When Trolling for Business, Don’t Wing It
On Alan Greenspan’s retirement as Federal Reserve chairman, Barbara Hagenbaugh wrote in USA Today:
From behind oversized glasses and sometimes in undecipherable language, Greenspan shepherded the economy through one of the most prosperous periods in U.S. history. In the more than 18 years Greenspan held the reins of the Fed, the economy enjoyed a 10-year economic expansion, the longest in history, and had just two brief recessions that were the mildest since World War II.
Where Greenspan’s verbal delivery was soothing to the point of somnambulism, his successor, Ben Bernanke, is a straight talker who shoots from the lip and tells it like it is.
On the lecture circuit or in congressional testimony, Greenspan’s low-key, meandering approach is okay. But for a new business pitch, it’s imperative to have a compelling speaker like Bernanke and a carefully crafted presentation.
One of the very best speakers and presenters in the marketing field is Ray Butkus, president and CEO of ARGI, and the former president of InfoUSA’s Donnelley Marketing Group. I have had the privilege of seeing Butkus in action—emceeing a business conference where he more than held his own alongside Bill Clinton, Colin Powell and Tom Peters.
One day at lunch, Butkus offered to write a piece for “Business Common Sense” on how to create and deliver an effective sales presentation. After years of sitting through tedious, inept PowerPoint shows and boring people reading white papers in monotone, I jumped at Butkus’ offer.
What follows is a guide that shows how to successfully engage an audience of four, 40 or 400. You’ll want to download it, pass it on to your associates and refer to it again and again.
Developing and Delivering High-impact Sales Presentations
By Ray Butkus
In the sales arena, success depends upon the superior presentation of the facts. In a highly competitive market with an abundance of choice, winning isn’t simply about building the better mousetrap but about how well the marketplace understands and remembers the distinctiveness of your mousetrap versus all others. This phenomenon becomes ever more important as the similarities in products, and as the pervasiveness of common technology, become more and more acute.
The ability to present a compelling depiction of the facts or the proposition, regardless of subject matter, has common elements. These common elements are associated with skills that can be learned and can be developed. This article is about those common three elements.
The first relates to substance, or the “what” of the presentation. This is the meat and potatoes of the essence of what’s being proposed and presented. Second is the structure, the “way” the meat and potatoes are organized on the plate, so that it can be received in the most compelling and memorable fashion. Third is the style or the “how” of the presentation.
Let’s begin with a simple question. Of those three, which is the most important—substance, structure or style? Most reply: substance. It seems obvious that the answer is substance. But wait. Think back on your educational experience, be it grammar school, high school or college. Think about the teachers from whom you learned the most. Now think of one or two phrases that describe why you consider them to be your best teachers. Much research in pedagogy has been done over the years to understand why people learn the way they do. It turns out that when this question is asked in a free form, the answers are rarely: “they knew their subject matter,” “they were brilliant,” “they had command of the fact” or “they really knew their stuff.” Much more likely responses are: “made learning fun,” “made the class memorable,” “was highly organized in the way they presented things,” “I could always follow along” or “made note taking easy.” What do all of those things have in common? Clearly, they all relate to structure and style. Even though we all may believe that substance is the most important part of a presentation, I suggest that it’s an important part, but it’s not the only important part. If all you’re doing is presenting the facts, then you’re not doing everything that you can to be a compelling teacher from whom the listeners learn much and remember well.
Let’s start with substance or the guts of the presentation, and it begins with the assembling of facts. One of the best ways to do this is to use a group-think technique: two heads are always better than one; three heads are even better. Always try to get other people engaged in the process of helping you. Even when you know your stuff cold, they can offer you a perspective on how to present your material that can help your listeners understand it better or to be more convincing. Remember “e pluribus unum,” out of many, one. Use many sources and inputs for your pitch but have one story. This is very important in this era of cut and paste. How many times have you watched a presentation with multiple speakers and the various sections are in different fonts with different formats and totally different styles? It’s clearly a cut and paste job. It has even entered the lexicon. That isn’t “e pluribus unum.” That’s “e pluribus pluribus.” You should use many sources of data but you should have a single story.
You must also absolutely verify your accuracy. Nothing rattles a speaker more or degenerates a presentation faster than having the audience challenge the facts. Verify the accuracy and always differentiate facts from opinion. Try using external subject matter expertise. Quote a pre-eminent source in the industry, use someone who has credibility and is a voice of distinction, and you’ll gain trust from your listeners.
Excellent, top tier consulting firms like McKinsey are taught to present in a certain way. They’re taught to make an assertion in the opening statement of a presentation or the header of a visual, and then to validate it.
Anyone who is interested in giving a great presentation ought to read the Declaration of Independence. Really! It’s a wonderful document that teaches salesmanship and teaches the fundamentals of great presentations. Everybody knows that Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, but it was actually drafted by a committee of five. Why a committee? Remember, group-think, two heads are better than one; three heads are even better; well they used five. What’s the objective of the Declaration of Independence? It tells you in the opening sentence why the document was written. It tells us that “when … it becomes necessary … to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another … a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation.” The first sentence of the first paragraph cites the objective and then states the assertion. It then goes on to validate those reasons. As it turns out, it gives 27 reasons—27 specific reasons—why independence ought to be achieved by those united colonies.
After the assertion is stated you must substantiate your claims. If you’re going to use charts or graphs, use them to validate your claim. Don’t make your audience figure out what the charts say. A visually appealing graph can be a great presentation tool, but make it easy to understand what the charts are telling them.
Always tune the pitch to the audience. Make sure you know who is attending your presentation. What’s their title? What’s their reporting relationship? Why are they there? What’s their role? Who is an ally? An adversary? Who are simply spectators?
Determine beforehand whether you are going to use a deck (printed handout, often bound) or a screen (PowerPoint presentation). Sometimes it’s determined by the size of the audience; other times it’s dependant on the nature of the content. Financial people, regardless of the size of the audience, typically present with decks without projected visuals. They do that for a reason. They want their deck to be taken away and referred back to later.
Open in Bangor, not on Broadway. This becomes much more significant as the degree of the importance of the presentation increases. If you were going to make a major presentation, it’s essential that you conduct a rehearsal. Get a couple of allies or one or two of your advocates, and give them the opportunity to review your presentation. Pre-presentation feedback and commentary are essential to fine tuning an important pitch.
Finally, as it relates to substance, figure out ahead of time what you’re going to do about questions and answers. Don’t allow these to be ad hoc. Are you going to ask that questions be held until the end or will you encourage a fire at will approach? Both ways have advantages, but they also have some real disadvantages. It’s dependant upon the audience, the subject matter being presented and the nature of the listeners and their degree of expertise.
Of the three—substance, structure, style—I believe the most important is structure. Organizing information for maximum learning effectiveness is what every great presenter strives for. You want your listeners to say, “Hey, you know what, I get it. I now understand why this product or this company or this idea is superior.” You want them to learn. It’s, therefore, essential that you structure your information in a way that’s most conducive to learning.
Get started by outlining. Outlines do three very important things, all of which are essential to learning. First, they determine sequence: A comes before B, D follows C. Second, they illustrate priority: This point is really important, while that point isn’t so important; this is a supporting point of importance. Third, they show relationship.
Sequence, priority and relationship, taken as a whole, constitutes the structure of a presentation. It’s absolutely essential to learning and to a solid understanding.
Think of taxonomy—the practice of classifying plants and animals according to their presumed natural relationships. Similarly, great presentations all provide the intellectual framework to allow the listener to easily understand how the point that you’ve just made fits into the entire proposition that you’re presenting. Contrast that to the repetitive and endless series of bullet-points contained in so many PowerPoint presentations.
Equally important is the determination of the unifying theme. What do you want every visual, every paragraph and every point to support? Decide on the key theme that you want to drive home. Every slide or visual used should be tested against the following question: Does this support the proposition that I’m making to my audience? If it doesn’t, remove it or revise it. Every visual should support the unifying theme.
It’s a gross simplification to say, “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them and then tell them what you told them,” but it’s abused and forgotten, as much as anything in teaching and presenting. It’s rarely done and when it’s done, it’s rarely done well. The longer the presentation, the more important it’s for your listeners to understand where you’re taking them.
Remember that one of the ways you can link back to that unifying theme is to make the transitions powerful. When you transition from one thought to the next, do it in such a manner that it sets the stage for the next point you’re making or position that you’re taking. It should be a mini-summary of the preceding point and it should provide the intellectual bridge to your next point and to the unifying theme.
Always try to be (to use a buzz phrase from the e-marketing industry) “contextually relevant.” Seek to present within the context of the listeners. Think about that great line in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” where Atticus Finch and Scout are speaking and she asks Atticus why do people behave with such great hate and bigotry. Atticus replies, “You know Scout, you never really know a person, until you walk around in their shoes.” You must always remember to walk a mile in your listener’s shoes. Determine the issues that matter to him and why he should care about what you’re saying.
Nearly all average presentations answer the “what” questions; excellent presentations always answer the “so what.” You must close the logic loop. You should take your listeners on a dialectic journey that posits: if facts 1, 2 and 3 are true, then A, B and C must also be true. Some also call this the “if-then” proposition. The logic loop allows your listeners to draw their own conclusions with your guidance. This technique encourages listener involvement by intellectually engaging them and leading them to accept your conclusion. Listen to great speakers; it’s a technique that’s often used.
During your presentation, you should be informed but don’t be presumptuous. Don’t take it upon yourself to define what your listeners ought to know. Allow them the flexibility to interpret. Guide them, help them, but give them flexibility and always watch out for assumptions. Assume sometimes if you must, but always try to verify when it’s possible to do so.
Remember the universal selling proposition or USP; this is sometimes called the differential advantage. It’s like the Seder question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” “Why is your product, your capability, your company, your idea superior?” Not “Why is it pretty good?” Not “Why is it sort of OK?” But “Why is it different? “Why is it distinctive?” You must answer that and, to the extent that you can, make it clear and simple, so much the better.
Think about Federal Express; when that brilliant notion was conceived our frame of reference was Parcel Post, with all the slowness and bureaucracy that came along with it.
Federal Express fundamentally changed an industry and told us about it in a very simple and memorable way. If you “absolutely, positively” need it over night, send it Federal Express. Try to make a promise. It’s not always possible of course, but try to present your USP in terms of a promise, because when you make a promise, it’s memorable and it’s simple.
Avoid throw-away statements. Platitudes like “cutting edge technology” or “state of the art infrastructure” are nearly worthless, so don’t waste your time by including them in your presentation. If you aren’t clear on what that distinctive advantage is, or what your universal selling proposition is, take the time to work it out because it’s absolutely essential to having the presentation remembered and your proposition accepted.
Be aware of the life of the presentation after the fact. A copy is left; another copy is made; it’s sent to a boss; it’s sent to a boss’s boss—you never know what’s going to happen to the presentation after you have given it. Therefore, be mindful of where it may go after it has been delivered. This places extra importance on items of convention such as grammar, spelling, punctuation and pagination.
Finally, as it relates to structure, make sure that you exercise the basics in the follow-up. It could be a courtesy call; it could be a follow-up email note. Some presenters are great on this, and others never do it. It sounds simple; many times it’s not done.
Let us now turn to the stylistic dimension of presentations and begin with a discussion of graphics. Graphics should support, not fight, the content and the theme of the presentation. Don’t be a PowerPoint junkie. PowerPoint is a great presentation tool, but it can be easily over-used and abused; this is particularly true with animation. Animation, for those who cook, is like tarragon. Tarragon is a wonderful herb, but it’s also really strong. A little bit of it goes a long, long way. Graphics should be tested against the following question: Is this mostly an aid to an audience learning or in the presenter presenting? Graphics must aid the listener and add to the learning moment. Speaker notes shouldn’t be on the screen either; these should be used as podium memory aids or committed to memory, but not on the screen.
The power of rehearsal can not be overstated. Nearly every person I talk with about this point agrees that it should be done, but they also assert that they don’t need it. Let me tell you something—don’t kid yourself, you need it. We all need it!
One of the finest speakers of the English language of the 20th century, perhaps ever, was Winston Churchill, who would rehearse before every speech and before every question period in Parliament. One often hears from rookie sales people, “I don’t want it to sound memorized.” Guess what, some of the greatest moments in oratory were committed to memory before delivery. If Churchill did it, you can do it and your staff can do it.
When you are developing your talk, it’s not enough to simply think of the words that you’ll be using. That’s fine for a written sales proposal but it’s not good enough for an oral presentation or a speech. You must say it out loud; work on word choices; work on phraseology; work on timing; work on diction.
Mark Twain once said that the difference between the perfect word choice and a good word choice is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. He was absolutely right!
One of the finest oral presentations—an absolute gem of oratory—was the speech that Franklin Roosevelt gave to Congress on December 8, 1941. It was, of course, the Declaration of War against Japan. He wrote it long hand, without a speechwriter, on the evening of Dec. 7th, after the horrible events of that day. Prior to delivering it to Congress, he asked his trusted aid and advisor, Harry Hopkins, to review the speech. He did so, and in the entire speech, he crossed out only two words and in place of those two words, he inserted a single word.
Harry Hopkins crossed out “world history” and wrote “infamy” in the sentence, “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” The next morning, many newspapers were already referring to it as “the day of infamy speech.” That’s the importance of the perfect word choice. From that day to the present, this speech has been known as “the day of infamy speech.” That notoriety was achieved because Harry Hopkins, as a consummate communicator, was extremely aware of the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. “World history” is a lightning bug, “infamy” is lightning.
Is it OK to repeat in a presentation? Everyone tries to avoid this, we are taught early not to be repetitious; not to say things over and over again. I suggest that it’s bad to be repetitious, but repetition is perfectly OK as long as it’s linked back to the unifying theme.
Let me provide two illustrations. Remember those 27 reasons the Declaration of Independence gives for independency of the 13 colonies? It turns out that those reasons are contained in only 13 sentences and eight independent clauses. Each of those sentences and clauses begin with only two words, “He” and “For.” Do you think that Jefferson didn’t have a bigger vocabulary to come up with a few different words? Not likely. It begins with “He” or “For,” in order to be convincing. Jefferson understood the power of repetition. In those pre-Internet, pre-mass media days, the principal method of dissemination was the printed word which then was spoken from town halls, from balconies and from village greens all over the 13 colonies. Repetition of the spoken word can be among presenters’ most powerful tools.
Music provides another illustration: Ludwig Von Beethoven’s first four notes of his Fifth Symphony. That four note rhythmic theme is repeated dozens of times over the course of all four movements of the piece. It was composed in 1808, and it has been the subject of hundreds of scholarly criticisms over the last 200 years. Yet it has never been called repetitious. The reason is simple. It does a brilliant job of linking back to the unifying theme. Repetition can be a powerful presentation technique as long as it’s linked back to the unifying theme.
Finally, as it relates to your style, do you really know it; do you know it well enough to teach it? It’s a great test of how well you know a subject. Can you teach it to others?
The tone and manner of a presentation and of its delivery matter a lot. Try to err on the side of formality. Why should you do that? If you go informal and you sense that you’ve stepped over a line, it’s very difficult to go from informal to formal. If, however, you begin in a more formal presentation mode, it’s very easy to become informal, so it’s a safe bet to be formal in your tone of delivery.
Try to be instructive but not chatty. You’re not there to gossip or to kibitz. It’s not a mahjong party. The listeners are there to learn, they’re there to be convinced, so try to be instructive. You know you have connected when the post presentation comments are phrases like, “I learned a lot,” “I was informed” or “I came away with a lot of things I didn’t know.”
Use variety—Classical music provides another wonderful illustration of this. Over a classical composition, the various movements—allegro, andante, adagio—serve to change the timing, the tempo and the mood of the piece. Even with a brief presentation, a monotonic delivery, regardless of the quality of the substance, can quickly kill a listener’s attention.
Tell a story. It’s no accident that virtually all of the key teachings of Christianity are contained in parables. Jesus of Nazareth used parables or stories to illustrate points of humanity, of social justice, of compassion and of wisdom. Stories are memorable and are repeated. Third-year law students learning case presentation are always taught to set out a story in the delivery of opening arguments. They outline a story around which the evidence is going to be presented. By so doing, they’re giving the jury a framework to learn and to understand the presentation of the facts of the case.
Avoid slang, avoid colloquialisms, avoid jargon and avoid profanity. Too often, presentations, particularly those of a technical nature, are filled with jargon and acronyms. Sometimes, this cannot be avoided but it should be minimized unless the alternative is totally unacceptable.
The ability to develop and deliver high-impact sales presentations isn’t an innate quality but rather a skill that can be learned and perfected. Excellent sales presentations are highly substantive and they’re logically structured and artfully styled. History, literature and music all have much to teach us about how to be better at a craft that’s all too frequently relegated to the end of salesmanship courses or selling self-help books. Every salesperson who aspires to excellence can improve his or her presentation skills. Aristotle told us: “We are what we repeatedly do; excellence therefore is not an act, but a habit.” Take my advice, perfect your presentation skills. It will become habit forming.