Formal or informal? Passive or interactive? Who decides what kind of sales presentation to deliver? Simon Morton reminds us that we should, at all times, be led by our audience. One size doesn’t fit all. An ability to adapt our presentation style will give us the best chance to meet our audience’s needs and to make that sale.
A few years ago, the marketing team at Eyeful conducted a survey focused on European sales teams and their approach to presentations.
The results were illuminating and alarming in equal measure. The good news was that many of the respondents recognised the value of the presentation stage of the sales process, hungrily devouring best practice from books, blogs and colleagues. The more concerning element was that much of their energy and self-development was focused on a single piece of software – PowerPoint. The survey highlighted that they were OBSESSED with it.
Big deal – not exactly ground-breaking research, I hear you cry – ‘sales teams vote PowerPoint as their weapon of choice’ shock! However, take a moment to flip this thought on its head and put yourself in the shoes of their audiences – what does sitting through repeated PowerPoint presentations (especially if they fall foul of the common sales presentation pitfalls – dense text, meandering, self-absorbed) mean to them? If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a barrage of bullet points, you’ll share their pain and anxiety.
Presenters love PowerPoint yet few audiences welcome it with open arms
It’s this unspoken imbalance that dogs most sales presentations today. I’m proud of Eyeful’s obsession with audiences. Audiences are, without doubt, the most important stakeholder in the whole presentation process – the arbiters of whether a presentation is a success or not. As such, it’s logical to start with them and their needs when looking for ways to improve the impact of a sales presentation, rather than expend energy and use up valuable time in search of a killer animation or perfect slide layout.
An easy first step is to think about the environment within which your audience wants to engage with you and your presentation – we call this the Presentation Landscape. Too often sales people believe that a presentation has to be delivered within the straitjacket of a Formal engagement. You know the kind of thing – presenter at the front of a room, clicker in hand, speaks ‘at’ an audience who nod occasionally to prove they are still alive. In the most extreme cases, presenters will ask their audience to please leave the questions to the end so that they can get through the slides in one piece, despite every question potentially being an all-important buying signal. Their wrestling with the presentation materials prompts the presenter to commit that most heinous of sales crimes – telling and not selling.
This default setting is of little surprise if you consider the focus of most presentation soft skills training young sales people typically attend. Days of standing speaking ‘at’ an audience, trained to worry more about what they are doing with their hands and the tone of their voice than measuring the engagement of an audience is naturally going to force most presentations down this route. What follows is a very structured linear presentation – little room for discussion and created on a list of assumptions about the audience.
Life beyond the formal presentation
I contend, however, that for many sales engagements, there is life beyond the formal presentation straitjacket…and it is the duty of any professional salesperson to explore the options.
Ask any experienced (and typically successful) salesperson what format of presentation works best for them and their audience and they’ll point to an Interactive Presentation/discussion. The key to these working so effectively is that experienced salespeople possess the confidence and wherewithal to navigate around a ‘formal’ set of slides, dipping in and out of content in line with the interests of their audience. Indeed, most of these presentations succeed DESPITE most ‘corporate approved’ PowerPoint presentations being so restricting. Frustratingly PowerPoint can easily be developed to act as an interactive tool yet so few decks ever get developed with this conversational approach in mind.
The Presentation Landscape
The Presentation Landscape can span all the way through to Informal Presentations. These often take the form of a cosy chat over coffee with little more than the presenter’s knowledge and interest in addressing their audience’s need to hand. No fancy animations. No beautifully crafted chats. No impressive ‘global footprint’ maps with pins.
Frankly, it doesn’t matter where you end up on the Presentation Landscape. The most important thing to remember is that it is your audience that should define where they want to be. If they want an interactive presentation, please PLEASE do not try to force them into a formal presentation. Equally trying to make things less formal when the prospect has provided a formal agenda and structure for your pitch will not serve you well.
I remember an HR services salesperson pitching to me and the board at Eyeful a few years ago. In our informal environment, the salesperson had done a fantastic job at learning about our business, uncovering our needs and demonstrating understanding throughout the meeting. After gathering all the information and building rapport, she then shot herself in the foot by firing up her laptop, plugging it into our AV equipment and stepping up to the front of the board room to present a very standard creds deck AT us. Not only did her ‘presentation script’ ignore all of the useful information she’d collected about our needs, it also broke the informal intimacy that had me and the rest of the team eating out of her hands.
At the end of her 45 minute monologue, I asked why she felt the need to, at least in our eyes, undo all the good sales work she had put in by presenting in this way. Her response shocked me – ‘our sales director insists all of the team present these slides in this way for every meeting’. In short, the company’s sales organisation not only distrusted their sales people but also had little regard for their audiences. It was their way or no way…
I’m in the fortunate position of having worked with sales teams across the globe for over a decade. A key part of my work is to get them to examine and audit what we call their ‘Presentation Culture’ and kick start the process of getting them to Think Differently when preparing for presentations. The reality is that turning up with the company creds PowerPoint no longer cuts it with today’s time poor and better informed audiences. Swapping out one prospect’s logo for another on the first slide does not constitute personalisation! Sales leaders and their presenters need to dig deeper and put their audience in the driving seat – if your audience wants a formal presentation, ensure you are equipped to deliver one. Equally, if they want the presentation to be more conversational or informal, equip yourself with a toolkit that allows you to deliver on their terms.
What might a sales toolkit look like?
The good news is that as presenters, we’ve never had it so good. There are many alternatives to PowerPoint that play perfectly as part of your Presentation Landscape toolkit (and most of them are free or available for a pittance). The following graphic provides a far-from-exhaustive list of some of the tools you might consider adding to your arsenal to flex in line with your audience’s requirements.
And now for the caveat…
While it looks remarkably straightforward, please don’t make the mistake of thinking that simply equipping yourself with a tablet version of your trusty old PowerPoint deck provides all the answers. As with traditional presentation tools, each of these options need to evolved, tested and rehearsed. Swapping one technology for another doesn’t achieve anything until it’s been optimised for a different audience engagement. The reality is that this takes time and requires patience…the good news is that the rewards are potentially huge.
Start thinking differently
In conclusion, if you are a salesperson that panics at the mere thought of losing your PowerPoint, chances are that you need to start thinking differently:
Think differently about your audience – are you forcing them to engage with you and your offering in a way that doesn’t appeal?
Think differently about your presentation toolkit – PowerPoint is an extraordinary tool when used properly…but there is life beyond .pptx files!
Think differently about your own skills – can you move up and down the Presentation Landscape in line with your audience’s requirements? Do you have the presentation skills and product know-how to move from ‘speaking at’ to ‘conversing with’ your prospect?
It’s time to start thinking differently – after all, your audience is worth it…
Simon is one of the headline speakers at The Guru’s first International Conference – Bring an Idea and Leave with a Pitch at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on Friday 7th July 2017. Here, he’ll share his thinking along with other leading writers, thinkers and presentation entrepreneurs, to help a lucky few businesses add massive impact to their sales capability.