The Science of Buoyancy

When trying to convince, persuade or influence others, rejection is commonplace. How can you bounce back from rejection and use the same techniques to influence the morale of your staff?

In March, I went to see Dan Pink discussing the “The Science of Buoyancy” at one of the consistently excellent Intelligence2 debates. The subject of buoyancy is one that Dan has explored in his recently released book, “To Sell Is Human”. A text that uses selling, ultimately as an example to describe human nature.

Dan describes buoyancy as a quality that combines grittiness of spirit and sunniness of outlook, and this will form the basis of my post. I’m going to highlight the points that Dan covered in this area, and conclude with some considerations for how you might also help to keep your employees “buoyant”.

We Are All In Sales

Dan Pink’s previous book “Drive”, raised some points, asking how motivation works in a sales environment. The response to “Drive” got Dan Pink interested in Sales and “To Sell Is Human” is the result of his research. 1 in 9 people are in sales jobs in America but Dan argues that we are all in sales, despite the role of a salesman often having a negative stigma in our mind (We’ve often seen salesman portrayed as slimey, manipulative creeps in movies – see apt screenshot from Napoleon Dynamite!).

Research has shown that on average, 41% of our time is spent on what he calls non-sales selling. By this he means, convincing, persuading and influencing others to do things we want them to. This opens us all up to the environment and/or response that salesmen are used to and in an adapting digital world where information is at our fingertips, we have also switched from a “buyer beware” market, to a “seller beware” market. In other words, a salesman no longer has the benefit of having the advantage of knowledge that the buyer doesn’t have. As a result, Dan Pink recommends a change in the foundational qualities of selling, with ABC (“Always Be Closing”) taking on new meaning to now represent “Attunement, Buoyancy and Clarity”. And as we’re all salesmen, whether we like it or not, this affects us all.

Attunement is to bring things into harmony with individuals, groups and contexts. i.e. Can you see the world from someone else’s point of view rather than your own? Having a sense of power reduces your ability to have a sense of perspective. So reducing your feelings of power can improve your acute perspective abilities. It is more analytical than empathy, looking at things such as strategic mimicry and practising to be an ambivert. Extraverts rarely make the best salesman and a buyer is now more likely to buy from someone they like.

Clarity is all about making sense of murky situations. It’s providing clarity to your prospect by asking certain irrational questions in a structured way, curating your questions and information well to make it accessible. It’s also not necessarily trying to offer to fix problems that your prospects already know they have, but rather finding problems they did not know they had.

If you want to find out more about Attunement, Clarity and the rest of the contents of “To Sell Is Human” I would recommend you buy it. It’s an excellent read. Now to discuss Buoyancy…


Chapter 5 of the book and Dan’s talk at Intelligence2 are focused on buoyancy. The line of research takes learnings from social psychology on how to bounce back from rejection. Dan uses sales as an example to illustrate his research as it is a role in life that has a great deal of rejection to deal with. However, the same principles can also be applied to everyday life, when you are rejected in the process of trying to convince someone to do something. Dan quotes Norman Hall’s phrase – “Every day you get up and face an ocean of rejection”. Buoyancy is how you stay afloat on that “ocean of rejection” that Hall talks about.

The research on buoyancy is split into what you do before, during and after an encounter.

Before an Encounter

Dan bases some of his research on what to do before you enter an encounter on Delores Albarricin’s work. Self help gurus will often tell you to think positive, affirmative, be bullish. Say to yourself “I can do this!”. The research actually shows that this is not the best approach. Phrases that ask a question such as “Can I do this?” rather than “I can do this” are far more effective.

Albarricin calls this “Interrogative Self-Talk”. Questions by their very nature illicit an active response whether you’re talking to yourself or to someone else. It prepares you for the encounter and forces you to rehearse. You prepare more thoroughly and are thus stronger than the more bullish declarative self-talk despite the latter sounding stronger.

During an Encounter

During an Encounter is all about “Positivity”. Someone is far more likely to be influenced by someone with a positive affect) even if the subject matter is unchanged. So how do you make sure you have a positive affect?

Barbara Fredrickson’s research shows that positive emotions open us up. They broaden our actions, open awareness to a wider range of thoughts and make us more receptive and creative. Fredrickson worked with a Brazilian mathematician, Marcial Losada, to help her discover that affectiveness and flourishing occur when positive emotions outway negative emotions at a tipping point of roughly 3:1. A ratio of 2:1 is no different to 1:1 or entirely negative emotions.

To monitor your positivity ratios you can start by visiting Barbara Fredrickson’s website As well as this, there are certain positive emotions you should try to be more conscious of – joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love. If you select a couple (E.g. Take ten minutes to think about three things you are grateful for) and look for ways to display them, it can have a profound effect on your positive affect and thus enable you to better influence people during encounters.

Note: Check out Fredrickson’s book for more in-depth insights into her research.

After an Encounter

The best predictor of success is how you explain failure. Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania has demonstrated through research that Explanatory Style in explaining negative events has an impact on our buoyancy. The best way to do this is to ask yourself three questions and to construct an answer “no” to each. The three questions are: Is this personal? Is this pervasive? Is this permanent?

So, if you have just lost a bit of business in a pitch what might you ask yourself?

  • Is this personal? i.e. Was there something wrong with the way I presented? Example Answer: No. The presentation could have been better, but the company just wasn’t ready to buy just yet.

  • Is this pervasive? i.e. Is everyone I visit going to reject this particular pitch? Example Answer: No. This particular company just didn’t have the vision to see the value. Another company probably will.

  • Is this permanent? i.e. Have I completely lost my skill for selling? Example Answer: No. I just had a bad day. I was tired. The next will be much better.

The more you explain bad events as temporary, specific and external the more likely you are to persist. This is an analytical way of improving your buoyancy and thus improving your likelihood at being a better salesman in the future. This is not to say that you shouldn’t look for holes in your presentation, take learnings from the feedback from the client and try to improve your pitch for the next time. It is not delusional. It is learned optimism.

If you go too far on the side of positivity (above and 11:1 positivity ratio to be precise), you might consider yourself to be in la la land! It is important not to be in denial. Using some of the methods above will help you get the balance right between levity and gravity to reach the optimum buoyancy. If you de-catastrophy things in a methodical way, it can make you more effective in sales and more effective in life.

The lovely term coined by Seligman is “Optimism with its Eyes Open”. Perhaps we should all start practising it.

Helping your employees stay buoyant

I haven’t yet tested the theories set out in the book for my own personal well being. However, as a business owner I am interested in not only my own well being in doing my job, but also the well being of my employees.


One of the main reasons I like to attend talks such as Intelligence2 is that you get to interact directly with the likes of Dan Pink to see if he can provide you with some insights specific to your questions. Being at the talk gave me the opportunity to ask how you stay buoyant if you lose out in a competitive environment (E.g. a pitch for some business against other businesses) but you are ignorant as to why another pitch may have been chosen above yours. Dan’s response was that this is a feedback problem, not a buoyancy problem. This question raised an interesting topic about feedback both from your client prospects but also internally in an organisation and how it can influence buoyancy.

A common problem is that people in the workplace don’t necessarily have a sense of how well they’re doing. Research in the field of talent by Teresa Amabile, professor at harvard business school, shows that employees are most happy when they feel like they are making progress in meaningful work. But making progress is dependant on rich, regular, feedback.

For feedback, an annual performance review just doesn’t cut it. We don’t do performance reviews at Red Badger or any performance linked bonus but rather a quarterly one-to-one meeting with each employee that is informal but basically provides encouragement by telling them what they are doing well, discusses where they could improve and also asks how we can improve to help them and what their ambitions are (what they want to get involved in etc…). We also supplement this with a more agile, informal but constant programme of feedback that is project specific. It’s basic common sense but something that is all too often, easily overlooked.

For your own buoyancy when trying to sell to prospects, it is equally important to demand as much feedback from them as possible so you can implement the above factors, learn where you went wrong, iteratively improve and stay buoyant.


So what is the right balance inside a team? Should you have a team of all optimists? What about grouping people who work well together historically?

Brian Uzzi has done some interesting research on teams and came to the conclusion that having a team of people who have always worked together doesn’t produce the best results. Equally, having a team of people that have never worked together doesn’t either. The most optimum teams are a mix of people that have worked together a lot and some who haven’t worked together. This keeps the team both dynamic and coherent, producing the best results.

Whether you want to mix the team up to include a 3:1 ratio of optimists to pessimists I don’t know. This sounds like an incredible challenge with no quantifiable research showing whether it will provide any benefit. But it’s some food for thought.


This doesn’t feel like the answer to all things. These techniques are not going to help you win business alone. You’ll need to iteratively improve your ways of working (using feedback and experience to help you), pitches need to be on point and appealing to the prospects, opportunities need to be qualified properly and all of the other basic practices of business development need to be in place. However, a pitch is also very creative. It paints a vision. Practicing the above techniques can put you in the right frame of mind to make you more creative, helping to build a better pitch but also help you have more influence over those you are trying to persuade. Inside a company, the precursor to this is to provide better, more constant feedback, change up teams, keep things new and different for your staff and present them with new challenges and that will give them the tools to manage their own buoyancy.

Outside of business, these techniques may also allow you to lead a life with a greater sense of fulfilment.

Time to start working on the interrogative self-talk, positivity ratios and explanatory style…

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