Sell me this pen.
Sell me this cup.
Sell me this bag.
This question is a staple among job interviews, especially for sales positions. But it recently rose to fame again after Leonardo DiCaprio appeared as Jordan Belfort, the smooth-talking penny stock broker in the movie The Wolf of Wall Street.
In the movie, Belfort’s cohort answers the question by taking the pen from him and then asking him to write his name on a napkin. Since Belfort didn’t have anything to write with, the sale is considered a done deal because of supply and demand.
The movie has a good point, but unless you have the bravado to pull off that trick yourself, it won’t work. Besides, by now tons of HR managers and recruiters have watched the movie. They’ll know what you’re up to.
You can still model your answer after Belfort, however, by putting your “customer” first. In this case, it’s the interviewer. Any experienced sales person begins the sale with the customer in mind. Ask about their needs, wants, goals, and desires, then model your sales pitch according to their answers.
This strategy doesn’t just apply to sales. The same principle is at work during the interview. You are, after all, selling yourself and the customer is the prospective employer.
Belfort’s strategy is effective if you’re applying for a sales job, or any job where your ability to persuade others is important. But it’s not the only strategy.
In an interview, Mike Rowe revealed he was hired for his first gig at QVC with no qualifications or any experience.
Because he was able to answer the “sell me this pen” question eloquently — on camera.
When he auditioned for a TV shopping host job with QVC back in the 90s, he was asked to talk about a random pencil for eight minutes straight.
It sounds simple, but as you can see from Rowe’s experience below, it’s not that easy.
“Hi there. My name’s Mike Rowe, and I only have eight minutes to tell you why this is finest pencil on Planet Earth. So let’s get right to it.”
I opened the desk drawer and found a piece of hotel stationery, right where I hoped it would be. I picked up the pencil and wrote the word, “QUALITY,” in capital letters. I held the paper toward the camera.
“As you can plainly see, the #2 Dixon Ticonderoga leaves a bold, unmistakable line, far superior to the thin and wispy wake left by the #3, or the fat, sloppy, skid mark of the unwieldy #1. Best of all, the Ticonderoga is not filled with actual lead, but ‘Madagascar graphite,’ a far safer alternative for anyone who likes to chew on their writing implements.”
“A vibrant yellow, perfectly suited for an object that needs to stand out from the clutter of a desk drawer.”
“Unlike those completely round pencils that press hard into the web of your hand, the Ticonderoga’s circumference is comprised of eight, gently planed surfaces, which dramatically reduce fatigue, and make writing for extended periods an absolute delight.”
“In a world overrun with plastic and high tech gadgets, isn’t it comforting to know that some things haven’t evolved into something shiny and gleaming and completely unrecognizable?”
Long speech, right? Most people would run out of things to say at this point. Unfortunately, only three minutes had passed and Rowe still had about five minutes of silence to fill. So, he proceeded to talk about his experience, other greats who used pencils to create their masterpieces; even referencing Einstein and Van Gogh.
When the timer finally declared the eight minutes was up, Rowe’s moving speech about the pencil was done. He didn’t fumble for words or stutter. He was hired.
What’s the point in all this? Rowe was able to demonstrate his skill, something his resume and college degree couldn’t do for him.
Pick Your Style
You can go for the customer-centric approach, where you ask questions first before pitching. Or you can go for Rowe’s approach. Each strategy serves a specific purpose. You can either highlight your sales skills, or the skills your formal job experience can’t give you credit for.