I did not receive a newspaper this morning, which was inconvenient. But placing the call to register a complaint was worse. I knew what I wanted to hear, but I had to endure a (to my mind) convoluted series of questions and choices before I finally received the verdict: “We are not able to deliver your paper today.” I was utterly unable to reach a live person.
What does this have to do with anything? It reminded me of many sales presentations I’ve seen. The presenter is chained to a long and mostly irrelevant slide presentation. Maybe they put it together themselves and are proud of every animation, bullet point or slick picture. Worse, it might have been something produced by their marketing department to tell “their story”, and which they’re not allowed to deviate from.
It reminds me of the time a guy came to my house to sell me an alarm system. He had one of those old-fashioned notebooks with slick graphics that he tried to force me to listen to page by page. I told him to speed it up and just answer my questions, and he said that if he did that, I would not buy—because I had to understand everything to make the right decision. He was right about one thing—I did not buy, because it was more fun to tell him to pack up his notebook and leave.
Is your presentation an algorithm or a hypothesis?
These types of presentations are like algorithms, where a pre-defined process, followed exactly, should lead to a pre-determined result. There are two problems with this: sometimes things happen during the presentation which throw the process off track, and even when everything proceeds properly, the audience may feel like they’ve been manipulated, like objects passing through an assembly line.
Think of your prepared presentation as a hypothesis, and your delivery as an experiment. Your hypothesis is about what this particular customer needs to hear at this particular time to make a decision that will be of particular benefit to them. Like any hypothesis, it needs to be validated, so the presentation itself is an experiment. If you’ve done the right kind of work, the hypothesis should be fairly close to the truth, but you will not know for sure until you’ve gathered data in the form of reactions, questions, and objections from the audience, and made adjustments accordingly.
You may end up validating your hypothesis completely; in some cases you will mutually agree that the hypothesis was wrong; the most likely result is that there will be some audience-driven adjustments which will make the presentation and the solution better. Regardless of how it turns out, people will feel like they were heard, respected, and empowered to make the best decision for themselves.
The irony is that the surest path to this level of flexibility and responsiveness in a presentation is thorough preparation. Preparation will make you learn your message and your material so that you can have the confidence to deviate, without being worried that you’ll lose your place on the slides. It will enable you to look your listeners in the eyes while speaking, rather than reading your words off the screen behind you. It will give you the depth to answer drill-down questions. In short, preparation will give you the freedom to be yourself, and give your audience the gift of speaking to a live person.