‘Sell me this pen…’
Sales bosses have been throwing this curveball at unsuspecting suit candidates ever since the quill became a redundant mainstream writing gismo and Martin Scorsese was nothing but a distant twinkle in his great grandfather’s eye. Given that demonstrative competence in the art of flogging a biro often proves to be the making or breaking of a sales based job application you’d be forgiven for assuming hopeful contenders would walk into that interview with some fluently rehearsed spiel representing a gold standard of pen pitching destined to wow that hypothetical pen consumer. Alas despite its infamy, its longevity as an almost staple question in what is often otherwise a pedestrian and frankly irrelevant interview process suggests it more commonly characterises a stumbling block that typically draws responses such as those depicted in the final scene of the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ film in which some stiff looking New Zealanders hesitantly attempt to sell ‘the Wolf’ his own pen back by telling him its nice, it works and that you can indeed write with it… no sale. So what is this elusive gold standard of pen pitching that should be aspired to? Well when Leonardo Di Caprio lays down the gauntlet to ‘Brad’, the bloke with a seemingly unhealthy Ketchup dependency problem who looks like he’s been scouted from an 80’s porno, we are given an idea of what that answer might be- albeit in a very rough ketchup deprived nutshell.
Brad: ‘Why don’t you go ahead and write your name down on that napkin for me.’
Wolf: ‘I can’t, I don’t have a pen’
Brad: ‘Exactly, supply and demand my friend.’
Wolf: ‘You know what I’m saying? He’s creating urgency’
Yes Leo, I know exactly what you’re saying and the principle to which you are tip toeing around is the scarcity principle. Rather than taking the ineffective approach of pitching the pen based on its obvious physical properties and capabilities which comes across as both patronising and idiotic, Brads communicates with ‘the wolf’ (let’s just call him Jordan from now on) with an initial agenda of indirectly determining his need for a pen by asking him to complete a task that requires one. When Jordan informs Brad that he is unable to complete the task because he does not have the necessary tool then in accordance with Pratkanis and Farquhar (1992) this leads to one very frustrated wolf and the self-perception that he is lacking. Obviously the depicted scene is a role-play situation and it is unlikely dramatised Jordan Belfort begins to harbour any pen rooted insecurities after seemingly forgetting he just threw his own in the direction of 80’s porno Brad but for the purpose of the explanation of associated persuasive techniques let’s assume this fictional role-play is fictionally real.
Following the onset of frustration and self-perceived lacking that comes as part of the scarcity package, Jordan’s next move would naturally be to find a cure for his troubles. In this instance and fortunately for him the cure is a simple one- Get a pen. This is referred to as ‘psychological reactance’, a principle that suggests we react when we perceive our freedom of behaviour to be restricted (Brehm & Brehm, 1981). In this context Jordan’s behaviour is restricted in that he is unable to write his name down owing to the fact he doesn’t have a pen and therefore his reaction is to get a pen that will allow him to do this (Lessne & Venkatesan, 1989). When Brad opens communication he knows the scarcity principle will create urgency and a sense of need which becomes an important pre-requisite for psychological reactance which sees the restoration of perceived freedom through the clinching of a successful sale- you know what I’m saying?
Brehm, S. S., & Brehm, J. W. (1981). Psychological reactance. New York: academic press.
Lessne, G., & Venkatesan, M. (1989). Reactance theory in consumer research: The past, present and future. Advances in Consumer Research, 16, 76-78.
Pratkanis, A. R., & Farquhar, P. H. (1992). A brief history of research on alternatives: Evidence for seven empirical generalisations about phantoms. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 13, 103-122.