Death by Screens: the newsletter

Death by Screens Tip: A sprinkle of selling ideas without sales: the micro-icebreaker

Published 9 months ago • 2 min read

Selling without sales

I’ve never been one for sales. I’ve sat in meetings with salespeople a few times, and realised that they were giving me a masterclass in how not to do it. The other day I had a fascinating conversation on lunchclub with a guy who helps startups build effective sales teams. When I asked him what most people get wrong about sales, he said this (I’m paraphrasing):

Most people think sales is the process of selling features: giving someone a shopping list of benefits. That’s not how it works. The job of a salesperson is that of a trusted advisor, it should never feel like sales. It’s a bit like dating: don’t be a desperate date.

When we present design work, we’re not explicitly selling anything very often. But of course, if organisations function (at least partly) as a marketplace of ideas, in a sense, we always are.

For now, let’s run with this thought. We’ll stay in the trusted advisor zone - act from a place of authenticity, one that comes from a place of confidence in our own work, not a desire to win the argument. Perhaps we can borrow some methods from sales, without being desperate dates.


In sales there’s a concept of ‘priming’ a prospective client. Anything you do before engaging in an explicit sales that acts as a warm-up to the main act. It’s the coffee you’re offered when first visiting a car showroom. It’s the doorman holding the door open at the expensive department store, or the smell of fresh baking wafting around the supermarket. Many of these methods aren’t really sales; they create good experiences - they’re valid as tiny improvements to our lives, and not attempts at manipulation.

The micro-icebreaker

Let’s talk about a simple way we can do the same when presenting design. I never thought of this as sales when I started doing it. In Death by Screens I recommend trying to create an informal, positive atmosphere in the meeting room as people enter the room.

We also want people to be receptive to the problem at hand: what is the design problem we’re solving? What is challenging about it? How can we empathise with the challenge a user faces?

Put a question on screen as people enter, like the one below. Make it easy to answer, and relevant to the topic (in this case, how people order food).

With a little bit of prompting, you can get people talking about the design problem without much effort. The result is that they are primed to listen to you on the topic, think about the user’s challenge, and contribute constructively.

These are the kind of micro-interventions that make you a trusted advisor: they’re how you gain your seat at the table. Sell a good idea without anyone feeling like that’s what you’re doing.

That’s it for this week. Book launch stuff ahead! For real this time!

Death by Screens: the newsletter

by Ben Sauer

My book "Death by Screens: how to present high-stakes digital design work and live to tell the tale" - is here to help designers tell better stories about their work. Get three winning presentation tips from the book by signing up below!

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