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If You Can’t Write, You Can’t Sell

by David Brock on August 19th, 2016
quill pen

In the past few days, I’ve been embroiled in conversations about grammar and spelling.  I read an discussion about “Should I hire a sales person with poor writing skills.”  I was astounded by the majority of responses.

Many people had the view, “If they can sell, who cares!”  The conversations about grammar ran along similar lines, “It’s all about ideas and closing business, who cares about grammar and spelling?”

Some of you, will think this post is about writing, grammar, and spelling—it isn’t.

But writing skills, grammar, spelling are critical skills for sales people–if you can’t write clearly, if you can’t use reasonably good grammar and spelling, you will never be successful in selling.

The reason isn’t really about the writing and grammar, but it’s about the clarity and quality of your thinking.  Writing, grammar, spelling are important windows into understanding the quality of a person’s ability to think critically, analyze, question, develop and execute strategies to win.  If you can’t think critically, if your ability to understand and help solve customer problems isn’t strong, your success in selling will be limited.

Selling is really about thinking.  It’s about being able to question, probe, listen, and understand.  It’s about being able to analyze the customer, the situation, your own company and solutions, you will never be successful in selling.

If you can’t clearly connect your value with what the customer is trying to achieve, you can’t sell.  Making these connections requires strong cognitive and thinking skills.

If you can’t articulate how you can help the customer in terms and language that are compelling and meaningful to the customer, you can’t sell.

If all you can do is read a script, pitch a product and do that at high volume and velocity, you can’t sell and your job will disappear, being replaced by technology.

Our customers need people with strong thinking, problem solving, collaboration.  They need people who can give them new ideas, challenge their thinking, help the learn/improve/grow.

Our companies need strong sales people with problem solving/critical thinking/analytic capabilities.  They need sales people who can influence and change the points of view of customers, partners, and people within their own companies.

If you can’t think you can’t sell.

Your ability to write is directly connected with your ability to think critically.  There are huge amounts of research connecting writing ability with thinking/problem solving capabilities.  Even something as simple as note-taking, is important.  Research shows huge differences in comprehension and retention between people who take notes and don’t.  They’ve shown even more differences in people who hand write notes, rather than typing them.

Your ability to write is directly connected to your ability to clearly articulate and communicate ideas in compelling fashion.  The ability to shape arguments, to influence people, to help them learn and understand is directly connected to your ability to write—even if you are communicating orally.

Reasonably good grammar and spelling is part of good writing because it’s part of driving clarity in your communication.

If you can’t communicate clearly, succinctly, in a compelling manner, you can’t sell!

This post is not about writing or grammar or spelling.  It’s about thinking, problem solving, communicating, influencing.  Because one’s writing  abilities are so closely tied to the quality and clarity of their thinking, if a person has weak writing skills, they may not have the critical thinking and problem solving skills to be successful.  If they can’t express their ideas well they will struggle to shift customer points of view.

Strong communication skills have always been critical to our effectiveness as sales professionals.   Not just strong verbal/speaking skills, but strong communication skills.  If we can’t write an effective email, text, Slack message; if we can’t communicate our ideas in our proposals and presentations, we will not be effective.

This is not about writing.  We don’t need people who can create prose like Ernest Hemingway.  But we need people who can think and communicate with precision and clarity.

When I was a very young sales person, I had a manager who used to charge me $5 for every spelling error she found.  She’d put the money into a jar for charity.  I used to get very frustrated, saying, “Isn’t it the ideas that really count?”  Her response, “If you are so careless with your spelling, how do I know you aren’t as careless with your thinking and ideas?”  After some time of very expensive lessons, I suddenly realized it wasn’t about my spelling, she was trying to sharpen my thinking, she was trying to eliminate sloppiness and carelessness.  It took me some time to realize my spelling, my grammar, my writing were all just windows into understanding the quality of my thinking.

We aren’t hiring you because of your writing skills, we are hiring you because of your thinking, problem solving and your ability to communicate.  It just happens writing is a part of that and your writing abilities are great indicators of those skills.

Writing is important to selling because thinking is critical to selling.

If you can’t write, you can’t sell.

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4 Comments
  1. Martin Schmalenbach permalink

    Hi Dave

    I must admit, I ame one of those people who abhor poor grammar & spelling, even though I’m not perfect at it myself.

    So, thinking deeper on your post…

    There are 3 reasons why bad grammar and spelling appears in people’s writings:
    Ignorance arising from a lack of relevant/appropriate education – hard to address on several fronts…
    Trying to be cool by using forms of speech/writing synonymous with Twitter – very fixable…
    Laziness – in planning and or execution, such as not checking what you have written, assuming autocorrect on phones & tablets does a good job – they rarely do by the way…

    Anybody who says I should get over this, and that it should matter more if the sales person can sell, is utterly missing the point…

    I am the client, I am th customer, and I get to decide what is important to me, and on what basis I should make a selection.., on what basis I should differentiate.

    Rightly or wrongly I see poor spelling and grammar in today’s age either a sign of missing education, or of sloppiness. If the education is lacking in terms of basic writing skills, it tends to also be lacking in terms of critical thinking skills, and I see critical thinking skills being a missing part of the education system generally in many countries, including the US. So what? Well, lack of critical thinking I have found, correlates with a sales communication very thin on true value to me – no education, no teaching etc, on new perspectives and trends, and how this might be of importance to me…

    Where sloppiness is concerned, I can’t help thinking what else this sales person or his/her company & colleagues will be sloppy about, that might matter to me.

    My old air force squadron boss had a thing about us all having clean, polished boots, even and especially when deployed in the field. His view – somebody who is punctillious about keeping his/her boots clean, will be doing an equally good or better job in making sure his aircraft were always tip-top. I couldn’t fault the intent in that, even if logically there is a bit of a hole in it… Plus, he was the squadron boss, so what he said, went.

    And I’m th customer. What I say goes too.

    Don’t communicate to me with sloppy or lazy writing, and uncritical thnking. All you do is waste both of our time, and you do a disservice to your profession and colleagues, if not to yourself…

    Now,mhaving written all the above, will I be hoisted by my own petard with some grammatical error or spelling screwup that I misses?!

    • Martin Schmalenbach permalink

      … and the short answer is YES!

      An errant letter ‘m’ in my last line!

      B*gger, as we say back home!

      • Martin Schmalenbach permalink

        and incorrect tense for missed/misses!!

    • Thanks for the outstanding comments Martin. What many naysayers miss is our writing/grammar/spelling is a window into our abilities to think and execute with precision. If we are sloppy/bad at writing, we are likely to be sloppy/bad in our thinking and execution.

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