Mark Powell challenges the view that the art of selling is attending to the precise language your customers use and matching their sensory preferences by choosing similarly loaded language.

I’m currently teaching a class of 20-something sales reps and, these days, so they inform me, the latest thing is Neuro-Linguistic Programming. NLP? Didn’t that die out with flares, cheesecloth and Che Guevara?

According to NLP, much of selling is attending to the precise language your customers use. ‘Visuals’ readily share their ‘views’, but may not always ‘see eye-to-eye’. ‘Tonals’ ‘sound you out’ whilst wondering if you’re ‘on the same wavelength’. ‘Kinaesthetics’ ‘feel’ very strongly about the issues, but may fail to ‘grasp the underlying concepts’. Armed with this insight into how your clients think, you can match their sensory preference by choosing similarly loaded language.

But I’m not sold on the idea. Is a client who says ‘I see what you mean’ really more visual and less auditory than one who says ‘I hear what you’re saying’? Aren’t these in fact just fixed expressions, idiomatic to the extent that the individual words are scarcely noticed, much less selected? I decided to put the theory to the test.

My Business English corpus reveals that ‘I see what you mean’ is 25 times more common in spoken British English than ‘I hear what you’re saying’, but the two are equally frequent in American English, occurring about once every 2 million words. If NLPers are right, it makes the Brits overwhelmingly visual – practically deaf and numb to everything else, in fact. But they’re also three times more kinaesthetic if their preference for ‘Do you follow me?’ is anything to go by. The Americans must have no feelings at all!

I admit it would be great if my students could judge linguistically whether to ‘show’, ‘demonstrate’ or simply ‘talk their customers through’ their product specs. But, as I warned them, NLP could be ‘rather misleading’. "There you are," said one of them, "I told you he was kinaesthetic!"