Talking Salesmanship: John Carlton on the Art of Feeding a Hungry Crowd

by Adam Kreitman

Last updated on April 3rd, 2018

You may bristle at some of the ideas covered in this interview.

If you do,  it’s a really good sign you need to pay extra close attention.


This interview digs into one of the most important (yet distasteful to many) concepts you have to understand to be a successful marketer:


And there’s truly no one better to learn from than the brilliant John Carlton.

John’s a true legend in the copywriting world.

There are very few top copywriters and online marketers around today who haven’t been influenced, both directly and indirectly, by John’s work.

(After all, he IS known as “the most respected and ripped-off copywriting wizard alive”.)carlton

Even better, however, is that John is one of the nicest guys around. He has a passion for helping people — especially marketers and entrepreneurs.

His unique, edgy, no-nonsense approach will keep you chuckling. And you’ll find that he holds nothing back.

He’s always ready and willing to share his deep understanding of marketing, entrepreneurship, and consumer psychology on his blog, at seminars, and right here on The Daily Egg!

In fact, he was so generous with his time during this interview, that I split it into two parts.

Today, in Part 1, the focus is squarely on salesmanship…

You’ll discover what it is, why you absolutely need it, and how to develop it (even if you’re not a “natural”).

Let’s dive right in!


Adam: You talk a lot about the importance of salesmanship in marketing.

And while “salesmanship” is a term most people are familiar with, it has different connotations for different people.

So just to make sure we’re all on the same page here,

How do you define “salesmanship”?

John: Great question, Adam.

“Salesmanship” is what we call a “trigger” word, that can cause all kinds of gruesome emotions and assigned-meanings to bubble up in people’s minds.

Most civilians understand salesmanship to be a form of persuasion.

Somebody pitches a product or service to you, your resistance magically crumbles, and you buy. We don’t necessarily trust salesmen, and we remain hyper-suspicious … to the point where we we either walk away or become raving fans.

We don’t enjoy the sales process, and we wish there was a way around it.

Whenever I speak in front of large audiences at marketing seminars, I ask for a show of hands from anyone who would love to learn to “sell without selling” (a common phrase now being hawked by touchy-feely gurus who insist you can thrive without resorting to the ugliness of asking for an order — which many see as being “pushy” or rude).

Half or more of the crowd will raise their hands.Then I tell them to grow up.

It’s a fantasy that any significant amount of selling can take place without learning how good, old-fashioned classic salesmanship establishes credibility, gooses desire, overcomes objections, and closes the deal.

Entrepreneurs should rejoice at this, however — when their competition wastes time trying to get around actual selling processes, you can sweep past them by focusing on the techniques that have been proven to work throughout history.

For me (and the other “A List” copywriters who inhabit the upper levels of direct marketing) salesmanship is the art of motivating a prospect to climb past their natural resistance to buying something (even when it’s clearly going to positively affect their lives)…

… past the hurdles of payment (where most “almost sales” are lost)…

… and past their heightened sense of having second thoughts after making the purchase (where refunds will murder an otherwise great campaign).

And all of that requires a “tool kit” of:

  • Street-level psychology (what makes people behave the way they do)
  • Real-world persuasion techniques (identifying the “hot buttons” and raw needs of a prospect)
  • Adaptable communication skills (roiling with empathy and vicious storytelling chops)

It’s actually pretty easy for even a rookie salesman to get a prospect to agree that yes, that’s a mighty fine product there, and maybe someday down the line I’ll think seriously about actually buying one.

And that’s as far into the process that most business owners get.

However, the sale won’t get closed until you move your prospect to decide that, okay, that’s what I want, the deal’s fair, you’re the guy I want to buy from. I’m ready to do the deal right freakin’ now.

If you equate salesmanship with romance, you may get a clearer idea of what’s required in the process.

If you’re asking for a small purchase, say ten bucks or so, it’s equivalent to meeting someone for the first time and asking for a phone number.

When the price goes up to $30-$50, it’s like agreeing to meet for coffee – which, for anyone who’s logged serious time in the singles world, is never a slam-dunk proposition.

Think about what you need to accomplish, regarding trust, asking for a commitment of time, and beginning the obvious process of changing the nature of your relationship.

Up to a hundred bucks, it’s like a real date, with all the attendant anxieties and complex decision making.

Over a hundred smackers (what veteran salesmen call “a high ticket” sale), it’s like going steady.

When you’re asking for thousands of dollars, the level of trust required approaches that of agreeing to get married.

Consider, if you’re in a long-term relationship, what went into overcoming the other person’s resistance.

Also consider all the rational, irrational, conscious, and unconscious decisions that had to happen to make the deal go down.

Great business owners consider their relationship with a customer AS a real relationship.

There is a lifetime value that goes far beyond the first purchase, and you cannot take their loyalty for granted at any time.

You must sell yourself, over and over again, as that person they want to do business with.


Adam: Let’s talk to the 50+ percent out there in the “sell without selling” crowd for a moment. What steps would you suggest they take to get headed down the path of solid salesmanship?

Are there some basic Salesmanship 101 skills that are required to successfully motivate prospects to “do the deal right freakin’ now” (whether it be online or in person)?

John: I totally sympathize with folks who cringe at asking for the order.

We’re raised with the idea that being “pushy” is rude, and we have a queasy relationship with money… so asking a stranger for cash violates much of our initial training.

But it’s also true that most of the population isn’t built to become entrepreneurs in the first place.

It’s a very difficult gig, even at its most simple form. Take, for example, kids setting up a five-cent lemonade stand…

When Mom is the force behind it, the kids will slack off, and lose interest… and that’s how family businesses fail in the larger “real” economy.

However, when one of the kids is the brains behind the stand, it will thrive.

Mom may not even realize for a while that the little darlings are out on a busy street with nicked glassware and homemade signs, shaking down the neighbors for hard cash.

You can tell when someone has entrepreneur’s blood in their veins when they make their first sale.

They think: “Really? I just need to present my case for buying this stuff, and if I’m successful, then people will give me money? Really? This is totally bitchin’…”

That said, you do NOT have to be a “natural” salesman to succeed at business. I’m living proof of that.

I had to study salesmanship, mentor under old-school veterans, and take my lumps in the School O’ Hard Knocks to get even marginally good at it early in my career.

It was painful – most of the great books on the subject were out-of-print, and I had to hunt them down. (Start with: Claude Hopkins, “My Life In Advertising”… David Ogilvy, “Confessions Of An Adman”… Victor Schwab, “How To Write A Good Advertisement”… John Caples, “Tested Advertising Methods”… and of course my first book “Kick-Ass Copywriting Secrets of a Marketing Rebel”, for the more modern take.)

The truth is there are few street-savvy salesmen still alive to mentor under.

Many of them have done a great job putting their best advice and tactics into books and courses for posterity…

… and I can well imagine a fresh generation of wannabe entrepreneurs, decades from now, discovering this treasure-trove of selling wisdom, and going through the same angst and wonder today’s marketers are.

From what I can tell about American capitalism, smart salesmanship rises in use for a few years and then goes back out of fashion…

It’s dipped and bloomed like this for hundreds of years.

The birth of the Web and it’s coming-of-age as a viable marketing medium in the early 2000s (when merchant accounts finally became available to online sellers and the public decided they could trust buying online after all) brought out a vast wave of kitchen-table entrepreneurs who would either thrive or die based on how many sales they were able to make.

In the real world of business, those who get results get rich. Those who do not get results drift away into obscurity.

All successful business operations employ some level of salesmanship… and at some point they (with varying levels of aggressiveness) ask for the sale.

This is true of the big chains, the behemoths in Silicon Valley, the international conglomerates, and the Mom-and-Pop stores in Anytown, America (and online).

The recent enthusiasm for “re-inventing salesmanship” is as old as capitalism itself… and will fail as quickly and spectacularly as it always has.

The only people making money in that part of the anti-selling marketing world are those selling courses on how to sell without selling.

It is, in short, a total scam.

At the end of the day, the natural resistance to buy and the capricious nature of the average prospect means that, without skillful persuasion tactics, most sales simply will not happen.

You have to become a disciplined student of salesmanship.

You must read voraciously, test what you learn in the real world, adjust as you go (using what works and tossing what doesn’t), and embrace every opportunity to learn from professionals.

It’s a lifelong process.

If you enjoy it, you’ve probably got entrepreneur’s blood coursing through your veins… because for us, it’s a beautiful thing to close the sale.

Like a pro musician that happily practices for hours every day, alone, struggling, constantly pushing the envelope… anyone else, in any other field, must go through the same process to attain mastery.

There are no magic shortcuts.

But there ARE shortcuts. However, they still require dedication to results.

The thing is that, if you pay attention to the grizzled old pro’s like me, you can skip the decades of trial-and-error we suffered through perfecting our craft… and instead, learn from our easily identified blunders and start testing the good stuff sooner (and with better insight).

Questions or comments about this interview? Please share them in the comment section below and, you never know… you may just get a response from John himself!

Don’t miss Part 2 of the interview!

For more from John Carlton, check out his blog, The Rant, where there’s 10 YEARS of posts with deeper insights on marketing, entrepreneurship and consumer psychology than you’ll find anywhere else online. (Seriously, the guy could easily charge $1000s for the material on his blog, but it’s out there for free!)



Get updates on new articles, webinars and other opportunities:

Adam Kreitman

Adam Kreitman coaches business owners on how to make their websites more compelling to their prospects.. and to Google. He owns Words That Click, a firm specializing in Conversion Optimization and managing Google AdWords campaigns for small businesses.Follow him on


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  1. Lewis Bassett says:
    July 23, 2013 at 5:50 am

    How’s this for street-level salesmanship?

    I learned a LOT about direct response marketing by approaching girls on the street, and using conversation to create attraction, build rapport, and then get their number or take them on an instant date.

    Here are some keep takeaways.

    1. Girls WANT to meet interesting guys. Almost every guy would feel awkward about interrupting a girl to try and get her number. But you’re actually doing her a FAVOUR — if you’re intentions are benign.

    It’s the same with customers. If your product/service adds value to the customer’s life, you’re doing them a FAVOUR by interrupting them. If you feel ashamed or embarrassed about the idea of interrupting people and selling to them… you need to ask yourself why.

    2. You MUST give very prospect an opportunity to say “yes” or “no”.

    When I first started approaching girls, I’d make a good conversation with them, convey value, interest them… then walk off! My friends told me a few of the girls I did this too kept looking back as I walked away, hoping I’d run back and get their number!

    When your ad, article, sales letter or whatever doesn’t have a call-to-action, you’re not giving the reader a chance to say “yes” or “no”.

    Selling without selling?

    If you don’t see the obvious logically flaw in this (check out the Law of Identity), then you’re a moron.

    When I first learned how to approach girls on the street, I was with another few guys who were learning too. I remember one scene that was the PERFECT metaphor for direct response vs. normal “selling without selling” marketing.

    There were these clowns doing some kind of street dancing for a viral video. They all had washboard abs, were tall, handsome and doing some awesome dancing. And all the girls were watching them with interest. Nothing else. Just watching them. And then they walked on and continued with their business.

    But there was this one girl who was hot as f**k. She was interested in the dancers too. One of the guys I was with walked over to her, interrupted her completely, conveyed value, build interest and asked for her number. He gave her a clear opportunity to say “yes” or “no”. And she said “yes”.

    I watched the handsome dancers. They were like those Madison Avenue style ads. Sure, they were impressive. Sure, they were fun. Sure, they were sexy. But I didn’t see them get any girls numbers.

    We cut through all that BS and got plenty of nice girls’ numbers… using nothing but direct response street-level salesmanship.

  2. RIcky says:
    July 22, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    John and Adam,

    First off, great interview! (John, everytime I hear your story it’s like a shot in the vein). Second, thank you for taking the time to answer questions. I had several….

    As a legendary copywriter, where did you find you were lacking, skill-wise, to run a world-class business? What expertise did you have to recruit for your team to acheive serious results without you personally manning every department (analytics, programmers, systems, management, operations, PR, etc.)??

    I think lots of entrepreneurs think they have to be the superstar in every department of running the business (myself included). What do you say to these lone wolf types?

    Where and How do YOU find “John Carlton” equivalents in other areas of your busienss to take things from good to great? What area made the hugest difference when you stopped doing it yourself and hired someone else?

  3. Rich Alvarez says:
    July 18, 2013 at 8:04 am

    Where is the line between sales and marketing? Is there one? A lot of companies keep them in different departments.

    • July 18, 2013 at 8:15 pm

      Hi Rich. For freelancers (who work far away from the corporate digs of agencies), there isn’t much of a line. I personally use the terms almost interchangeably. I can see how some folks with MBAs might try to separate them, but for us close to the street-level of getting results, it’s like splitting hairs. Your marketing is your overall strategy for finding prospects and persuading them to become customers. Sales is how you do that.

  4. Bob Sommers says:
    July 17, 2013 at 8:02 pm

    Great article Adam. I would like to know who is the one person, (if John could only choose one person) he sees as the most effective living copywriter today and why?

    • July 18, 2013 at 8:13 pm

      Hey, Bob — I’ll answer that. There’s no single copywriting god amongst us today, largely because the arrival of coaching and mentoring via the Web has greatly increased the speed of attaining mastery. I’ve helped several hundred rookies zoom past the career stages that took me decades, and they’re hip and effective in just months. Good for them, too.

      I’ve been fortunate enough to remain connected with a small snarling mob of the best direct response copywriters alive, via a Google Group and regular get-togethers. They’re based all over the globe, too. There’s a level of professional expertise you reach where trying to determine who’s “better” than someone else just doesn’t make sense — the powerhouse “A List” freelance copywriters I know all could demolish the best agency staff writers you could find. They’re as dedicated as astronauts, as fearless as Spec Op agents (at least regarding marketing challenges), and skilled as Shakespeare at turning a phrase.

      I realize this doesn’t answer your question, but I’d need a couple of pages just to list the guys I know are in this camp. It’s still a small group, compared with the rest of the advertising world. But there are a bunch of them. And they’re good because they’re dedicated, experienced, a bit crazy, and obsessed with results.

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