Good presenters analyze their audience, craft a presentation that meets their needs, and deliver with confidence and polish. Great presenters do that as well, but they also spend far more time thinking strategically and carefully shaping the conditions for success. As I wrote in my previous post, negotiations are largely won or lost during the time leading up to them, and the same idea applies to presentations, whether it’s an internal presentation to get approval on a proposal or a sales presentation to a customer.
I first learned how to do this early in my banking career. Back then we used to have to present loan proposals to a committee. We would put together a presentation that described the customer’s business, how they planned to use the money, and why we believed they were a good credit risk. My first few presentations met with so-so success, so I began to step back and try to figure out how to improve my success rate. I quickly figured out who was the most influential member—based on expertise not rank—and began going to him with a rough outline of what I planned to present the following week. I would ask his advice on the best way to structure the deal. If the deal was really big, I’d go to another member and say, “Chuck and I think this deal would work this way. What do you think?” This did three things for me:
Objectively, it taught me a lot about how to put together a good proposal. Subjectively, it gave me a high-ranking ally on the committee. It also was a sanity check: if Chuck did not like the deal, I would “lose early” and pull it from the agenda, and I developed a reputation for only bringing in good deals.
It may seem that I got an unfair advantage over others who did not work the system before their presentations. In a way, that’s true, and if you’re a salesperson you want every unfair advantage over your competitors (within legal and ethical bounds, of course) that you can get. But keep in mind that the benefits flowed both ways. The committee members, who were my “customers”, got the benefit of sound proposals that met their standards and did not waste their time.
My banking days ended over twenty years ago, but I’ve applied those early lessons in my sales career…
Pack the crowd with your friends
Of course it’s important to know who will be in the audience and know what their stake is in the outcome, their potential objections, their history with similar decisions, etc. But you don’t have to passively accept the customer’s attendance list. One of the first mistakes that salespeople make in any complex sales cycle is to be so happy about getting their foot in the door that they don’t set certain conditions as the price for showing up. If it’s too easy to get that first meeting, you should remember Groucho Marx’s quip that he would not join any club that would take him as a member!
The more you know about how your solution will affect your customer’s cash flow engine, you’ll be able to expand the range of stakeholders who will benefit from your proposal. Make sure that they are invited to attend. As much as possible, talk to them before the presentation to understand their needs; it’s a great way to improve your proposal and to establish rapport (which also helps with pre-speech jitters). I once had a presentation set up with the Region President of a company in Detroit, and got his permission to reach out to some of the other attendees to make sure I could address their needs. That led to a conversation with his Director of Sales, which led to having dinner with him the night before, which resulted in a champion during the presentation.
But make sure your opponents are there, too
It may be counterintuitive, but you also want to do the same thing with your potential opponents. Make sure they all attend and try to talk to them before the meeting if possible. They need to be there during your presentation, because if they’re not, you won’t be able to answer their objections or concerns. They can wait until after the presentation and then do their internal selling against you and you won’t be able to do a thing about it.
By talking to them before the presentation, you have a chance to prepare for their concerns, and potentially to gain some respect. Simply ask them questions to sincerely understand their point of view and answer any questions they might have, but don’t try to “sell” them or change their minds, or you run the risk of entrenching their opposition.
When you have a good understanding of their objections, you can build “presponses” into your presentation: steal their thunder by bringing up the concern and answering it before they do. It will do wonders for your credibility.
Balance planning and flexibility
Of course, because people are unpredictable and circumstances change, you have to strike the right balance between planning and flexibility. Football coaches game-plan very meticulously, but quarterbacks and defensive captains still need to be able make changes based on what they see the opponent doing. I personally have never seen a sales presentation go exactly as planned, but the process of planning has saved me on numerous occasions. As Eisenhower said, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”
It’s kind of exciting to see yourself as the hero of the hour, standing in front of a skeptical audience and winning them over through the brilliance of your argument and the force of your personality, but the most effective persuaders in the long run usually do it without the dramatics. They understand that, in the words of Sun Tzu, the best general is not the one who wins the most battles, but the one who wins without having to fight battles.