ATD Blog

Learning to Sell, Selling to Learn

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

I never realized how important sales and marketing skills are to the L&D professional.

Twenty-some years ago I was tasked with teaching programmers to code in a new and different way, using a language (C) that was new to them. The course materials were rational and well-ordered, and the hands-on exercises ranged from the basic to the challenging. I didn’t write the course, but I enjoyed teaching it. The problem was, some of the participants in the programming course just didn’t “get it.” I found myself selling the new ideas to the participants to get them to appreciate the emerging technology I was teaching them. And as a “techie,” I didn’t think of myself as a salesman.

Fast forward a dozen or so years. It’s the early 2000s, the US was in a recession, and training budgets were thin. I decided to do something new and learn about copywriting since it seems there is always a need for marketers. Copywriting is basically the creation of advertising pieces, especially web pages and direct mail. As I started learning about it, I realized that the marketing aspects of copywriting were virtually identical to what I was doing while designing and delivering training. Recently, three publications have helped cement these ideas for me.

The first was a 2007 sales piece by marketing and business maven Rich Schefren titled “The Attention Age Doctrine.” In it, he argues that the information age is over, and we must now focus on getting and keeping the attention of potential clients and customers. Those of us in L&D know how hard that can be, both in live instructor-led training and in e-learning environments. Schefren points out how information overload distracts us from marketers’ messages, and we see can see a comparable phenomenon trying to get our message out to learners. One way to help get and keep learners’ attention is through the use of a compelling story.

The second publication was the book resonate by Nancy Duarte. The subtitle of the book is “Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences.” She begins the first section, “Persuasion is Powerful,” with the following: “Movements are started, products are purchased, philosophies are adopted, subject matter is mastered–all with the help of presentations.”

"Information overload distracts us from marketers’ messages, and we see can see a comparable phenomenon trying to get our message out to learners.”


That first sentence clearly shows the tie between marketing and learning. Her keys to great stories and presentations are valuable to both marketers and L&D professionals.

Finally, Daniel Pink’s new book To Sell is Human really coalesces this tie between marketing and “training.” He says, “we’re all in sales,” and I believe this is especially true for L&D professionals. We have to sell the features of a new piece of software, the benefits of organizational change, the success of a particular negotiation strategy, and so forth. It seems more than ever before, we have to sell what we want people to learn. Specifically, we need to get and keep their attention in the face of to-do lists, email we know is coming in (even if their various devices are turned off during a learning event), personal issues, and so much more.

One way marketers help ensure attention is by focusing on a learner’s WIIFM (they call that “selling the benefits instead of the features”). “But”, you say, “I do this. By teaching SMART objectives they’ll learn how to write better objectives.” Sorry, that’s a feature. A benefit might be “saving time by organizing content more easily” or “shortening development time so you can go home earlier.”

Marketers also like to use compelling language. For example, which course title might be more likely to inspire you to sign up for the class: “Converting to The New SalesMax System” or “Get Twice as Many Leads Using the New SalesMax System”? With a little work, you can probably do better. Even if the class is “required,” which title would make you more excited to attend?


How do you get evidence to find out what works for your audience? Marketers perform something called a “split test.” They try sending ads with one title to one group, and another title to another group, and then they use data to observe which is more successful. When was the last time you tried testing course titles to see which was more popular? You just might want to give it a try.

John McDermott, CPLP, will be a session speaker at ASTD 2013 in Dallas.

Join ASTD and Dan Pink at the webcast, “To Sell Is Human.”


Duarte, N. resonate . John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, NJ

Pink, D. To Sell Is Human. Riverhead Hardcover. New York, NY 

About the Author

John J. McDermott, CPLP, is an instructional designer, developer and facilitator with more than 35 years of experience in adult learning. As an "outside trainer," he has presented courses on computer security, networking and programming in the United States, Canada, and other countries. He has developed multiple technical training courses for live, instructor-led delivery. John has also worked to implement cloud-computing learning solutions in classrooms and has created e-learning content and software. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer engineering from the University of New Mexico.

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