For some, this comparison will seem obvious. For some, it will seem curious, at first blush. For some, it will seem preposterous, or even insulting. We hope that, like most good analogies, the aptness of the comparison ultimately enlightens.

Our interest in revisiting this topic was prompted by two events. The first (which was really the second chronologically) was re-reading the words of a professor quoted in What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain (2004). “Teaching is ‘above all,’ about commanding attention and holding it. Our task is not unlike that of a commercial for a soft drink or any other product.” The book goes on to suggest that professors and salespeople might do different things once they have that attention, but more on that later.

The second (which was really the first chronologically) was watching well-meaning educators become interested in a new technology and then reject learning more about it because of too much “salesmanship.”

These two events caused us to reflect again on the parallels between the two professions and what would have to be true for the analogy to hold. We came up with the following:

Both the great teacher and the great salesperson believe in the value of their subject. They believe deeply in the importance of understanding what they have to convey about it. Note the reference to a great salesperson (as distinct from a “used car salesman”).

Both the great teacher and the great salesperson spend considerable effort to understand their audience. In teaching, we call it identifying prior knowledge and students’ motivation. In selling, we call it “knowing your customer.”

Both the great teacher and the great salesperson have a hook to get our attention. Unless there is a hook, we won’t pay attention and the message will be lost.

Both the great teacher and the great salesperson manage to convince us that we have a personal stake in what they are saying and that makes us want to know more about it.

Neither the great teacher nor the great salesperson wants anyone to “buy” anything unless it is relevant, important and fills a need. In fact, the key element to each of their interactions with their audience is to support the thinking process, to see how what they are teaching/selling applies to things we care about.

Both the great teacher and the great salesperson use a variety of communications techniques – including visuals, audio, music, mnemonics, simulations, experiments, discussion (and, yes, sometimes lecture) to help us learn and understand.

Both the great teacher and the great salesperson encourage questions and probing.

Neither the great teacher nor the great salesperson wants the end result of their efforts to be a return and a refund, or to hear, “that wasn’t worth the time or money spent on it.”

So, what is it that might be different, once the salesperson and the teacher have our attention?

In the case of salesperson, we might buy something. If the salesperson is not ethical or doesn’t really understand us, or just pushes too hard, we might possibly buy something we don’t need or can’t afford. But that wouldn’t be the intention of a great salesperson because they too care about keeping the sale.

In the case of a teacher, we might become interested in some topic we didn’t know we would be interested in. It’s possible we might later regret pursuing that interest or feel that we didn’t fully understand the consequences (e.g., problems finding a job). But that wouldn’t be the intention of a good teacher because they too care about their students. In fact, if the great teacher is successful enough, we might end up devoting our life to it. We might not have known we needed it, but the need to understand, to master, and to share with others was engendered by that teacher.

We only have so much time. We only have so much money. Thanks to all the great teachers and salespeople in the world for helping us spend well.

About the authors


Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management where she received a Contribution to Learning Excellence Award. She received a Nepris Trailblazer Award for sharing her knowledge, skills and passion for the neuroscience of learning in classrooms around the country. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University. Betsy is co-author of the new book, “Your child learns differently, now what?


Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of the BrainWare Learning Company. Over the past decade, he championed efforts to bring comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment within reach of every person, and it all started with one very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, Roger Stark pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool, based on over 50 years of trial and error through clinical collaboration. He also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online anywhere in the world. For more, follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari. Roger is is co-author of the new book, “Your child learns differently, now what?