Hollywood, as a general rule, doesn't seem to care much for salespeople.  In almost every movie and TV show, sales professionals are depicted either as con-men or nut-cases.

Nevertheless, you can learn about real world selling from Hollywood's skewed depiction of it.  Here are five memorable scenes, along with my explanation why they're useful:

1. Boiler Room

Even though this movie is about con-men rather than salespeople, this "closing" scene illustrates two basic principles of selling:

  1. Scarcity increases perceived value. In the scene, the buyer's interest rises the moment he feels that the product--in this case an investment--will soon become unavailable. Perhaps the best real-world example of this Pontiac. When GM announced it was discontinuing the brand, the cars remaining on the sales lots were bought up within days, even though previous demand had been tepid.
  2. Peer pressure influences buying behavior. In the scene, the buyer is swayed by the seller's statements that other, more successful people were buying the product.  In the real world, companies create this kind of peer pressure through reference accounts and case studies.

2. Tommy Boy

OK, this sales pitch didn't exactly result in a new customer, but from an objective viewpoint, it actually has a lot going for it. Say what you will about the content and delivery, there's not the slightest possibility that the customer will ever forget that pitch.

Seriously, though, using three-dimensional props is a great way to make a presentation memorable. After all, decision-makers see thousands of PowerPoint slides each year. As long as you don't go overboard, why not show them something they haven't seen before?

3. Glengary Glen Ross

The most famous scene in this excellent movie is Alec Baldwin's "Always Be Closing" lampoon of sales training. From a business perspective, though, there's more to learn from the scenes where actual selling takes place.

While Jack Lemmon's sad sack sales pitch is desperate and pitiable, the concept behind it--build a relationship with the customer first--is a perfectly reasonable sales strategy.

4. The Music Man (first 3 minutes)

Yeah, I know. Totally cornball. Even so, Harold Hill's sales strategy is fundamentally sound. He begins his sales pitch by getting his potential customers to envision how horrible the future will be unless they buy his product.

This is exactly how "enterprise" computer companies pitch to top management. If Harold Hill were pitching ERP or CRM software today, he'd be singing that "there's disruptive innovation in River City."

5. Pursuit of Happyness

This near-perfect scene displays at least five essential elements of successful selling:

  1. Positivity. He refuses to be cowed by the fact that he can't work the same long hours as his coworkers.
  2. Optimism. He maintains a cheerful and polite attitude to the people he's cold-calling, even in the midst of rejection after rejection.
  3. Creativity.  He's willing to experiment outside of the recommended sales process by calling high, rather than calling up the ladder.
  4. Brand. He uses his company's brand reputation to establish credibility and navigate past gatekeepers.
  5. Flexibility. Even though he's supposed to continue cold-calling, he immediately grabs the opportunity for a face-to-face meeting.

BTW, I've interviewed Chris Gardner, the guy on whom the movie is based. He's every bit as personable and charming as Will Smith, the actor who played him in the film.