Is the “Greatest Sales Deck” Great for Savvy Prospects?

If knowledgable prospects ask you to cut to the chase, don’t abandon your story—rewrite it.

In this series, I answer questions about crafting strategic narratives for sales, marketing, fundraising, product, and recruiting. To ask a question, respond to this article or email me:

A few days ago, I received this email from Stephen, an enterprise salesperson at a New York City-based software company:

Dear Andy,
I recently read your post The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen, about Zuora’s strategic story. Following your advice, I built a pitch very similar to Zuora’s for enterprise companies.
However, on more than one occasion I’ve been cut off midway through. Prospects say they know all about the trends/sector, and they ask if I could please switch instead to something “less general.”
That makes me wonder: Is the Zuora style OK for general, top-of-funnel sales, but less appropriate for prospects who are more knowledgeable — those that understand a bit about the space and what your company does, but want to understand your unique offering?
—Stephen D., enterprise account executive, New York, NY

If you haven’t read the post Stephen’s referring to, you can find it here:

With upwards of 1 million views, “The Greatest Sales Deck” inspired a lot of people, like Stephen, to re-craft their decks in Zuora’s image. If you’ve read the post (or others I’ve written), you know that I advocate taking time to lay out, as Zuora does, what’s at stake for prospects before introducing your product or the problem it solves.

And more than a few of those who followed my advice have reported that their prospects, like Stephen’s, get impatient during that setup. Likewise, some have questioned whether it makes sense to spend all that time setting context for audiences who are already very knowledgable.

But that question betrays an assumption that I’d like to challenge: that the goal of setting context is education.

In my experience, you’ll be most successful if your primary goal in setting context is not educating prospects, but engaging them emotionally. Last I checked, savvy, knowledgable people have emotions too, so let’s talk about what else might be going on for Stephen and others.

3 Lessons from Stephen’s Attempt at a “Zuora-style” deck

Stephen graciously sent me his deck so I could take a look. He asked that I not present his slides or divulge identifying details, and I’ll honor that request. Instead, I’ll share my general feedback to him in the hope that it will be useful to others.

#1. Treat “The Greatest Sales Deck” as a framework, not a template.

There are plenty of books about how to write great screenplays, yet plenty of unwatchable movies that follow their advice. What dooms these films? Tons of things, of course, but a biggie is lack of originality.

Many slides in Stephen’s deck were essentially the Zuora ones—different images but identical headlines, with a few of the words changed. The resulting flow may have worked for Zuora’s story, but with Stephen’s it lacked energy. No surprise that prospects wanted him to get on with it.

To boost the odds that your story connects, harvest language about what’s at stake directly from customers and prospects. Literally ask them, “What changes in your world are creating opportunity and risk?” and write down their answers. Then, tailor your pitch’s flow — whether you present it with slides, whiteboard sketches, or just speaking over coffee—to work for that story.

#2. Convey what’s at stake in 5–8 slides (and through other channels!)

I hesitate to give advice about how many slides to use, since I’ve seen company and product stories told equally well with very few slides (or none) and with more than 20.

That said, when I look back on the strategic narratives I’ve built with leadership teams, and how those have translated into sales decks, they almost always get to the product in eight slides, max. Frequently it’s fewer.

Stephen’s deck, on the other hand, required prospects to sit through 12 slides before he introduced his product. That’s almost always too many.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that it’s a tall order for your sales pitch alone to convey what’s at stake. In my work with teams, the goal is making sure that everyone—CEO, marketing team, product managers, recruiters, etc.— is telling the same story, conveying those same stakes.

For example, I love how 90% of Zuora’s content marketing is not about how great Zuora is, and not about some new Zuora feature announcement. In fact, it’s not about Zuora at all. As you can see from this recent snapshot of Zuora’s blog headlines, it’s about what’s at stake for prospects—and how to win—in a world of subscription business models:

Zuora’s blog—not about Zuora, but about what’s at stake for customers.

#3. Don’t just “add storytelling”

Every once in a while, I encounter the notion that you can take a pitch that isn’t working, sprinkle in some “storytelling,” and voilà!

I sensed that was Stephen’s approach, so I emailed him to ask. Sure enough:

[Yes, I] bolted the Zuora setup to the meat of our [old] deck.

How did I know? Because when Stephen’s deck eventually did get to his product, the feature discussion was largely detached from the stakes he attempted to lay out in the story’s setup.

In Stephen’s question, he asked about pitching to people who “understand a bit about the space…but want to understand the unique offering.” These are people who are looking to understand your differentiation. The best way to communicate that is not feature comparisons but to first establish a differentiated, happily-ever-after Promised Land. Then you talk about features, but solely in context of how they help prospects overcome obstacles to that Promised Land.

In other words, to really work, the whole thing has to tie together as a cohesive story, not just the beginning.

Knowledgable people, too, respond to well-crafted strategic stories

In the face of a prospect’s impatience, it’s understandable if your first instinct is to get rid of the “story stuff.” And if you don’t have the time or resources to structure a compelling story, your wisest course of action might be to just “show your wares.”

That said, it’s likely that your story—like any story when it first sees the light of day—will better engage audiences after a rewrite (or two). In my experience, when you ask prospects and customers what’s at stake for them, and you repeat it back through an efficient, well-honed setup, you get the opposite of impatience: you get nods of recognition, and you get invaluable conversations about how those stakes are playing out for the person/company you’re pitching—regardless of your audience’s level of sophistication.

If anything, the savvier the prospect, the more they’ll want to engage in a discussion of stakes, as long as you’ve conveyed them credibly. (For more on how to do that, check out How Great Sales Narratives Drive Urgency.)

In short, a strategic story, well told, builds trust. And that’s worth striving for, no matter whom you’re pitching.

About Andy Raskin:
I help leaders align their teams around a strategic story that powers success in sales, marketing, fundraising, product, and recruiting. My clients include teams backed by
Andreessen Horowitz, First Round, GV, and other top venture firms, and I’ve led strategic story training at Uber, Yelp, General Assembly, HourlyNerd, Neustar, and Stanford.

To learn more or get in touch, visit