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Acting and selling

Acting and selling

Sales people love tricks, pseudoscience and gimmicks believing that they will bring about a substantial difference in sales figures. It’s the veritable Ripley’s-Believe-It-or-Not bag of tricks.


This has to do with self-esteem or lack of it. The more sales people have an external locus of control which relies on these gimmicks the more this inadequacy of personality must change, and it can. The internal locus of control is where it starts.



Co-Create Customer Relationships

Today the focus is on co-creating customer relationships; building the strength of the relationship and being connected and trusted. Neuroscience in sales bears this out.


It is also the result of spontaneous movement and behaviour.


But what of the role of acting in selling? Prof Ian Steadman whose family was responsible for developing an iconic sales training institute was the head of the drama department at the University of the Witwatersrand. Noting the number of sales professionals asking him to teach them how to become actors to improve sales figures, he made a scientific study of the role of acting in selling. Here are his findings.


Every act of communication is an act of selling: an idea, a principle, a message and a need to be heard on an issue and most important of all – an image of ourselves.


Often, we argue within ourselves and try to sell ourselves an idea which may offer initial resistance to what we believe in.


Selling involves a degree of acting. Steadman quotes the apocryphal story of the prostitute speaking to an actress: “You and I belong to the oldest professions in history in the world – we are both ruined by amateurs.”



Professionals vs amateurs

What is a professional actor and what is an amateur? An amateur (originating from the Latin for ‘love’) acts only out of sheer pleasure. Neuro chemical transmitters in the brain – like ‘happy’ dopamine – make it an exceptional experience. He feels all warm inside in the process. He feels the moment and can recall the event with the clarity of a golfer at the 19th hole as he regales his audience with his story of each stroke on the field.


The professional on the other hand may reflect a utilitarian attitude: “What’s in it for me? How much is the sale worth? How far can I push? How much will I get out of the sale at the end of the month? Will it open doors? What next?”



Multi-Tasking is both inefficient and ineffective

In effect the amateur is multi-tasking and the brain does not like that. It is inefficient and ineffective, and it dulls IQ. The sales person is not in the moment. The brain works in binary numbers. It’s either 0 or 1 not 0,1 and 2. And if confronted with too many stimuli it selects the most efficient option for brain function and prunes the rest. Done and dusted. Parts of the brain have even been known to go to sleep in broad daylight while you think you are in working mode.



The consummate sales professional

The professional starts to apply appropriate standards that go with the trade. She sheds those idiosyncrasies of personality and style which the amateur never loses. The ones that come out of pseudo (un)scientific body language courses where the focus is on not only reading the other person for misleading cues (touching the nose) but also imitating the prospect’s every move to be more in tune and persuasive.


Today many of these NLP recommend-ations have been rejected as ‘spectatorship jargon’ which detracts from ‘the flow’ of the moment.


The amateur in turn may use artificial molar (enlarged) gestures which project as insincere and manipulative. Steadman cites Alaister Cook who calls it “the lush response to the small provocation”.


Professional neuro selling is not NLP (see endnote)


Prof Paul Corballis cuts to the quick “NLP is a thoroughly fake title, designed to give the impression of scientific respectability. NLP has little to do with neurology, linguistics, or even the respectable subdiscipline of neurolinguistics”.

– Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Auckland



Professional Movement

The focus should instead be on not the art of acting but rather the craft of acting.


Acting like selling involves technique as does driving, building, painting, typing, walking, running, courting a loved one or posting on Facebook. The difference is a competency versus a skill. A skill is a knee jerk reaction to a repetitive movement and potential monotonous events. A competency is that which is conducted unconsciously at speed, while reducing risk. It requires a 100% pass – such a seasoned commercial pilot, flying a jumbo in a squall with 300 frightened passengers on board.


The actor says Steadman ‘is more successful when he assimilates the technique to the extent that it becomes invisible and the craftiness disappears. We live in an age where in the movies and on television we watch images in slow motion with magnum force bullets pumping into them. An actor cannot hope to match those spectacular pyrotechnics, so he must work in the opposite direction and become real.’


And it is ’realness’, to coin an expression, that the prospect is able to pick up: that heightened honesty, integrity and credibility that are the indispensable qualities of a successful sales person. One who can build and sustain relationships.


Realness or authenticity is what a psychopath does not possess. He can sense the trauma of his target and ‘feel empathy’ but the empathy is not recorded in the ‘empathy brain.’ Rather it is sourced in the commodity part of the brain where the target is objectified – fit for manipulative purpose only.


Empathy is voluntary in a psychopath. You – are commodified in the process


Empathy is spontaneous, and the selling event needs to have warm spontaneity.


… psychopathic individuals do not simply lack empathy. Instead, it appears for most of us, empathy is the default mode. If we see a victim, we share her pain. For the psychopathic criminals in a study, empathy seemed to be a voluntary activity. If they want to, they can empathize, and that explains how they can be so charming, and maybe so manipulative. Once they have seduced you into doing what serves their purpose, the effortful empathy would though probably disappear again. Free of the constraints of empathy, there is then little to stop them from using violence.

– Christian Keysers, Psychology Today



The message from Steadman is clear. Don’t try to be someone else – be yourself all the time – but hone yourself into someone with whom others want to do business. To do this you need to know what ‘yourself’ is. Neuro EQ training can tell you that. It gives deep insights into your secret motivations that not even you are aware of. It simply tells you who you are and how you think.


The training world is happily peddling pseudoscience.




The emotional response that is faked can be detected by the primitive reptilian brain whose function it is to assess threat and lies in nanoseconds to promote survival.


Larry Hagman in Dallas is remembered for being ‘so real’ to his audience. So convincing was his performance that people could not distance themselves from the nefarious husband and wheeler and dealer when they met him as an ordinary man in a restaurant, they responded to him accordingly.


Hagman’s success is that he mastered the art of sublimating technique to the extent that it appears to be invisible according to Steadman. This is that je ne sais quoi of which the French speak. That I-do-not-know-what, indefinable quality that distinguishes an acting sales person from the authentic one. Now learn how to move when you sell.


The brain develops with movement

So how else do you get these wonderful qualities? Well, one way is through mental rehearsal and regulated movement. With controlled movements the neurons in select parts of the brain develop. Actions become authentic – just another part of the persona. The neurons that fire together wire together. We can show how the brain responds with authenticity using specialised neuro equipment, so we are not thumb sucking this information.


Mental rehearsal—also known as visualization—can be used to improve performance in a wide range of disciplines. Mental rehearsal is beneficial for [all professions] … from novice to elite—but may be more beneficial.  the higher the skill level you wish to achieve.  …You don’t have to be a grandmaster to benefit from mental rehearsal that incorporates physical movements.

– Christopher Bergland ‘The Athletes Way



Learning these behaviours is partly achieved through active mirror neurons – specialised cells in the brain discovered in the 1990s in an Italian medical laboratory. Some people have high level mirror neurons others have little (a psychopath). It is through mirror neurons that empathy for the other person is learned and acted upon. These can be developed in some people, but because of reduced mirror neuron cells in some people (and the talents that go with it), they need to be developed and they can. Making the mirror neurons work to develop sensory experiences is the role, art and craft of neuroscience.


Neuroscience teaches the processes that cause complete engagement between thought and deed. So, Neuroscience now takes the acting and selling combo to a whole new level. Live the moment.



Completely bogus

David Platt, drawing from the excellent German NLP research website (http://www.nlp.de/) found that the science found:

      1. No bona fide evidence to support the use of representational systems and concluded that they did not appear to play any significant role in communication.
      2. Use of predicates had little to no influence in building or enhancing rapport.
      3. Eye-accessing cues appeared to have no significant positive or negative impact when utilised in personal interactions.
      4. Serious linguists will have nothing to do with the theory as its linguistic components were debunked long ago.
      5. Corballis cuts to the quick “NLP is a thoroughly fake title, designed to give the impression of scientific respectability. NLP has little to do with neurology, linguistics, or even the respectable subdiscipline of neurolinguistics”.


Others, such as Beyerstein, go further accusing NLP of being a total con, new-age fakery to be classed alongside scientology and astrology and many serious management thinkers decry its presence in management theory.


Last year, Sanghera, in the FT, described NLP as ‘pop-psychology’, ‘pseudoscience’ and ‘banal’. It has been called training’s ‘astrology’. ‘Psychobabble’ is another commonly used term.


So how come a theory with no credible academic basis in psychology, linguistics and neuroscience is still being delivered as serious training?


The training world is happy peddling pseudoscience. 


The actual scientific basis of NLP is of no real interest to trainers who are happy doing parlour tricks in classrooms.





Heap, M. (1988). Neuro-linguistic programming, In M. Heap (Ed.) Hypnosis: Current Clinical, Experimental and Forensic Practices. London: Croom Helm, pp 268-280.

Heap, M. (1989). Neuro-linguistic programming: What is the evidence? In D Waxman D. Pederson. I.

Krugman, Kirsch, Wickless, Milling, Golicz, & Toth (1985). Neuro-linguistic programming treatment for anxiety: Magic or myth? Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology. Vol 53(4), 526-530.

Corballis, M. in Sala (ed) (1999) Mind Myths. Exploring Popular Assumptions About the Mind and Brain Author: Sergio Della Sala Publisher: Wiley, John & Sons ISBN 0-471-98303-9 p.41

Beyerstein.B.L (1990). “Brainscams: Neuromythologies of the New Age.”. International Journal of Mental Health 19(3): 27-36,27.


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