It’s Not a Presentation, It’s a Plan

Build it and deliver it from the top down

In last week’s post about sales call planning, I wrote about how a sales call plan can help those who pride themselves on being able to wing it become even more flexible and creative when the customer changes things on them. In this post, I’ll show how the idea works just as well for sales presentations, which after all are nothing but more formally structured sales calls.

Have you ever prepared for a one-hour presentation only to find out that someone is running late and now you only have fifteen minutes? I’ve seen people respond to this situation either by talking real fast, or by going ahead with their prepared remarks until they run into a hard stop, neither which is very effective.

They are incapable of flexing off their original presentation, because they are more focused on the content than on the plan. They are like the subordinate who encounters something unexpected and can’t improvise without instructions from above. They just have to show that cool graph they worked on for hours, and they have to talk about each one of the seven bullet points on each slide, because presentations are about content. Content is something you create beforehand and deliver faithfully.

A plan is less about content than about intent. An intent is a goal and a strategy to achieve it. In a sales plan, your intent is simple: what do you want the customer to do and why should they do it? During your sales call, your intent does not change, but your content almost always does, because the audience has a vote.

When you see your presentation as a plan, it forces you to have a clear idea of your intent: the what and the why, and a transparent structure for your presentation, which is your general strategy for achieving the intent. This way, it will be like having a map of the terrain in your head, so that if you run into a roadblock you can quickly figure out an alternative route to the same destination. The map is not the terrain, but it does give you situational awareness, so that you can have the confidence to flex and scale your content up and down as necessary.

Here’s a test you should be able to pass before any sales presentation: If I took away your slide deck, could you summarize your main point and supporting arguments in sixty seconds? Could you write down your key points on a whiteboard if the customer asked you to? If you can, it’s because you have a clear conception of the structure of your logic, and that will serve you well when you have to improvise. By having these guidelines clearly in your mind, you’ll be able to ensure that all your critical points are covered, while having the confidence to skip some information or slides that are not integral or important to your argument.

This is one of the benefits of the inverted pyramid presentation structure; journalists have learned to write stories in such a way fully expecting that an editor short on space may cut some out, or a reader with a short attention span will stop reading before the end. They make sure that their entire story is encapsulated in the first paragraph, with additional detail expanding the base of the pyramid. Your sixty-second summary is like the first paragraph of an inverted pyramid story. The great thing about building a pyramid from the to-down is that no matter when you’re stopped, it still looks like a respectable pyramid, instead of a pile of bricks with a flat top.

Take the same idea and apply it to your slide presentations so that they are easily scalable. Have an agenda slide up front, and then a slide containing each of your main points after that. The detailed supporting information goes in your backup slides, and you can always pull them up or leave them out depending on how much time you have. In fact, if you really want to prepare for the possibility of being cut short, have two versions of your slide presentation: the expected and the short one.

Here’s one more small hint: always prepare your presentation for less time than is allotted. If they’re interested, they’ll easily fill the time with their questions, and if they’re not, well, no one ever complained that a presentation was too short.

When you’re hit unexpectedly with a request to shorten your presentation, your attitude is critical. If you view it as an obstacle or an inconvenience, it will color the way you come across to the audience. If instead you view it as an opportunity to demonstrate your command of your message, that will also come across. (Some of my best sales presentations have resulted when things went off the plan, and customers have made a point of complimenting my preparation.)

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying: I am not telling you to skip the careful preparation of content in detail; don’t use this as an excuse for cutting corners. But do keep the intent and the strategy uppermost in your mind at all times. That way you will be able to combine the wisdom of planning with the wisdom of knowing when and how to change your plan.

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