I was conducting a workshop recently with a group of sales people, and we were talking about how to ditch the pitch. The vice-president of sales said, “I’ve learned from playing golf that if I try to remember too much, I’ll mess up a shot. I try to think of just a few things as I swing the club. Can you tell me three things I should think about when I’m trying have a sales conversation with a customer?”

Hmmm … that’s an interesting question.

“Sure,” I said, and then ditched my own workshop plan to answer him. After a rapid mental scan of all of the differentditch the pitch tools I’ve learned and developed, I quickly settled on the three described below.

Tip #1: Don’t talk about yourself

“The most important thing to think about,” I said, “in fact, the most important rule in sales is, Don’t talk about yourself.”

“Here’s the sad, but important, truth,” I continued. “Your customers don’t care that much about you. Yes, you have customers who really like you and want you to succeed. But no matter how much one of your customers likes you, he likes himself more. He is much more interested in his own story than he is interested in yours, and he will be much more engaged in the conversation if you are talking about him and not about you.”

The vice-president nodded along as I spoke. It always strikes me as a little ironic when I tell a room full of salespeople not to talk about themselves. But truly this is the number one rule of selling, and he seemed willing to accept this tip as the first thing he would think about when talking with customers.

Here’s my rule of thumb: I try to make sure that 95% of a conversation with a customer is about the customer, not about me. What that means is that anytime the conversation becomes about me (e.g., when a customer asks “Have you worked on a project like this before?”) I know that I have to swing the conversation back around to the customer as soon as possible. I allot myself very little time to talk about me.

When you don’t talk about yourself, you automatically practice a number of other good conversation habits. You will be curious about your customer, learning important details about him. You will be very present in the conversation, listening to your customer and responding to each thing he says. And, importantly, you will avoid monologuing, focusing instead on creating genuine dialogue.

This first tip was explored in more depth in an earlier issue of this newsletter: “Don’t talk about yourself.”

Tip #2: Leave things in your pocket

“The next thing you need to think about,” I continued, “is not saying things that you were planning on saying.”

“Huh?” said the look on the vice-president’s face.

“Salespeople tend to over-prepare and overthink their sales conversations. They create lists of the points they want to make when they meet with customers, and then look at a sales call as a chance to make every single one of those points. Don’t say everything you planned to say. You must let the conversation guide you. If the conversation doesn’t present a place to say something you wanted to say, then leave it in your pocket.”

It is very easy to overwhelm a customer with information he does not want to hear or is not ready to hear. Salespeople who enter a customer conversation prepared to make a sales pitch are very likely to say things that don’t fit the present moment of the conversation. You need to pay close attention to the immediate dynamic of the conversation you and your customer are in, and let that be the guide to what is appropriate to say.

In an earlier issue of this newsletter I wrote about the need to “Tear Up Your Elevator Pitch.” I suggested that you tear up your pitch into little pieces, but don’t throw those pieces away. Stick them (metaphorically) in your pocket, and only pull them out as you need to.

Tip #3: Use Callbacks

I then transitioned to the third tip I wanted to share with this group of sales people. “The third thing to think about is a lesson we can learn from good comedy. Notice how much audiences laugh when a comedian brings certain ideas back repeatedly into his scene.”

Watch any episode of Seinfeld or of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and notice how certain comments or themes are woven back into the story multiple times. The audience laughs more and more each time they hear an idea repeated because these “callbacks” add continuity to the story, and because they make the audience feel like they are part of show.

The “high-art” of callbacks can be seen every night of the week at Chicago’s iO theater, the world capital of what is known as long-form improvisation. The acting teams who play at iO build 20-minute improvised performances that start with one audience suggestion which is then developed into a series of short scenes. As the performance unfolds, the players create a number of comments, themes and actions, which are then woven back into the performance, creating a continuity between various scenes that make up the long-form improv.

Salespeople can use callbacks to great effect, continually weaving ideas and themes back into the conversation. The sales person’s reward won’t be laughs, as it is for comedians and improv actors, but he will be rewarded with rapt customer attention.

If the sales person is not talking about himself, these callbacks will inherently be about the customer, which is what the customer really cares about. When a customer hears a sales person take something he has said earlier and bring it back into the conversation, elevating it and making it more relevant to that conversation, he will naturally be more engaged and more interested in speaking with that sales person. He will feel listened to; he will sense a continuity to the conversation, and the conversation will feel very collaborative.

“I can handle those three things,” said the vice-president of sales. “Are there other things I need to worry about?”

“Of course,” I answered. “But just as it is with your golf swing,” I continued, using a callback, “first focus on making these few things into natural, regular habits, and then you will be able to add in some other tools.”

  1. Don’t talk about yourself.
  2. Leave things in your pocket.
  3. Use callbacks.

The three tips will set the stage for productive, fresh, spontaneous customer conversations. They will help you ditch the pitch.


  • Marti Barletta
    Jul 05, 2011 - 18:12 pm

    Steve –

    How do you keep coming up with such brilliant stuff so consistently?!

    Love your work!


  • Roger Blackstock
    Jul 06, 2011 - 06:56 am


    Great article…concise and insightful! Your recommendations also enhance the person’s ability to connect with the client’s emotional brain from which all buying decisions stem.

    To greater success,

  • Steve Yastrow
    Jul 12, 2011 - 10:40 am

    Marti and Roger … thanks so much for your comments! Keep them coming.


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