A few months ago, my friend Tim took a new sales job at a Series C tech company that had raised over $60 million from A-list investors. He’s one of the best salespeople I know, but soon after starting, he emailed me to say he was struggling.

“I’ve landed a few small accounts,” Tim said. “But my pitch falls flat at big enterprises.”

As I’ve written before, I love helping teams craft the high-level strategic story that powers sales, marketing, fundraising — everything. So Tim and I met for lunch at the Amber India restaurant off San Francisco’s Market Street to review his deck.

After loading up on the all-you-can-eat buffet, I asked Tim, “At what point do prospects tune out?”

“What’s this?” Tim asked.

“This,” I said, “is the greatest sales deck I have ever seen.”

The 5 Elements of a Brilliant Sales Narrative

The sales deck I showed Tim came from Zuora, the IPO-bound Silicon Valley company that sells a SaaS platform for subscription billing. If you pay for anything on a recurring basis (e.g. enterprise software), there’s a good chance that Zuora facilitates those transactions.

I had received the deck from an ex-Zuora salesperson, who said it helped him close the biggest deals of his career. (I have no connection to Zuora, and no relationship with anyone who currently works there. UPDATE: Some current Zuora employees have connected with me after reading this.)

Abandoning his naan in a puddle of curried goat, Tim grabbed pen and paper and took notes as we ran through what made the Zuora deck so effective.

Zuora came up with the phrase “subscription economy” to name the trend in which buyers increasingly choose recurring service payments over outright purchases. Zuora usually follows that with a slide laying out the history of the change:

Specifically, we noted how brilliantly the deck led prospects through the following five elements, in precisely this order:

(The ex-Zuora salesperson asked that I not share the Zuora deck publicly, and I will honor that request. However, I found slides on Zuora’s website and SlideShare channel that exhibit nearly the same narrative flow; all of the images below come from those public sources.)

#1. Name a Big, Relevant Change in the World

Instead, name the undeniable shift in the world that creates both (a) big stakes and (b) huge urgency for your prospect.

The first slide of virtually every Zuora deck — sales or otherwise — is some version of this:

Zuora came up with the phrase “subscription economy” to name the trend in which buyers increasingly choose recurring service payments over outright purchases. Zuora usually follows that with a slide laying out the history of the change:

Note the subtle but important difference from what most pitch advice tells you, which is to start with “the problem.” When you assert that your prospects have a problem, you put them on the defensive. They may be unaware of the problem, or uncomfortable admitting they suffer from it.

But when you highlight a shift in the world, you get prospects to open up about how that shift affects them, how it scares them, and where they see opportunities. Most importantly, you grab their attention. As Hollywood screenwriting guru Robert McKee says:

#2. Show There’ll Be Winners and Losers

All prospects suffer from what economists call “loss aversion.” That is, they tend to avoid a possible loss by sticking to the status quo, rather than risk a possible gain by opting for change.

To combat loss aversion, you must demonstrate how the change you cited above will create big winners and big losers. In other words, you have to show both of the following:

Zuora neatly accomplishes this by documenting a “mass extinction” among Fortune 500 companies…

…and then showing how the “winners” have shifted from product ownership to subscription services. Those include upstarts…

…as well as rejuvenated incumbents:

To bring the point home, Zuora asks the following:

Of course, by this point the common thread is already well established in prospects’ minds: Winners adopt the subscription service models that Zuora supports.

#3. Tease the Promised Land

It’s tempting at this point to jump into the details of your product or service. Resist that urge.

If you introduce product/service details too soon, prospects won’t yet have enough context for why those details are important, and they’ll tune out.

Instead, first present a “teaser” vision of the happily-ever-after that your product/service will help the prospect achieve—what I call the Promised Land.

Your Promised Land should be both desirable (obviously) and difficult for the prospect to achieve without outside help. Otherwise, why does your company exist?

After demonstrating that the subscription economy will result in winners and losers, Zuora presents this Promised Land slide, which offers concrete criteria for what it means to win in the subscription economy:

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