No proposal is perfect. Even if it were, no audience is perfect. Just as there are two sides to every story, every sales proposal, every important idea presented to a group for a decision, is going to face some sort of challenge or opposition, even if it’s just from someone who wants to look smart in front of the rest of the group.
That’s why I’m going to let you in on a big secret: many times your presentation does not matter.
We often treat presentations as the main course and Q&A as the dessert, so we spend far more time on the former than the latter. But there are probably more times when the presentation is just the appetizer or the setup for when the real business of deliberation is done—during the discussion afterwards. Your performance during this time can make all the difference in the world.
I personally witnessed a flawless presentation crash into an embarrassing failure when the presenter fumbled the first question from the audience. It didn’t help that the person who asked the question was the highest ranking person in the room.
On the other hand, I’ve also seen mediocre presentations turn into triumphs because the presenter was better at showing the quality of his thinking in the more free-form discussion format.
And it’s not just after the presentation. At one company I work with, it’s extremely rare for a presentation to run its whole length without the presenter being peppered with questions.
That being the case, how should it affect your preparation?
As I wrote last week, Abraham Lincoln was a big proponent of what I call outside-in thinking. He said that when preparing for a speech he would spend two-thirds of his time thinking about what the audience wanted to hear, and one-third thinking about what he wanted to say. It’s a great sentiment, but let’s see what it means in practical terms.
Use the first third of your preparation time getting into the mind of the audience, trying to see it from their point of view. Focus on the negatives for now—the positives come when you’re crafting the speech. What’s risky about your idea? What changes will they have to make? Who loses? Why not stick with what they have? What alternatives do they have and why might those appeal to them?
You also have to spend some time getting into the mind of your competitors, (and not just the external ones) and think about what they are saying about your solution.
By anticipating these questions and objections, when you use the next third of your time crafting your presentation, you can preempt a lot of them by taking them on directly. When you bring out and then answer the best arguments against your own proposal, you can steal the thunder of those who have been waiting in ambush, as well as presenting yourself as confident and open-minded.
After you’ve crafted the first draft of your presentation, use the final one-third of your prep time in back in outside-in thinking mode, going through each point and brainstorming possible questions your listeners might have about each. It’s impossible to be sure you’ve anticipated everything, but in part 2 we’ll discuss approaches that can make your anticipation as bulletproof as possible.