Anyone who’s ever been in sales likely knows about the “pen test”. I failed my first “pen test” when I was 22 years old. A fresh faced college graduate with Working Girl dreams schlepping my briefcase from brokerage house to brokerage house on the hunt for a job in the midst of a recession. Most hiring managers were impressed with my chutzpah. But a successful stockbroker is a successful sales person. And sales people must be clear about what they want and they must ask for it–something I find too many non-sales people are reluctant to do–and that’s unfortunate. Because thinking clearly about what you want and articulating clearly what you want are vital life skills. It also helps mentally compare motivations with values to check that they are in line.
The “pen test” is a good measure of a basic sales skill. For me, it went like this: one of those brokerage house managers listened intently as I prattled on about my academic accomplishments and work ethic, etc. He glanced at my resume and complimented my aptitude. But then he did something I thought a bit strange at the time. He plucked a pen from a holder on his desk and handed it to me. “Please try to sell me this pen,” he said.
Thinking this a very odd request but knowing that the first rule of improv (and desperation) is never to deny an invitation, I took the pen and began to list all of its many features and benefits.
The manager listened. And nodded. And smiled. But he never gave an indication of when I was finished selling the pen. It seemed he was waiting for me to say more. I continued with my flowery narrative: how stylish the pen was, how smooth it wrote, how it wouldn’t leak in your pocket, etc. But his face remained unchanged and seemingly underwhelmed.
I finally stopped talking about the amazing pen and asked, “How’d I do?”
He retrieved his pen from me, replaced it to its holder and said, “You did fine but you forgot the most important part.”
“You never asked me how many pens I wanted to order.”
Let that sink in for a moment.
We can’t just talk and talk and talk when we want something to happen or someone to act. At some point, we need to clearly say what it is we want. Salespeople want a sale. But everybody wants something at some point. Are you making it clear what it is you want–when you’re having a disagreement, when you’re nagging your spouse or children, when you’re complaining at the customer service counter or to your boss or to your staff? If you’re not getting what you want, maybe it’s because you haven’t asked. Maybe you don’t even know.
A couple of years ago, a teacher said something to my son that upset him so much, he didn’t want to return to school the next day. He buried his head under his covers distraught at the possibility that his teacher disliked him. Fury vibrated in my soul and my blood boiled at the thought of someone, especially a teacher, upsetting my child to such a degree with careless words. I called the principal and requested a meeting. I remember still shaking with indignant anger while gripping the steering wheel during that drive to the school. Then, I paused and asked myself, “What exactly do I want from this meeting?”
A fair question. Always. Venting frustration and complaining about things we don’t like or believe are unfair do little to nothing to solve any problem unless we can articulate what it is we want an offending person to do.
Sometimes we just want to be heard. If so, say that. Sometimes we want an apology. If so, say that. Other times, we may want revenge or to inflict pain on those who’ve hurt us. If that’s our motivation, we need to hit the pause button and take stock of our values and behavior.
In the case with my son, I wanted him to feel safe and accepted in this particular teacher’s classroom. And once I’d figured out exactly what I wanted, I knew how to state my case and ask for it. The principal and teacher readily agreed. The teacher even hugged my son when he returned to her class and assured him that her words were not meant to be hostile. She would never be my son’s favorite teacher (and possibly he was never her favorite student) but they could co-exist with an understanding based on clear expectations that were in line with good values.
I’ve tried to ask myself this question, “What do I want?” whenever I lead a meeting, write a blog post, return an item to a department store, plan a vacation, consider a job opportunity or find myself feeling depressed or jealous or fat or unhappy. And what if I answered that question by saying, “Today, I want my actions to give glory to God.”?
Because what good is it to wallow in negativity or aspire to some vague notion of joy? Emotions come and go. They are unstable and unpredictable.
Like counting our blessings, examining what drives our thinking and thus, what it is we want, and then practicing the skill of being able to speak that truth in love can go a long way in accomplishing personal and professional goals. It can also help smooth out rough patches in relationships and dial back a tendency to simply complain when we’re unhappy.
We can tap dance around most any issue ad nauseam. But eventually, we must offer ourselves and the world clarity of motivation and desire. Only then will we know if anyone is buying what we’re selling.