Q&A: Are You Playing to Win, or Just Not to Lose?

You’ve just finished your important presentation, and opened up the floor for questions. What’s your mindset? Are you anxious to get through the Q&A safely; are you hoping that you won’t get tough questions; are you praying that the blockers will keep quiet?

If so, you’re playing not lose, rather than playing to win—and you’re less likely to get your wish.

What sets the great performers like Michael Jordan and Tom Brady apart from the merely excellent, is that when the game is on the line in the closing minutes or overtime, they want the ball in their hands. They trust themselves above all others to bring home the victory. Above all, the greats play those crucial minutes to win, while others may simply play not to lose.

I submit that the same dynamic applies to great presenters. If you view the Q&A as an afterthought, and as merely an obstacle to complete before you’re done, you are already in trouble. I’m not referring to ordinary presentations, where the decisions are routine and little change is expected. I’m referring to crucial presentations, where the audience is going to make a decision that entails major change; it could be a major purchase decision, or a strategically important project.

In those presentations, the presentation itself is not enough. In fact, it often serves just to set the context for the real discussion among the various people involved in the decision. The presentation is important because it can frame the discussion, and help to define the limits of the discussion that will take place, but it’s during the interaction after the presentation when minds will be made up and intentions will be formed.

Here are three specific reasons that the Q&A is crucial:

It surfaces real attitudes and concerns. If your blockers keep quiet, it may be because they’ve been convinced by your airtight logic and eloquence—or it may be that they’re just waiting for you to leave so they can open up about everything they think is wrong with your proposal. You want your blockers to bring their concerns out in the open while you are there and at least have a chance to address them.

It allows you to show your mettle. If you have a polished and effective presentation, people may be impressed, but they also know that you had a lot of time to practice. Before entrusting their money or their reputation to you personally, they may want to see how you react unscripted and under pressure. For example, senior decision makers may not know enough about the technology to judge your claims during the presentation, so they like to “scratch beneath the surface” to test your knowledge and conviction…

It enables you to facilitate the real discussion. In The Challenger Customer, we’re told that the key task in major purchases is to align the diverse perspectives of the 5.4 (on average) stakeholders. Your Mobilizer can do that for you during the sales process, but when you have all the stakeholders in one room, you have a unique opportunity to guide the discussion, to stimulate open and productive debate in the room. That’s a scenario that most salespeople would rather avoid, but the Jordans and Bradys of the sales world will relish the challenge.

Of course, simply having a positive, opportunistic attitude is not enough. It has to be grounded in reality; Jordan and Brady earned their killer instinct through countless hours of preparation and practice so that they could execute at the right time. I share tips on Q&A preparation and execution in this video:

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