Mortimer J. Adler

Since 1973 when Encyclopaedia Britannica marketed its 15th edition in the United States, the company has sold nearly one million sets and reached $1 billion in sales. At the helm of this venerable ship of knowledge stands Mortimer J. Adler, philosopher, educator, author, editor – thinker! Adler’s accomplishments during his going-on-83-year-old life are nothing short of breathtaking. As chairman of the editorial board of Encyclopaedia Britannica, he rides hard on an army of researchers, editors, and writers. In his capacity as director of the Institute for Philosophical Research in Chicago, he is equally relentless in his pursuit of the mistakes of his philosophers of past generations and epochs.

As a founder of Britannica’s 54-volume Great Books Of The Western World, he personally wrote every word of the 5,000- to 10,000-word essays defining the 102 Great Ideas – the heart and indeed the soul of the index to Great Books called Syntopicon. In additional Adler is involved in more than a passing way in the Socratic method of teaching in an experimental program that he has instituted in select schools in Atlanta, Oakland, and Chicago.

Author Adler is no less productive. Titles of books he has written – some of them in 15 mornings of rigorous writing – sound like a compendium of Western thought. How To Think About War, How To Read A Book, Ten Philosophical Mistakes, Reforming Education and How To Think About God are only a few of the titles that greet the reader who looks up Adler, Mortimer, J., in a library card file. How does he do it? “I take almost no exercise,” says the chipper philosopher, “and each year I work harder than the year before.”

In this exclusive interview with this thinker by profession, we learn that philosophy has a great place in selling, and that selling without thinking is doomed to failure. Adler’s greatest professional pleasure is in reaching the ordinary man or woman on the street with his insights and in prodding what he believes is their fundamental desire -to learn.

PSP: In your opinion, what characterizes a good listener?

Mortimer Adler: The most important thing about listening is paying attentionm – not just to the words, but what lies behind the words. People often express themselves obscurely and clumsily and so good listening requires the penetration through the words to the mind behind the words. And that is a very difficult thing to do. I conduct seminars at the Aspen Institute that run for two hours. I am worn out at the end of two hours by listening intently. And listening intently takes all the energy you have got because you have got to go behind the words to what people have in their minds. They often do not express this clearly.

PSP: So when a salesperson is on a sales call and the customer has an objection, a salesperson who is a good listener should listen to the objection. You are saying that he or she also has to listen to what is behind the objection – the concerns.

Mortimer Adler: Right. Often what is said is not the point. It conceals the point. Often, also, the person who does not want to buy invents objections to prevent the sales talk from going on.

PSP: Would you say that this is one of the ways listening is hard?

Mortimer Adler: Very hard indeed.

PSP: And then, in what ways are listening and speaking interdependent?

Mortimer Adler: In any conversation, if the speakers do not listen to one another, they are not talking to one another either. They are talking past one another, like ships passing in the night. Many conversations, in fact most human conversations, are very poor indeed. They consist of one person being silent while the other speaks – the person being silent not listening to what the other person is saying, just waiting for the other person to finish. Then he speaks while the other person appears to listen, but he is not really listening, he is just waiting for the other person to finish.

PSP: How can you check whether you are really connecting?

Mortimer Adler: It is perfectly obvious to me in many conversations that the person I am talking to is not listening to me and I say simply, “You have not heard what I said. Do you want me to repeat it?” I often ask questions and do not get answers. Many people take questions merely like Pavlov’s dog when the bell rang in his laboratory. They salivate but they do not answer the question. They think that the question is a bell ringing that permits them to say anything on their minds. Saying what is on their minds is not answering a question. They have not listened.

PSP: In order to become good listeners, what would you suggest salespeople do?

Mortimer Adler: I think the most important thing is to keep your own emotions out of the way. If what the person says or the way he says it arouses in you a negative reaction, you have got to control yourself and keep your temper low, in order to give the other fellow a chance to say what he is going to say. If you react to him and his manners rather than what he says, you are not listening to what he says.

PSP: So that even if he says something that you do not want to hear about your product or about your competition, you still have to listen.

Mortimer Adler: Right. If you do not listen, how are you going to meet the point?

PSP: When a salesperson is on a sales call, when does he or she know when to speak and when to listen?

Mortimer Adler: Most salespeople talk too much. They say more than they need to say. Brevity is very important and the salesperson has got to make a quick judgment as to when he has said enough, and not go on. He often can lose a sale by going on past the point where he has made it. That is a very important point.

PSP: When you talk about the listener somehow penetrating through the words used to express the thought that lies behind it, how does a salesperson do that, if that salesperson is not innately very sensitive?

Mortimer Adler: There is no simple answer. It requires the exercise of intelligence, and the effort to understand how he is going to do it. The best salespeople are very bright indeed. Intelligence is an indispensable quality.

PSP: When we talk about conversation, whether it is on a sales call or in general, is there an art to it?

Mortimer Adler: Yes, there is a very definite skill to it, and the book that I have written called How To Speak/How To Listen contains all the rules for forming the habit of that skill.

PSP: And is this a skill that was developed at one time that we have lost?

Mortimer Adler: Yes. In the 18th century, when rhetoric was taught in school -rhetoric is the art of persuasion and the art of conversation – educated people were much better conversationalists than we are now. Conversation is really almost a lost art in this country. A half century ago, even in the beginning of this century, what people did with their free time at dinner and after was talk. Now they watch television and play games, they do not carry on conversations.

PSP: What do you think we have lost because of that?

Mortimer Adler: The most important enjoyment in life.

PSP: It always seems to me that the most wonderful part of being married is having someone to talk to.

Mortimer Adler: That is right. And when conversation dries up in a marriage, the marriage is headed for divorce.

PSP: Could one say that about business relationships also?

Mortimer Adler: Absolutely.

PSP: Is conversation the way that we really meet?

Mortimer Adler: It is indispensable. Otherwise you are shut up in yourself and you live a solitary life. Without conversation, whether you are with people or not, you are leading a solitary life.

PSP: And how about the salesperson – the typical preconceived notion of the salesperson – who talks to you?

Mortimer Adler: Well, that is a bad salesperson. A very bad salesperson. The two things a salesperson should do is first have a proper understanding of the kind of person he is talking to and of his or her character. If he does not make some quick estimate of the character of the person he is talking to, he cannot talk properly to that person. In the second place, he must, as Aristotle taught 25 centuries ago, present himself to the other person with a good character. He must make himself likable. He must make himself trustable. He must make himself respectable to the other person. You cannot sell anything, you cannot argue for it, you cannot talk about the goodness of the product, you cannot arouse the proper emotions – until you first arouse a good attitude toward yourself. Aristotle was wonderful. He said the whole thing boils down to three Greek words – ethos, pathos and logos. Ethos is the effort on the part of the person trying to persuade, to make himself appear good. Pathos is to create in the other person the feeling that the product is good, a positive feeling toward it. And logos comes last – the arguments, the actual arguments about the thing that is being sold. But people are taught to sell the other way and if they put logos first and ethos last, they are wrong. And if they leave ethos out, they cannot sell at all.

PSP: Zig Ziglar says that logic makes the buyer think, but feelings make him act.

Mortimer Adler: That is correct.

PSP: And you said essentially the same thing in your book, How To Speak/How To Listen. You said, “Reasons and arguments may be used to reinforce the drive of the passions, but reason and arguments will have no force at all unless your listeners are already disposed emotionally to a move in the direction that your reasons and arguments try to justify.” I think it is very, very well put.

Mortimer Adler: But even before that, you cannot get those emotions flowing in the right direction unless they are flowing towards you positively – you, the person. The person comes before the product. A bad person cannot sell a good product. A person who is not respected by the client or the prospect cannot sell anything.

PSP: And when is salesmanship honorable?

Mortimer Adler: When it is honest. It is as simple as that.

PSP: And that means being honest about the product, and also being honest in your relationship with the buyer.

Mortimer Adler: Absolutely.

PSP: You asked the question in your book How To Speak/How To Listen: “What does a philosopher know about how to make a sales talk? You went on to talk about your own experience with the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Syntopicon, and your incredible selling efforts. It is very interesting to me that you were able to go out and do so well at selling your ideas, and at actually selling books.

Mortimer Adler: I learned from Aristotle a long time ago what is involved in persuasion. And that is all that salesmanship is – persuasion.

PSP: So you did not find any problem at all in using those ideas?

Mortimer Adler: No.

PSP: Because those were philosophical concepts.

Mortimer Adler: Right. You see, salesmanship can be commercial, political or personal. When a man proposes to a woman, he has to sell himself, and sell marriage. Salesmanship is not limited to commercial ventures and the marketplace – it occurs in every aspect of life. When you want to get anyone to do anything, you have to persuade them.

PSP: So there is a philosophical basis for salesmanship.

Mortimer Adler: That is correct – for anything that involves persuasion.

PSP: In the logic part of a sales talk, what should be avoided?

Mortimer Adler: Sophistry, phony reasoning, invalid arguments – all the logical fallacies. Now the average person may not be able to detect them, but an honest salesperson does not make them either.

PSP: And how can a salesperson best use the rhetorical question?

Mortimer Adler: To stress the point that he has made. He has made the point and then he asks the question to which he expects an affirmative answer: “Don’t you think?” “Yes.” “Don’t you feel?” “Yes.” “Isn’t it the case that?” “Yes.” He is merely getting the person to affirm it – that is all a rhetorical question does.

In Britannica we have some sales representatives who sell as many as 500 or more sets a year. There are only 365 days in a year so this is more than two sets a selling day. Now, compared to them, the vast number of our salespeople sell 100 or 150 – less than one a day, sometimes not more than two a week. If we could find out what it is that makes them good salespeople, then hire only such salespeople, our business would be five times larger. I have thought about this a lot. Why can’t we hire only people who sell more than 300 a year?

PSP: In other words, what is the profile of that person?

Mortimer Adler: Yes, what is the profile? I have thought about using search firms that hire executives for you and thought of asking them to look at our top salespeople and test for that profile. They cannot do it. I do not know why.

PSP: How does a salesperson deal with a prospect’s blind spots. He says, “I never buy X and Y.”

Mortimer Adler: The first thing you would say is “Well that is interesting, tell me why you don’t.” You also ought to say, “Well, what is your objection to it?”

You cannot say anything unless you know what his reasons are. Then, either the reasons are invalid and you get around them or they are valid and you overcome them, and if they look as if they are insuperable, you give up. One of the basics is that you don’t waste time on people who are not sellable. A salesperson’s time is the only thing he has.

PSP: Yes, and some salespeople get into a position where selling to them is some kind of an ego adventure.

Mortimer Adler: Yes.

PSP: What is a philosopher?

Mortimer Adler: That is much harder. You see I think everyone is, or should be, a philosopher. Not everyone should be a mathematician, or a physicist, or a geologist, or a psychologist – those are all specialized disciplines. Philosophy is not like any of those; of course it is taught, but I think it is badly taught. I do not think it is a subject like any other subject taught in the curriculum. It is everybody’s business. Philosophy is the effort on the part of the human mind to understand things, that is all. And to do that you have got to handle ideas. Ideas are the instruments for understanding anything.

PSP: What does a philosopher do?

Mortimer Adler: Think.

PSP: There are certainly a lot of nonphilosophers out there.

Mortimer Adler: Yes there are!

PSP: How does one go about developing a philosophy, or how does one become aware of one’s own philosophy?

Mortimer Adler: There is no such thing as one’s own philosophy – I don’t have mine and you don’t have yours.

PSP: Well, I didn’t think deeply enough. So, philosophy isn’t something that you put on like an overcoat.

Mortimer Adler: It is reflective thought, aimed at understanding whatever you are dealing with. We have been trying to understand salesmanship – what is involved in persuasion. If we talked about why conversation is a basic human good, we would be talking philosophically.

PSP: For salespeople, “benefits” is one of the major words in selling. Since we have a selling audience, what are the benefits of philosophy in selling?

Mortimer Adler: There are four goods of the human mind: information, organized knowledge, understanding and wisdom. Without philosophy, you do not get past the top two. Science, history, mathematics give you one and two, but not three and four, understanding and wisdom.

PSP: You quoted Aristotle as saying, “The last initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold.”

Mortimer Adler: That is the basic point about the potential of philosophical mistakes. They are all little errors in the beginning.

PSP: How do you know when you have deviated from the truth? How do you know when you make that first little mistake?

Mortimer Adler: You find it out by following it in your mind through to the conclusions and seeing that the conclusions are unacceptable, and then know you have made a mistake.

PSP: What is happiness?

Mortimer Adler: A good time versus a good life is the point when we talk about what happiness is.

PSP: There are a lot of people in this country and in other parts of the world who equate happiness with having parties and being frivolous.

Mortimer Adler: That’s right. But happiness has to do with leading a morally good life.

PSP: What is your measure of success?

Mortimer Adler: I regard myself as successful to the degree that my own mind is growing by learning and my teaching spreads further and further.

PSP: What do you consider your most significant accomplishment – the one that means the most to you, not in the world’s eyes?

Mortimer Adler: Writing the one hundred and two essays in the Syntopicon.*

PSP: In your opinion, what is the most effective way of motivating other people – or do you think that is possible?

Mortimer Adler: The question is too broad – the whole range of human beings? Motivating them about what – politically, economically, socially, emotionally, personally?

PSP: Let’s narrow it down. You must have people working under you. As a manager, you have a group to motivate. Do you give them specific goals to work on?

Mortimer Adler: No. My simple rule is this: The people who work for you should conceive themselves as working with you for the result you are trying to achieve and they should regard that result. They are cooperating with you in helping to bring about a worthwhile result.

PSP: Thank you. The work you’ve done is fascinating.

*The Syntopicon is Mortimer Adler’s great work. With one hundred and two great ideas, cross referenced and indexed by author and category, it contains the great ideas of Western thought in essay form and is a reference work beyond compare.

On Good Conversation:

“….good conversation calls for an exercise of moral virtue. It requires the fortitude needed to take the pains necessary to make it good. It requires the temperance needed for moderation of one’s passions. Above all, it requires the justice needed to give the other person his due.” – Mortimer Adler

From: How To Speak/How To Listen, MacMillan Publishing Co., NY.

Philosophy Sells

Many years ago, when the Institute for Philosophical Research was established in San Francisco, an invitation came to me as its director to address a luncheon meeting of the Associated Advertising Clubs of California. They asked me in advance for a title. I suggested that it be “Aristotle on Salesmanship,” A title I thought would be sufficiently shocking to them.

I told them two stories about myself. The first was about a conversation I had with one of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s bankers at the time that the company was spending large sums of money on the production of Great Books of the Western World and the Syntopicon, of which I was editor.

The banker came to that meeting highly skeptical of the salability of the product on which the company was spending so much money, and especially skeptical about this strange thing called the Syntopicon that threatened to consume more than million dollars – a lot of money in those days – before it was completed. What good would the Syntopicon do anybody that might arouse their desire to purchase the set with the Syntopicon attached to it? “I, for example, am interested in buying and selling,” the banker said, “and if I went to the Syntopicon’s inventory of 102 great ideas, would I find one on salesmanship?”

That stumped me for a moment because, of course, the word “salesmanship” does not appear among the names of the 102 great ideas, nor does it even appear in the list of 1,800 subordinate terms that provide an alphabetical index referring to aspects of the 102 great ones. I got over being stumped by asking him a question.

Did he agree that to sell anybody anything, one must know how to persuade them to buy what one wanted to sell? He agreed at once. I then clinched the matter by telling him that one of the 102 great ideas is rhetoric, which is concerned with persuasion, and that, if he consulted the Syntopicon’s chapter on that idea, he would find many extremely helpful passages in that chapter, even though none of the great authors cited there ever used the word “salesmanship.”

That was all I had to do to put an end to the banker’s qualms about the money being spent on the production of the Syntopicon. I had sold him on it. I then told my audience in San Francisco the story of how I had to sell five hundred sets of Great Books of the Western World in order to raise enough money to defray the printing and binding costs for a first edition.

I did this almost single-handed, first by writing a letter that Bob Hutchins (who was then president of the University of Chicago) and I sent out over our signatures to 1,000 persons who might feel honored to become patrons of a special first edition of the set by purchasing it in advance of publication at the cost of $500 – again a lot of money in the 1950s.

That one letter brought in 250 purchase orders accompanied by checks. The 25 percent rate of return on a single appeal struck my audience of advertising men as an unparalleled success in the business of direct-mail advertising. I followed that initial success by selling the remaining 250 sets to individual patrons, either on the phone or by visiting them in their offices.

On one such occasion, I sold the head of a chain of over 80 department stores 45 sets – one to be given away by each of the 45 stores in its hometown to the local library or college as a public relations gesture. This particular sale took less than 30 minutes to make. The chief executive clearly indicated that he had little time to give me on a late Friday afternoon when he was about to leave town for the weekend. So I cut my sales talk to the bone in order to avoid impatience on his part, thereby gaining his good will.

By the time I had finished this second story, the advertising experts in my San Francisco audience were sufficiently impressed by my own personal involvement in the business of persuasion and of selling to be all ears when I then went on to explain how Aristotle had summed up the essence of salesmanship in his analysis of the three main factors in persuasion. I had succeeded in establishing my own ethos with them before I started to explain the role that ethos, pathos, and logos play in persuasion.

And that is what I hope I have just done with you by telling you these two stories about my own personal experience as an advertiser and a salesman.

Excerpted from: How To Speak/How To Listen by Mortimer J. Adler, MacMillan Publishing Co. NY. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.