How I Learned to Shut Up and That It Isn’t About Me

My First Sales Job

My first real sales job was working for one of the largest staffing firms in the United States. My territory was Los Angeles, California, where I lived so that I could front a rock-n-roll band (the pictures are on my Facebook page). The company I worked for was a very well run company, and they had wonderful solutions to client problems, excellent sales collateral, and a particularly wonderful presentation.

Of all the tools, the sales presentation was my favorite. It was 84 long pages describing every process, every service offering, every solution, and answers to almost any question that a prospective client might ask. I was in my early twenties, and I had been given no sales training. With the exception of reading one sales book, I knew nothing about sales.

I studied the presentation binder’s 84 pages until I knew it backwards and forwards, and it provided me with confidence; I knew that my company was the right choice for anybody who used a service like ours. This presentation was packed with information that I was excited about sharing with my prospective clients!

And so I did. But my prospective clients didn’t feel anywhere near as strongly about the presentation as I did. They were nowhere near as enthusiastic as I was.

The Ride Along: It’s Not About You

As fate would have it, my first sales manager decided to ride along with me on a big and important sales call. I was presenting, and like any good sales manager would do, he let me make my presentation to the prospect.

It must have been right as I began reading page 40 aloud to the prospect that I sensed that my sales manager thought I was doing something terribly wrong. Undeterred, and armed with information that I had to share with the client, I marched on through the rest of the presentation, reciting it word for word from the presentation binder before handing it and the pricing over to the prospect (I am not sure that the she was in an actual coma from listening to my presentation, but clearly her mind was off somewhere else . . . somewhere far from me and my presentation).

As the sales manager and I got to the curb, I said: “I think that went pretty well. What do you think?” I can still remember the look on his face as he turned to me and said: “You should be brought up on charges for cruel and unusual punishment!” I was shocked. Had I gotten something wrong? I knew this material cold. In fact, I knew the material better than my sales manager did.

As we got in the car to drive back to the office, he said: “Look, nobody cares what is in that binder. That is all stuff about us and it has nothing to do with them or their problems.”

What! Nobody cares about what’s in the binder? Of course they care about what is in the binder. This is the story of how the founder founded the company. These processes are important. Each one of the features comes with a rich set of benefits they need to understand.

He continued: “There are usually just three or four things that are really important to a prospective client. They really only want to talk about those three or four things, and if you have some good ideas or answers for those, they’ll buy from you. The binder is something that provides them with the confidence that you are right on those three or four things, but they are never going to read it . . . and they sure as Hell don’t want you to read it to them!”

It Is About Them

The following week I went on a sales call with my sales manager. He said fewer words than I imagined possible, mostly just asking questions and letting the prospect do all of the talking. When they stopped talking he’d ask some question that made him sound like Freud: “And what happens when this doesn’t work for you,” or “Wow. That sounds bad. How could that be done better?”

When he was done asking question, he had simply said something like: “I think we can help you with that.” Naturally, we walked out with the deal. He never opened the binder.

What I learned:

It Isn’t About You: No matter how good your story, and no matter how well your presentation is put together, it isn’t anywhere near as important as your prospect’s story. Your presentation has to address your prospect’s problems, challenges, and opportunities. It has to solve the three or four issues that cause the prospect to be dissatisfied. The story you tell has to be their story, and if you tell their story well, you can cast yourself in a prominent supporting role.

Good Questions Are Better Than Great Presentations: Good questions have the ability to provide your prospective client with the confidence that you have the business acumen and the ability to help them with their problems and challenges. Good questions shift the focus to the client, and they indicate that you care about them and their outcomes.

Shut Up: Selling isn’t about your speaking skills. It is about your communication skills, and communication skills start and end with listening. Often, the ability to simply shut up and listen will do more to enable a sale than anything you might say, or anything you can present. Listening is the great evidence of caring.

People Buy From People They Trust to Solve Their Problems: Presenting your solution out of context is meaningless to the prospective client. It doesn’t matter how great your company is, how wonderful your solutions are, or the many ways that you are superior to your competition. What matters is that your prospect believes that you can be trusted to help them improve their outcomes, and that you will help them manage those outcomes.


Your presentation materials need to be polished and they need address your client’s needs. But your presentation should focus on the client’s specific needs and how your solution solves their problems and improves their outcomes. It needs to tell their story, not yours.


  1. How much of your presentation is really information that adds no value for your prospect?
  2. If you could only present four slides from your slide deck, could you provide an answer to the client’s three or four real and pressing needs? Could you solve their dissatisfaction?
  3. What questions could you ask that would do more to prove your competence, differentiate you from your peer group, and ensure your prospect that you have the business acumen to solve their problems?
  4. What could your present that would prove how much you personally care that they achieve the outcome you promise when you sell?
  5. Is your presentation your story, or is it their story?

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