah, things like that, stuff that will grow the organization, improve the process? Are those the thoughts this pen helps you keep track of and implement?”

“Yes, indeed.” His face shone with a smile only a fourth-grade science project contest winner knows.

“Wow, I can see you do like this pen. Have you always used a pen like this?”

“Oh, no,” he said, “only since I’ve gotten into management. My first pen like that was from my mentor, but it’s on my desk.”

“I see. So this pen brings back some fond memories for you. I see why you like this pen.”

 “Yes”, he reached out for his pen. “Can I have it back now?”

“No, but you can buy it for $29.95.”

Now, that’s how you interview for a sales position!

The Problem Persistent: Why Features and Benefits Don’t Work in Sales Anymore

 The age-old interview scenario: Sell this _____ to me. It has gotten the age-old responses: features and benefits. Features and benefits are for packaging.

That was a great answer twenty years ago. My first time I was asked to show my sales chops, I was asked to sell a pepper shaker. I was applying for a serving position and this was the test. I told the manager about where pepper came from, the wonderful health benefits and the zest the pepper added to the food. I got the job.

But, my real sales ability came from connecting with my guests at the restaurant. It was understanding their values (like whether or not they drank alcohol, preferred big meals with family or quiet nights or alone, the kind of foods they chose and lifestyle) and forming relationships with those guests. It made me more able to recommend appetizers, wine, desserts and even fun spots in the area.

Translating to the Now: Selling to People’s Values

After spending the last two years in a passionate (not academic, I’m just a nerd) pursuit into neuroscience, I understand why the science of selling to people’s values works so well.

Human beings have three brains. The deepest of which is known as the paleocortex. We tend to think of this as the heart. Not the blood pumper, but the behavior driver. The paleocortex thinks in terms of primal drives. Do I know it? Can I eat it? Is it friendly? Can I mate with it? That’s about it.

The second brain wraps all those primal drives in emotions. But neither of those two have any capacity for language. That’s why we say things like “it just doesn’t feel right”.

Our third brain is where logic, reason, and stories package those emotions and drives into communication, and it comes through in our language, and what we look for as good and right. It is our checklist. We assign labels and meanings and it becomes the criteria by which our values are validated. 

It is in our communication we understand one another and form relationships based on rapport. When our values are validated, it deepens rapport. We feel as though we can trust the person because they believe in the same things we do.

Let me bring all this together. 

In the example above, our manager expressed the value and emotional attachment he held for the pen through his words. He talked about the style of the pen, it’s daily use, and receiving one as a congratulatory gift, from his mentor, on the occasion of being promoted. All positive events.

Had he received a pen as a joke from his peers after he was fired, it wouldn’t have held the same emotional value. It wouldn’t be described with the same words. 

Each section of the manager’s brain views the pen in its own way. The neocortex views the pen through the senses and attaches a story and meaning to the pen. 

The second layer “likes” the pen because of the sentimental value and fulfillment derived from usage.

The paleo-cortex says that this pen is familiar, and that familiar is good.

I knew this because rather than sell the pen by describing all its features and benefits, I developed enough of a relationship with the manager to find out what’s important to him.

In my interview example, I didn’t talk about how nice the pen was, how professional it looked, how well it wrote or anything like that. The questions I asked made the manager sell the pen to himself. They brought out the emotional attachment he had to that pen.

A Closer Look: How Sales Should Work

The first question was very general, why do you like this _____? Apart from planting the assumption that they like the pen, it’s a search for criteria. Our brains are wired to answer questions. A question like this one forces the mind to come up with all of the reasons why we like something. The more we think about why we like it, the more we like it. That thought loop reinforces our desire to have that pen. 

The manager liked the pen because it held sentimental value and fulfillment from use. That happens in the second brain. The neocortex attaches reasons like the professional style and meeting notes.

The second question elicits value. Is that important to you? Yes or no, it gives a measure of how desired those features and benefits really are to the client. In our example, it revealed that our manager does a lot of writing. It goes beyond the thing itself and into the emotional value, the thing provides.

The intermediary questions I posed elicit the emotional value of the pen, further reinforce its importance, and got the manager thinking about all of the projects that would be finished, the ideas implemented and so forth. These thoughts trigger emotional attachment and desire, completely under the radar. It’s almost unfair.

The last question elicits fond memory. It’s the deal sealer. Our manager cannot think about the first time he used a pen like that, without thinking about his mentor, being promoted, or receiving a gift. Nor can he have those thoughts without experiencing good feelings. And because I asked the question, all of those good feelings from the fond memory becomes associated with me.

With that pen in my pocket, I have essentially taken that appreciation he has for the pen, the passion he writes and the fond memories away. They’re in my pocket attached to his pen. This association can be done with any product. The questions may have to be adapted to have the prospect imagine him or herself using the proverbial pen, but it can be done. Frankly, it’s more powerful using imagination, but rapport is strengthened using memory. 

This final takeaway creates a “pain” that is vastly different from the emotional “pleasure” of the fond memories and big dreams. This emotional up and down creates an emotional bond between me and the manager. It’s a technique known as fractionation and used by Hollywood in every box office hit that comes out.

Final Thoughts

People buy from those they know, like and trust. Every salesperson knows that. Every customer knows that, but they don’t realize it consciously.

In order to improve the feeling of knowing, likability and trust, it requires building rapport and understanding the customer’s values before their needs. This rapport/relationship approach to sales is far more valuable because it builds customer loyalty and loyal customers are referring customers.

We understand values simply by asking what is important and why it’s important. That gives us keywords and phrases that have an emotional attachment. The person cannot talk about these values with feeling the emotion, and they cannot have their values validated and not have rapport deepened.

It’s a powerful and adaptable process that lets the prospect sell themselves. 

  1. Reinforcement

  2. Value Elicitation

    1. What’s important?

    2. How do they know when they get it?

  3. Past Pleasant Memory

The rapport generated by eliciting the value and criteria became vastly powerful when it came time for “the close”. The close was done when I put the pen in my pocket, but we didn’t get there until the relationship was built. Had I not asked those questions and generated that rapport, I would’ve been a thief.

By building the relationship we are able to elicit the values and criteria by which our prospects measure any product, service or interaction. It gives us as sales professionals the ability to provide solutions that not only meet the need but exceed expectations. We are able to provide a level of service more personalized than the competition and build a loyal client base that grows organically and as exponentially as word of mouth.

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