Presentations - Sales

Rules of Structure for Executive Sales Presentations

These rules will help you put the pieces together

Last week I wrote about how important it is to have a clear structure for your executive sales presentation. This article is about three rules that will make your presentation engaging and convincing.

Tension and resolution

Although a story is a powerful format for a presentation, it does not have to be strictly chronological. The key attribute of story is not chronology, but tension and resolution. In other words, the story creates some tension in our minds—a mismatch between what is happening and what we want to happen; that’s what grabs our interest, and the promise of having that tension resolved is what sustains our interest.

That’s why sales presentations are so well suited for some sort of narrative structure: they are about solving problems for customers. In his classic book, Moving Mountains, Henry Boettinger is worth quoting at length:

“Present your idea in this structure and sequence: statement of the problem, development of its relevant aspects, and resolution of the problem and its development. Use this structure and you send your idea rolling down the well-worn grooves of the human mind.”

Although this was written in 1968, it has since been powerfully reinforced by the work of Daniel Kahneman and others, which demonstrates how loss avoidance can be a powerful spur to action.

Anyone who has been in sales for even a short time will recognize another fundamental reason for incorporating tension and resolution. Have you ever had a sales conversation that seemed to be flowing well, only to watch the prospect’s eyes cloud over when you launched into your pitch? That happened because the prospect was not yet ready to hear about a solution—he or she was not prepared to listen to the resolution because the tension was not high enough.

They have to need the information before you give it to them. Just as a cold drink tastes so much better when you’re thirsty, if you create the need, they will want the information you provide. That’s going to keep their attention and make them much more accepting of your points.

Forward movement

Tension and resolution both exist in time; they compare the present with a better future. The comparison of what is, with what could be gets the audience to look forward to the future, and that is what propels the presentation and moves it along.

A good presentation structure should have a sense of forward movement; it should flow naturally from one point to the next. Forward movement is what gives presentations a story-like feel. Stories are a natural vehicle for forward flow. When you hear the beginning of a story you almost feel compelled to hear the end.

But that forward movement should not be a relentless rush from start to finish. You have to have momentary pauses to allow your main points to sink in and take hold in their minds. The best way to do this and keep their attention is to provide examples or analogies that illustrate your main points.

There are two main ways to use tension-resolution structure to make your presentation flow. One way is to make the entire presentation fit the structure. Or, make it a series of linked mini-stories, so that each contains tension and resolution and then links to the next.

The power of 3

Another well-known rule is not as strongly supported by scientific evidence, but has been so well woven into the fabric of literature, communication and rhetoric that it’s a good idea to pay attention to it. This is the curious fact that our minds like ideas in threes. Stories tend to have a situation, conflict and resolution structure. Even with jokes, it’s usually three guys that walk into a bar—not two and not four or five.

You may have five reasons why someone should buy your solution. Should you tell them all five? Although research shows that it depends on the situation, the short answer is no. When the audience is not that intellectually involved with the situation, then more reasons tend to be better. However, when the audience members are involved and are really thinking, you run the risk that the weaker reasons will dilute the stronger. If they are going to forget some of what you told them, why take the chance that they will remember the weaker and forget one of the stronger reasons?

Sometimes, people worry that they might leave out one of the reasons that is important to someone in the audience. I have two answers to that. First, you should know your audience well enough to make sure that does not happen. Second, you can always have those reasons in reserve in case they come up during the conversation, or in case the top three you chose need reinforcement.

Does it matter in which order you arrange your points?

If you have three reasons to choose your solution, does it matter whether you talk about the strongest reason first, second or third?

The answer, according to the research on persuasive communications, is “not much”. The studies that have been done do not find clear differences between strongest first or last, although they suggest you should not bury your strongest reason in the middle.

However, considered in light of my own experience in presenting to senior executives, the answer is that you should definitely lead with your strongest reason. There are two reasons for this:

The first reason is short attention spans. If your listeners’ attention can be hijacked at any time, it makes sense to go with your strength to maximize your chances.

Secondly, executives tend to be impatient and decisive. If they have heard enough to make a decision, they may  cut you off and decide right there. This happened to me once in a presentation in St. Louis, and you can bet I did not insist on finishing all the slides I had prepared!

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