The art of the sale

It was that time of the year again. I went to class, intent on my coursework as usual, but there was something else waiting for us at the end, the thing I dreaded all year*…

Catalogs and order forms. It was time for the school fundraiser.

Every year I was in elementary school, I had to sell something for the school. Christmas paper, donuts, chocolates, stationary… What we sold was different each year, but all students (and by proxy, all the parents and guardians) were expected to participate. We were supposed to be excited about the opportunity to pawn off overpriced trinkets and candies on our families and families’ friends. As added incentive, there were prizes for the top sellers of each class and grade.

I absolutely hated it. I would sheepishly hand the stuff over to the parents and grandparents, wait quietly, and dutifully return the forms to my teachers. I was never in competition for those prizes, and I never tried to be.

I am not a salesperson. I never have been. I would do most anything else for a club or school, but don’t ask me to go out and convince people to give me money…

What’s that?

Why, yes, I am pursuing a career in research.

Yes, as an independent investigator – if I can make it. What are you getting at?

Uh oh. Wait just a minute…

Damn it.

I’m chasing after a career that involves me asking people to give me money!

But this time I’m not selling keepsake boxes, M&Ms, or gift bags.

No, this time I’m selling myself and my ideas… Son of a biscuit eater!

You see, if there’s something that makes me near as uncomfortable as sales, it’s probably bragging about myself. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Maybe it’s a personality thing. Whatever it is, I. Don’t. Like. It.

Yet that’s what I’ve signed up for. Multiple times a year, I am to try to convince a group of people that I am brilliant. That I have clever ideas. That my work will provide some crucial and needed insight.

And this time the stakes are higher. I won’t be missing out on a party. I’ll be missing out on my dream.

I’m starting to pay attention to how I talk about my work and myself and how my adviser and other investigators talk about themselves, their work, and their trainees. And I’ve realized that a big part of this business is the art of the sale.

The art of the sale is about more than simply knowing what you have to offer. Presenting a list of facts, figures, and achievements isn’t enough.

The art is about telling a story. You lead people through the plot, connecting the facts while sparking an interest. There has to be a clear focus and a unique perspective but one to which your audience can connect.

The art is learning to brag – but with subtlety. You must be confident in the cards you hold but without being overbearing. You have to sell your talents without alienating those listening.

The art is about recognizing and creating opportunities. It’s not just about getting the grant. It’s about planting seeds without complete certainty that you will ever benefit. It’s about connecting with people at seminars and conferences. It’s about negotiating with vendors and company reps to get access to materials and instruments. It’s about collaborating with people near and far to push your and their research forward.

The art is knowing which ideas, avenues, and opportunities to pursue. And which to leave behind.

The art is going out and trying. And trying. And trying again. And never giving up.

* Forgive the hyperbole, but it makes the story better than the truth that I didn’t think about until the time of year came along at which point I terribly disliked it 🙂
This entry was posted in career decisions, communication, for the love of science, sales, things they don't tell you in grad school. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The art of the sale

  1. Dr. 27 says:

    This: “No, this time I’m selling myself and my ideas… Son of a biscuit eater!” Yup …. I HATED those sales with passion. I’ve never been good at selling stuff, mainly because I knew that said trinkets, candy, etc were pure BS. I think part of my insecurities and feelings of not being good enough/capable enough, is that I really don’t think I could craft a story interesting enough to be funded, or powerful enough. And, I’m also OK following (a good leader) in most instances. I can give tiny (tiny, insignificant) speeches to small audiences and peak their interest, but I will always hand them off to someone else who knows more, or is the PI because I feel more comfortable giving little morsels, than feeling responsible for guiding them all the way through. Does it even make sense?

    And this: “The art is about telling a story. You lead people through the plot, connecting the facts while sparking an interest.” These were words used (almost verbatim) by my PI when I was in grad school. Anytime I had a talk to do, or a paper to write we’d sit down and I’d get this to try to get me inspired to do some kick ass slides/figures/writing. I have to say, I love those words, and try to live by them in my new job.

  2. It is good that you understand and embrace this reality. Because, unfortunately, there is a pernicious strand in the blogosphere–albeit relatively quiet lately–that advises that your science should “speak for itself” and that to strategically employ rhetorical techniques of salesmanship is disingenuous, unfair, and even unscientific. This is, of course, highly destructive advice to any who takes it.

  3. biochembelle says:

    I think the sooner we (grad students, postdocs) embrace that this reality pervades many aspects of scientific careers – and pretty much every other career track out there – the better off we are. Completely unaware I was writing about this, my husband – an undergrad working in a research lab – commented that he and a grad student had both noted their PI’s ability to sell their work and discussed how important it seemed to be.

    The storytelling component can be tough, but it’s a part that I enjoy and find it satisfying when I pull it together. The big challenge personally is talking myself up. I worry about pushing too far into the realm of hyperbole. I question whether I’m overselling myself (or my ideas) and am hesitant to use superlatives. I hope this is something I will figure out as I watch others and continue developing and tweaking my own pitch.

  4. Markus says:

    Two things you need in Science: to love to talk and to love to write.

    • biochembelle says:

      I agree, Markus, and I do love those things (well, at least I love the writing part; the talking part takes more work for me but can be ‘fun’). I have to get comfortable with the pitch.

  5. sciencegeeka says:

    I suck at this too. I get really excited about explaining stuff, but I suck at trying to get others excited in writing. Ugh.

    (I was in high school band. We competed. I had to sell boxed candy, candy bars, M&Ms, pizza, hoagies, wrapping paper, magazines. LONG DISTANCE PHONE SERVICE, dry cleaning. I Loathe having to sell crap.)

  6. Let’s just say that having my last job (marketing in the biotech sector) on my CV was the main reason I was hired for my current job (grant writing)!

  7. Pingback: Bragging Rights Central: New Archive Post | VWXYNot?

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