Mark was a former client of mine. I hadn’t heard from him for a while so I was pleased to get a message from him on LinkedIn. He was wrestling with a problem and asking for my opinion. He had recently taken on a new sales leadership assignment with a large multinational company. His team was not doing well. The were way short of achieving quota and their pipeline was poor. His analysis indicated they could get the first meeting, but the second meeting was elusive. Upon further probing, I found they were using a presentation as a key part of their first meeting, so I asked to take a look.
It was a case of the unpersuasive corporate deck.
I’d like to share what I’ve learned about making a presentation more persuasive, but I should acknowledge it’s right in line with Aristotle’s work on Rhetoric describing Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. So if you have any college flashbacks, good or bad, you can thank/blame me.
Before I begin a summary of how I helped Mark and his team, keep in mind that a persuasive sales presentation is supposed to answer three questions for your audience. “Why Change?” “Why Change Now?” and “Why Us?” Your objective is to heighten their emotional perspective on the requirement for change, and lead them to your solution as the best option given their circumstance. Alternatively, a lack of persuasion translates to leaving it up to the prospect to find the motivation to change on their own. For those who may have forgotten, I’ll remind you of the saying, “hope is not a strategy!”
1. Problem Identification. People are motivated for their own reasons, not yours. A persuasive presentation should start with a focus on the problems they’re having in their business. (Not your company bio, or your client logos! See my post on Selfies). Within the first 3 or 4 slides, there should be a problem identification slide. This is where you get the customer to confirm the problems they’re experiencing in their business. It can be a list of common problems other customer’s have shared. It can be a “situation creates problems” visual, or it could be a blank slide with bullets reminding you to start a dialog about problems. Even better, blank the screen out and have a discussion (In Powerpoint, Ctrl B turns the screen black, ctrl W turns it white). You’ll be amazed at how many people wake up, put down their mobile devices and contribute. Don’t forget to capture their input in plain view.
Some people have voiced concerns to me about “guessing” with the wrong problems. My answer is that if none of the problems you can solve resonate with the prospect, you should walk away from the engagement and find a prospect that does have problems you can solve. Further, it’s not necessary that all the problems resonate. Just enough to help them answer their first question “Why Change?” and compel them to share problems not listed on your slide. I’ve also received push back on this suggested activity when the seller feels uncomfortable engaging in a subject that seems obvious to the prospect. “They know what problems they have!”, I’ve heard as an explanation. But in fact, they don’t know all of the problems they have, and they will be grateful when you point out problems that add to their perspective. (This is called delivering insight.) At a minimum, you get credibility points for demonstrating that you understand the problems they’re facing. More importantly, the list of problems becomes your long term motivational carrot and stick. (See item 5 below.)
2. A Compelling Story. This can be an anecdotal story about a company/person similar to your audience, an analogous story about some every day experience, or it can be an foreign land based mythical story. In the former, your story depicts another organization or person in a situation similar. More important is to describe the problems this other character was experiencing… you want them to relate to your character, and problems are their common ground. Then you describe how you solved the problem set and the outcome or payoff for the customer. I call this the Hollywood format, since it follows almost every movie script format ever produced. In the analogy or foreign land story, you are doing the same thing as the anecdotal story; you introduce a character ( your dog, or a giant in medieval times for example), you describe the problem (your dog won’t take his medicine, or the giant is terrorizing the village), you describe how the problem was overcome (your mother suggested wrapping the medicine in peanut butter, or the small child uses his slingshot to fell the giant), and then you draw out your point ( sometimes solutions come from collaboration, or fear can cripple grown warriors) and connect it to your message for the day.
Stories do more than illustrate the “Why Change?” question. They build rapport with the audience and they make you more accessible. They also last longer than your presentation. People can easily forget the details of your presentation, but many will remember a story for months or years. If you can remember the details of a book or movie that you haven’t viewed for years or even decades, you are your own proof that stories have staying power.
3. Build Anxiety. If you’ve done a brilliant job of answering “Why Change?”, your next goal is to answer the question “Why Now?” Your audience needs to be compelled to take action. Although some people are motivated by opportunity, a vast majority are motivated by fear or pain. Your job is to get the audience to experience the pain of not taking action. This can be achieved with a Provocative Question, another story with a disappointing outcome, or a third party prediction.
A Provocative Question is designed to tap the personal ramifications of not changing. It might sound like, “So if the your team misses their milestone delivery date, how does that impact you personally or the group?” Your objective is not necessarily to get the answer, in fact, you may already know the answer. Your objective is to get them to experience the outcome while they are sitting in front of you. Ideally, the receiver thinks through the outcome and comes to some conclusions in their mind such as… “I won’t be getting my bonus.” or, “I’ll have to dust off my resume”, or “There will be some late nights and weekends for everyone.” Basically, you want them to move from the logical reasons for change to the emotional reasons for change. The best answer you can hope for is the prospect asking you, “so how can you help us with that problem?” ..teeing up item 4 below!
If you decide on another story, the structure is the same as above – identify the character, describe the problem – however, now you reveal the lack of action, or a different decision (such as they tried to solve it themselves). Then you describe the outcome. Only this time its pain oriented. Loss of money, competitive disadvantage, personal heat from their boss, etc. Help the audience to feel the ramification for not taking action, or for taking the cheap way out.
In using a prediction, its best to refer or cite an outside source that has credibility. “Gartner anticipates that 40% of businesses will double their cost of application support every year without the use of analytics.” The objective is to get them to experience a pain in the future that has been verified by a credible third party. On a side note, I’ve witnessed lots of corporate presentations with compelling quotes sprinkled throughout. Unfortunately, most presenters fail to leverage the quote, or simply read it aloud. Try engaging the audience around the quote. You might ask, “so does this quote seem appropriate to your situation?” Or, “do you think that number is high or low?” You want to get them to live in the moment of the quote and tap into their emotional drive to help you with your objective to act now.
4. Connect Your Differentiators To Their Problems. Now we want to answer, “Why Us?” When you reach the section of your presentation where you are describing your solution, you want to call out the problem you captured earlier that connects directly to the capability you’re about to disclose. If you captured their input of the problem definition on a white board or a flipchart, go to that location and circle the problem that your capability addresses. If you captured the list in your notebook, verbally call out the problem again and even better, identify the person who brought it up. “Mike, were you the one that said there was a problem with redundant processes for the team? (Mike nods agreement.) Good, next I want to show you how we address that better than any other solution available.” Make sure you identify when your capability is unique or at least does a better job addressing problems than other solutions, including a DIY solution.
5. Follow Up The Presentation With A Recap And Confirmation Of The Problems. When you captured the list of problems, you weren’t just being a good listener or providing insight by bringing up problems they weren’t aware of; you were also planning for the future. As soon as you leave your presentation, the attention of your audience is pulled elsewhere. It might be dreading the upcoming commute home, or it might be getting back to a project deliverable that’s late. What ever it is, there will be many distractions and they diffuse the power of your persuasive presentation by overwhelming the participant with other thoughts. As days go by, your compelling presentation is lost in the muck. Your job is to remind them of the emotional reaction you created for them. When you type up your follow up thank you email, recap the problems (and impact) you uncovered and seek their buy in that you heard it correctly.
“Hey Mike, thanks for sponsoring the meeting yesterday. Wanted to make sure I shared the input I gathered in case you need it for internal discussions. The group identified three major problems 1) redundant process, 2) no way to understand how their product was being used when bugs occurred, and 3) having to reinvent the wheel for each operating system. They said this was driving up costs by 30%, and delaying releases by 2 months or more (leading to disappointment upstairs). Let me know if I missed anything important or if I’ve portrayed the situation correctly.”
Your objective is to remind them of their reasons to change and to change now. But don’t stop here. When they ask for demonstration, start the demonstration with another recap and confirmation. One reason to do this is that things can change, but more importantly, you want to refocus them on Why, Why Now and Why Us. When they ask for a pricing proposal, include the problem list and impact in your cover letter. Remind them again of the reasons to change and the priority for doing it now. (It also helps to sell for you if a unknown stakeholder has to sign off and you lack access to them directly.) Think of it as the movie trailer that gets you excited about seeing a movie again.
When you master the persuasive presentation format, you’ll see shorter sales cycles, lower no decision outcomes, and better access to other stakeholders. After a great presentation, some will want you to repeat the presentation to their boss, or their boss’s boss. On the other hand, if you deliver the same boring presentation as the next sales person, they will want to shield their boss, take their time sifting through other alternatives, and let other distractions mask the urgency of the initiative.
Lastly, back to the story I started with…We retooled Mark’s presentation with this set of guidelines, and he tracked a 87% increase in pipeline in 90 days. Now we’re working on improving their close ratio.