I was coaching a salesperson recently who sells a stress-relief program for overworked professionals, such as lawyers, accountants and doctors. We were role-playing, and I was pretending to be a potential customer– a stressed-out lawyer who was working too much with too much pressure, barely able to bear the stress I was under.

The salesperson asked me a few questions about my situation, which I answered by describing my intense stress, and then he launched into a perfectly logical explanation of everything he could do for me:

“I can see what kind of stress you are under, so let me tell you about our programs to deal with that kind of stress. We offer a complete program, including chiropractic services, relaxation techniques, massage therapy, stress counseling and a complete website, so you can access stress-relief tools whenever you want. We believe that, for people like you, we should start with a 12-week program, where you would visit us 3 times per week and also be able to call in any time you feel stressed. Our methods are proven and have been shown to make a major difference in people’s lives. I can give you the phone numbers of people who’ve been through our program, so you can hear from them how effective it is.”

My advice to the salesperson: Everything you just said makes logical sense and speaks to my needs, but, as a customer, you just lost me. I’m pretending to be an overworked lawyer, about to burst I’m under so much stress and pressure, and I’m very emotional about it. After hearing about my situation and gathering your facts, you immediately started talking about your product. I still want us to talk about me!

If you want to ditch the pitch successfully, you first have to abandon your preconceived notions; listen to your customer, and construct a story based on what you learn. This salesperson did each of those things.

But he made the mistake of putting his entire story into a metaphorical slingshot, pulling back on the sling, aiming it at his customer, and letting it fly… all at once.

Ditching the pitch isn’t only about abandoning your pre-written sales pitch and developing a sales story on the spot as you learn about your customer. It is also about communicating that story through a fresh, spontaneous, collaborative dialogue with your customer.

It’s easy to fall into the trap this salesperson fell into. After all, he has seen many customers with situations similar to the one I was describing, and, like an experienced physician, he was able to construct a diagnosis quickly. As the conversation continued at a brisk pace, and his sales strategy for addressing “my” needs was coming into focus, it’s not surprising that he became enthusiastic and was eager to tell me his solutions. The salesperson thought he knew exactly what I needed, and he proceeded to tell me… everything.

There is a principle in stage improvisation called “bring a brick, not a cathedral.” The idea is simple: each actor, at any point in time, adds only a small piece to the evolving story, leaving his fellow actors plenty of space to add their pieces to the story. Brick by brick, the actors build a story together.

The same idea holds true in any sales conversation. The salesperson must resist the temptation to tell his customer all of his ideas and recommendations at once, no matter how brilliant and insightful those ideas and recommendations are. To keep a customer engaged, and to avoid overwhelming the customer with too much information, the salesperson needs to weave his story into a dialogue with the customer. You can never start monologing, because it will feel as much like a sales pitch to your customer as if you delivered a canned speech.

Most people reading this newsletter don’t have the word “sales” in their titles. But virtually everyone reading this newsletter has to sell and persuade. No matter what you are trying to persuade people to do, this principle–Don’t load the slingshot–holds true.

In an earlier newsletter on a closely related topic, Leave Things in Your Pocket, I wrote about the importance of patience and restraint in a sales conversation. Hold yourself back–don’t shoot an entire sling loaded with shot at your customer. Bring your ideas, slowly and gracefully, into the conversation at a pace that will maintain the dialogue and avoid overwhelming your customer.

Don’t load the slingshot!


  • Jack Altschuler
    Sep 09, 2011 - 11:33 am

    Steve, I always appreciate your insights and value offerings.

    This piece reinforced other things you’ve written, as well as driving a clarity about every one of us: We act based on our self-interest. Nobody cares much about the sales person (except his/her mom and dad) or what s/he has to say. We engage in the sales process in order to meet our own needs.

    When we are customers we want the conversation focused on ourselves and a recitation of features and benefits is just so much noise. I thought about just that as I stopped for gas yesterday and found a rack of bumper stickers for sale near the cashier. One read, “I hear you talking but all I hear is ‘blah, blah, blah.'” That pretty well captures most of my customer experiences that aren’t even worse than that.

    Every now and then there is a shining example of sales excellence and it’s always quite refreshing.



  • Think Like a Minimalist to Get Your Marketing Message Across | Zoo in a Jungle Marketing
    Oct 18, 2016 - 11:01 am

    […] Although it’s tempting to tell customers all the great reasons they should sign up for this program and the many ways they will benefit, they may be too busy or distracted to notice a list of features. It’s the marketing communication corollary to Steve Yastrow’s sales tip, Don’t Load the Slingshot. […]

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