Getting your message across

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This article appeared in the 15 September, 2008 issue of CRN magazine.

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Someone once told me that selling should be “a transfer of enthusiasm.” And as sales people, it’s our job to talk about our company or product to our customers (and in some cases, our suppliers) in a way that transfers our enthusiasm.

So why is that so many sales presentations fail to hit the mark? Why do so many corporate messages fall on deaf ears? This article looks at how to make a sales presentation (whether it happens to be in a formal setting in front of a large audience, or with one person over a coffee) compelling, and what you can do to keep your listener engaged long enough to “get it.”

There are six key principles to delivering an engaging presentation:
• One theme
• Strong opening
• Good examples
• Logical flow
• Conversational language
• Strong finish

One theme

One of the main reasons that presentations fail is that the presenter does not have a clear picture of why they are presenting. Ask most people what the objective of their presentation is, and you usually end up with one of two responses depending on the situation:

1. If it’s a small presentation then most people respond with “we’re just catching up”.

2. If it’s an important presentation to a group of key decisionmakers in a high-stakes situation then the response is often “I just want to get through it!”

What does that say about the speaker’s enthusiasm if the best that they are hoping for is that their listeners don’t leave halfway through?

An effective sales presentation should be about influencing what you want your listeners to be feeling, thinking or doing after your presentation. It means having a clear objective for the outcome. Do you want them to buy your product, or switch from a competitor, or invest in a proof of concept, or make you a preferred supplier, or myriad other outcomes?

If you aren’t crystal clear on what you want to achieve then your message will be inconsistent, and you may be surprised if your listener has their own agenda which is contrary to what you wanted.

Make sure everything in your presentation guides your audience towards your objective.

Strong opening

Ever been rung up by a telemarketer and spent the first half of the conversation wondering “who is this person, and what do they want?” Or sat through a presentation and thought “why am I here?” That’s often a symptom of a sales message without a context. Context is about answering the big questions in your listener’s mind:

•Who is the person speaking to me and what are their credentials?
•Why am I listening to this?
•What is the outcome of
this conversation?
•How do we achieve the objective?

Making sure that you cover these points in your opening statements will help your listener understand what you want them to do, and get their buy-in.

You might even want to try using an anecdote/quotation or a rhetorical question about a current issue to capture their attention. The more relevant your opening is to your client’s hot buttons, the more chance you can establish rapport and get their undivided attention.

One key point is the distinction between “Why” and “What”. A “Why” is the reason for the presentation, whereas the “What” is the deliverable at the end of the presentation. Often sales people describe the purpose of the meeting and believe they have explained the outcome (ie. the “What”), but in reality they have only provided a motive (the “Why”). For example, contrast the following statements:

1. “Hi, I’m here to talk to you about a solution we’ve developed specifically for your company”

2. “Hi, I’m here to talk to you about a solution we’ve developed specifically for your company that will increase the productivity of your admin staff and reduce errors by 30 percent.”

Notice how the second one also describes an outcome. The power of the second statement is that it lets the listener know where your presentation is heading and that there is a clear benefit to paying attention. It stops them thinking “where are you going with this?”, which is when most listeners become easily distracted and switch off.

Good examples

A strong message without specifics is an empty message. Examples help your listener see exactly how a feature can benefit them and help provide proof and credibility.

Don’t just say “it will save you money” or “it will increase your productivity”. How does it save money? Will it save money in the long-term or the short-term? Will it lower the capital expenditure or the operating expenses? Can you give an example of another client who has experienced a similar benefit?

Many vendors’ websites now provide an abundance of case studies which is of enormous value in helping customers understand the benefits of a certain product or technology. But the trap with case studies is that customers often read case studies of similar organisations (ie. a Telco looks at what other Telcos are doing.) But where case studies are of real value is when the application is the same. For example, a Telco rolling out server virtualisation across one of its business units has far more in common with another organisation doing the same thing (even if it’s in an entirely different industry) than with another Telco installing (say) a new CRM package across its entire organisation.

A final word on examples. Too often we use examples in the form of case studies, research, sales results, or white papers. But the most powerful examples often come from personal experience. A relevant anecdote, delivered with integrity and conviction, will often make more of an impact than most case studies or white papers.
Logical flow

Why is it we can watch a movie for hours, yet we start twitching after minutes in a presentation? The difference is that one tells an engaging and flowing story, whereas the other is often a series of disjointed ideas or concepts. And when these ideas don’t flow in a continuous manner the momentum is broken, and our brain drifts off.

Making sure that each point on your agenda flows naturally into the next will help your listeners feel like they’re on a journey. Connecting each point to the next will also help them see the bigger picture. So, focus on making smooth transitions from one section to the next and make sure that each section ties into the One Theme.

If you’re using PowerPoint to present your company or solution this is particularly important.

It’s how you transition from one slide to the next that makes your presentation flow as if you were telling a story, rather than simply talking to a slide.

PowerPoint can be a very powerful tool to explain complex or detailed information. But don’t feel that you have to use it for everything you say.

A very effective technique is to start talking about the next slide before you advance to it. Tap the “B” key during your presentation to black out your screen – you will have your audience’s undivided attention, and create a far greater impact.

Conversational language

It always amazes me that people who are engaging, articulate and entertaining suddenly adopt an entirely different personality when they’re presenting. The eyes glaze over, the voice becomes monotone, and their speech pattern becomes disjointed. They stand up in
front of a group, and go into “Presentation Mode”.

Don’t think that every time you stand up to say something you are making a speech. Just because you are presenting to a group don’t feel you have to talk to “the group”. If instead, you think of them as many individuals, and you are talking to each one of them individually (albeit for only five to 10 seconds at a time) you will find it much easier to connect with your audience, and speak more in your natural style. And that is when we are at our best ... when we are ourselves, speaking in a natural conversational style.

Set the context

Too often, sales presentations ramble on with no clear objective. The result is that your listener is sometimes unsure why they should pay attention, or discovers halfway through the presentation that it is not relevant for them.

You can avoid this by making sure your audience knows the purpose of your presentation, and also what will not be covered (eg. Say up front that “this is not a technical presentation”).

Strong finish

So many great presentations have been ruined by a poor finish. The speaker finishes with words to the effect of “well, that’s it”, receives his applause, and walks off. But these are your last words before you hand over to them to ask questions! Surely you want to leave your listener with something memorable.

Your finish should be a summary of your presentation. You don’t want to introduce any new concepts at this stage – this is simply a time to highlight the key points that have been discussed and restate your key theme.

It’s also important at this point to have a call to action of some sort. What’s the next step you want your listener to do? If you are clear with your One Theme that we described earlier, then this will be obvious. In fact, if the first part of your summation is a wrap up of the key points of your presentation, then your closing remarks should tie back to
the outcomes you described in your opening remarks. The action item is the first step to moving in that direction.


Remember that the purpose of your presentation is to impact your listener in some way. It may be to change the way they think, or feel, or behave regarding your product, service, company, or something less tangible. Make sure you know what your One Theme is. Begin with a compelling opening that articulates exactly what you will deliver, then use a logical flow to take you to a strong finish. Make sure you use good examples along the way that support that theme.

In any case, you’ve delivered your message, summarised the key points, and restated your key theme. Now help them move forward and ask them to do what you want them to do.

After all, if your message is a valuable one, they will want to take the next step.
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