Twelfth Night is an amazing, funny, and mysterious play.  As with most of Shakespeare’s comedies it plays with gender roles, has older men helping nubile youngsters, and has a cynical yet somehow life-embracing theme of grabbing someone while you can and enjoying young love.  As the clown Feste says, “Youth’s a stuff will not endure”   One could reasonably add the implicit message “So grab some young and good-looking person and make love while you can.”  but for the purposes of this blog, it also has some of Shakespeare’s insightful views on how to get past no and get to yes. 

At the center of Twelfth Night is Viola, the shipwrecked young girl who dresses as a man to serve the Duke Orsino and court the Countess Olivia.  Viola is naive in many ways, but she also exhibits some amazing abilities as a saleswoman.  Despite being unaware of much of the ways of the world, she has a seemingly innate understanding of what it takes to move someone.  She stands in contrast to the Duke Orsino who does not understand that love is a game and that you need to get yourself on the field and get your hands dirty.  Orsino sends Viola (whom he believes to be a man named Cesario) to court Olivia os his behalf.  Thus Orsino complies with the traditional vision of courtly love — sending proxies to read ornate love poems on his behalf.   He fails because…well…this is a terrible way to get someone’s interest in you.  It removes the risk of personal involvement (which is why it is probably so popular a technique among 7th graders), but that degree of remove makes it impossible to get what you want.   

Viola on the other hand is there in person.  She shows up.  When she initially follows the traditions of courtly love in the form of Orsino’s script she is unsuccessful.  Why?  Scripts are terrible selling tools.  Everyone can recognize a script.  It lacks personalization and encourages a disconnect between the speaker and the message.  Great leaders minimize the necessity of scripts. 

Viola has to learn this from Olivia’s reaction and pouts about not getting to use her sales script, “Alas, I took great pains to study it, and tis poetical.”  Sounds like a lot marketing language right?  Poetic…somebody makes you memorize it…and generally useless. 

But when she goes off script, she is a natural.  Granted she has a more attractive product to sell Olivia — herself…or himself… I can’t really get into the gender bending here.  But that is also a good point for those who would sell, get a good product.  Even the best salesperson in the world couldn’t sell the Duke Orsino to Olivia. 

Olivia won’t respond to the script.  She doesn’t like the courtly garbage.  But when Viola speaks candidly “for what is yours to bestow is not yours to reserve,” it resonates with Olivia.  Viola, in the moment, responds intuitively with the argument that Olivia needs to hear.   Olivia does not need to hear flowery language, she needs to hear that life is for living and that it is time to get off the sidelines.   Viola is so good at conveying this that she convinces a Countess to fall in love with a lowly cross-dressing messenger.  Which means…I would definitely hire Viola to sell my products. 

In the end Viola is succesful because she is a natural salesperson who learns as she goes.  And we can extrapolate a few lessons:

1.  Pick a good product.  Great salespeople deserve great products

2.  Be wary of scripts.  They are generally ineffective.

3.  Adapt.  Good salespeople listen to their intuitions.