Anna Shipman : JFDI

How to sell

01 October 2020 / Strategy

Even if we don’t work in sales, we often need to sell something: an idea, a course of action, or ourselves (e.g. in a job interview). It’s a useful skill to have in your toolbox. I recently had a very useful conversation with the excellent Jon Slade, who is the Chief Commercial Officer at the Financial Times, and he outlined some sales techniques.

Let me take away that pain you feel

When I wrote about my team’s tech strategy, No next Next, I wanted to include the commercial aspect so that it was clear how it was relevant to the business’s goals. I talked about how it took two years and cost £10m to build the new site. Our tech strategy is about making the new site sustainable, so in a few years we don’t have to spend another £10m and another two years rebuilding it.

I was quite proud of demonstrating the commercial angle, but when I discussed it with Jon, he said that, from a pure sales perspective, it wasn’t very compelling. He described it as “let me take away that pain that you don’t feel”.

When expressed this way, this made perfect sense! A better formulation would be “Let me take away that pain that you do feel”; or “Let me give you this thing you want.”

What’s the pain?

I found it was a really useful exercise when thinking about how to pitch an idea to think about what pain I could take away, or what thing I could deliver that they want. This means you are then selling something you know they need.

What’s the pain for the people I am pitching to? How can I take it away? How can I make that clear?

Jon said “Good solutions unburden the buyer”.


It can help to use a framework for a sales pitch. One Jon mentioned is DIPADA.

Described in this article about sales conversations as a “tortured but popular mnemonic”:

What I really like about this is that the first three, DIP, map very well onto what I have learned about strategy: strategy is diagnosis, a vision and the steps to get there.

To give the example of a job interview: Define the problem, identify yourself as the solution, prove you can do it. Here is a very contrived example, “I tried using a screen-reader on your website before this interview, and I found it didn’t work. That’s something I’d love to help with; I have a strong background in building accessible sites, and as you can see from my CV my previous role was as a front-end accessibility engineer.”

What’s your elevator pitch?

This is something familiar to me from planning talks. What’s the one thing you want people to take away from your talk? Or your pitch to the board to invest in some work? Or your change of direction to your team?

For a job interview, it might be a summary of your main selling point. To use the previous example, you might want to leave them with “I will fix your accessibilty problem”. Jon called this your calling card.

I think this is a useful tool for everyday, not just pitches. What do you want people to think of you?

Don’t talk about weaknesses, turn them into strengths

Don’t talk about your own weaknesses. Don’t say “my company does not have many clients”, say “my company focuses deeply on all projects we take on”.

Everything can be turned around. Don’t say “your staff don’t know anything about the financial sector”, say “we have deep and extensive experience in finance and can help you make the right decisions”.

Include a price tag

Numbers are good. They don’t have to be actual price tags; you can say “I will increase the productivity of your team by 25% in year one”, “I will acquire 4 new accounts per week”.

Numbers help with proving your competence; it anchors your pitch in the real world and what you can really offer, rather than the theoretical.

Be confident by reminding yourself of your strengths

Your buyers also want to buy confidence. They want to feel you really believe you can deliver what you’re selling.

Jon suggested it might be a good idea, before a big pitch (or talk, or whatever) to write down good things about yourself, things you know you can do, and read them, or say them to yourself in the mirror. An executive coach I have been working with also suggested the same: it can be helpful to remind yourself of what you are good at, especially if you are nervous or feeling doubts.

Many things are sales pitches

I found this advice extremely useful. I hadn’t considered any aspect of my job to be sales, but now I realise, lots of it is, and probably yours too.

Different parts of the business have a lot to learn from each other

For learnings in the other direction, engineering to commercial, you should read Jon’s excellent post about his internship in engineering.

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