In the early days of the space program, NASA engineers originally planned to make their space shots so highly automated that they could send monkeys and dogs into space. Yet when they began recruiting astronauts for the Mercury program, these independent-minded and intelligent test pilots rebelled and insisted that they be given control of the capsule. Otherwise, they were just “spam in a can”, as Chuck Yeager described them. When Gordon Cooper’s Faith 7 ran into technical problems on his mission, he manually took over the re-entry process, vindicating the decision to put the person on the scene in control.
While NASA made the right choice then, many companies insist on taking the wrong approach under similar circumstances. They insist on tightly controlling the delivery of the message by leashing their best reps to corporate-approved presentations. Because they don’t want to take the chance on a salesperson going off message, they make sure that the presentations contain every detail they think is important.
What’s the result? You take an intelligent and articulate sales professional and turn him or her into a walking soundtrack for a presentation that was written by someone who has no relationship with or knowledge of the particular audience members. They may spend months developing a personal relationship with individuals in the decision process, only to turn into mechanical projector operators when they make the big presentation at the end.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t expect your salespeople to be consultants and trusted advisors to their customers, if you’re sending the message that they can’t be trusted to speak for themselves. Authenticity is a key ingredient in creating trust, but there’s no authenticity at all in mechanically parroting someone else’s message.
Various studies have highlighted how important the individual sales professional is to the purchase decision and to customer loyalty. This places a premium on the sales rep’s ability to connect authentically, to have a meaningful dialogue about key customer issues and economic drivers, and to confidently answer challenges from the audience. That’s why they have to be in control of their own message delivery.
But let’s not only blame corporate; salespeople themselves are often to blame. They may turn themselves into projector operators through the way they design their presentations.
Speakers use slides as memory aids, to keep them on track and remind them what to say next. So they want to put in everything that they could possibly say on the subject. Or, they may think that redundancy—reading and hearing the message—is more effective than merely hearing it or reading it alone. So they put up walls of words that they then read to the audience. Children love to have stories read to them, but it’s not so much fun once they master the art for themselves. So why do so many presenters insist on reading slides to their audiences?
What does this mean to you?
Control your message and how you deliver it. Of course, you have to stick within guidelines to ensure your message is consistent, and you often get good ideas from the marketing folks, but the way you deliver the message should always be in you control.
Learn your material and your message so thoroughly that you could deliver it without having to read off the screen to remind yourself what to say next. By the same token, limit the number of slides you put in and make sure your slides are clean and simple enough so that they are easy to learn. That way you can concentrate your entire attention on the audience as you deliver the message, with the screen behind you as a visual aid, not as the central attraction.
Remember, if the presentation can speak for itself, what do they need you for?