Treat Sales Presentations Like Performances

You will see a dramatic improvement in the delivery of your sales presentations with the application of techniques from public speaking and dramatic acting. Sales professionals that want to deliver killer presentations would be wise to consider pressing their comfort zones a bit and exploring new ways to structure and prepare for these engagements.

The shift is to approach presentations like performances and I’ve been fortunate to learn from two of the most recognized leaders in the discipline of effective public speaking.

The first is master coach Bill Hoogterp, founder of Own The Room in Montclair, NJ. I spent two months working with Bill and his senior team and had a chance to observe and participate in a number of day-long coaching sessions with their corporate clients. Own The Room boasts an incredible roster of repeat customers including the likes of Facebook, LinkedIn, Siemens and Twitter and the impact that their coaches have in the span of eight hours on individual speaking skills and executive presence is nothing short of remarkable.

The second experience was with the legendary Michael Port, renowned actor, speaker, trainer and author of the recently published Steal the Show. At the suggestion of my friend Jay Baer – a world class speaker in his own right – I attended Michael’s three-day Heroic Public Speaking workshop in Ft. Lauderdale with more than 300 other individuals and professional speakers determined to sharpen the saw and improve how they communicate their message to the world.

The idea of approaching speaking engagements (and by extension, sales presentations) as performances is one of the core concepts put forth by Michael Port. It’s a little uncomfortable. It’s a little weird. But the fact of the matter is that the most effective and compelling sales presentations are disciplined and thoughtfully planned performances.

The most effective and compelling sales presentations are disciplined and thoughtfully planned performances.

Sales presentations are often the culmination of long, diligent sales processes in which great care is taken to uncover customer needs, align solutions, and craft a narrative that will tell a compelling story of delivering business value.

When it comes to show time, however, too often sales professionals just dust-off their most recent PowerPoint, change some logos and copy, and deliver their routine. The difference between “ehh, it was OK” and “wow – that was really something” is the degree of rigor, care and precision that is taken with the preparation, the content, and the delivery. In short – how much it is treated like a performance.

As you approach your next big sales presentation, here are some key tips and performance concepts to consider:

PREPARATION

The camera is the best coach. – Bill Hoogterp

Do the work. You’re not as good at winging it as you think you are, so practice and rehearse. With other people. Collaboration is incredibly important and constructive feedback is a gift – so ask for it. There is always something to improve, press your colleagues to tell you what it is.

You play like you practice. When preparing, try to replicate the conditions of your delivery. Role play like it’s live and don’t break character. If you blank on your delivery, stay with the audience and keep pressing forward, even when practicing.

Prepare thoroughly. People expect you to be incredibly prepared. When you’re letting it go and letting it come to you at the same time – people can tell. The space for that to occur can only be created with practice and preparation.

Rehearse. Presenters tend to push back on rehearsal. They think that it will make them stiff and the delivery feel staged. They’re right – when one tries only a little bit of rehearsal, that’s what happens. When you rehearse enough, though, you can step on the stage or into the meeting space and let it all go and be there in the moment. It will not feel staged; it will feel inspired.

Do it on camera. The best way to identify areas to improve is to take out your iPhone and film yourself delivering the material, little bits at a time. The camera is the best coach – there’s no place to hide.

CONTENT

Performance isn’t fake. Performance is authentic behavior in a manufactured environment. – Michael Port

Be clear in your objective and go there. Know what you’re going after and push through, that’s what moves a performance forward – the authentic pursuit. The audience wants to take the journey with you whether they’re conscious of it or not, even in a pitch meeting. They want to see the objective reached because they know that there’s something in it for them too.

Utilize the three act structure. Exposition, conflict, resolution. It’s been around for thousands of years for a reason. Let it be your guide.

Frame it out. First work out the following, then start creating your content:

  1. The big idea
  2. The promise of what they can expect
  3. How to convey that you understand the way the world looks to the people in the room
  4. How to articulate the consequences of not taking action
  5. How to demonstrate the rewards of achieving the promise 

People don’t buy ideas, they buy protocols. They want a very specific process that has a beginning, middle and end; if your audience can see where it goes then they can see the delivery on your promise.

DELIVERY

Most people coast on talent. They never really go out and learn advanced techniques. – Bill Hoogterp

Be aware of filters. Your job is to get through to the audience. Everyone has filters that block the information coming at them; your job as a presenter is to get the filters down so your message can get through to them and help them see a new way of doing things.

Start differently. Almost everyone starts their presentation with “Hi my name is X from Y, it’s great to be here at Z and I really appreciate you taking the time today…” Don’t ever do that again. It sends the filters flying up. Open with a (short) story, an insightful question – something, anything other than what everyone else does.

Engage the audience. Use people’s names to keep them engaged or draw them back in if you see that their filters are up. Eye contact helps you connect with people, but lock eyes for a few seconds so you actually make that connection, otherwise you’re just skimming faces.

Give yourself some space in which to operate. Use the space you’re given – it’s your stage. Lean in to your message, and propel key points forward with forward motion. Stay off your heels – you’ll end up leaning back which weakens your position and makes you look unsure and amateurish. Stagger your feet a little, which will keep you from rocking side to side.

Punctuate with your voice and movement. There is no punctuation when speaking – you need to use the inflection of your voice and the movement of your hands and body to provide structure and contrast. Harmonize the movement of your hands and your body with your content.

If you care more about being in service than being impressive than you can do this. – Michael Port

There are scores of other tips and tricks that you can employ to up-level the quality of your presentation. I encourage you to seek them out and try them. Experiment.

The important thing is to accept that you can always improve and that a new perspective, a new approach, is often the way that improvement is shepherded in. The job of selling is, above all else, a job of communicating, of identifying obstacles to understanding and removing them, of seeing paths to clarity and illuminating them. Your performance is the story of that journey, and it deserves to be done well.

Break a leg.

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What Big Nick Taught Me in High School

When I was a sophomore in high school in the late 80’s, I was in an elective course that had students from all of the upper classes. One of the students in the class was a senior named Nick. Big Nick.

Nick looked like he was 25, weighed about 250 pounds, and had a pretty serious mustache for high school. Nick was broad shouldered and built like a bouncer. He always wore a light brown leather jacket. I knew of him mostly by reputation and by the undeniable physical presence that he brought to the hallways, where people instinctively parted to make room for him. You did not mess with Nick. Nick was a little scary.

During class, only a week or two into the start of the semester, another student was sharing an observation on whatever it was we were discussing and they used a big word. A juicy, twenty-five cent SAT word like ‘effulgent’ or ‘parsimonious.’

I could not, for the life of me, believe what happened next. Nick – the huge, hairy, scary, badass – proceeded to politely interrupt this student and said “Excuse me, I’m not familiar with that word. Could you tell me what it means?”

I almost fell out of my chair. Never in a million years would I have had the stones to do that.

At sixteen I wasn’t even remotely close to having enough confidence and self-respect to admit that I didn’t know what a word meant. In a class. Out loud. With other people. I can barely do it now, at 42.

But Nick did. Nick just straight-up asked. To him, this was no act of courage. It was natural. He didn’t know what something meant, so he asked.

In an instant my impression of Nick changed so dramatically as to have stuck with me for the next twenty-five years. It was the first time I could remember seeing someone so comfortable with who they were that they didn’t have to pretend for anybody.

This does not happen frequently in high school. It doesn’t happen frequently anywhere.

In that moment Nick shifted from being a big scary dude with whom I could never possibly interact to someone who was genuine, someone who told the truth, someone I could trust.

Simply because he was authentic and real.

We Can’t All Be The Smartest Person in the Room

We all fake it sometimes. We all find ourselves in situations where we can either choose to be authentic and say “wait, hold on a second – I’m not entirely sure I’m following you” or we can choose to just nod along and pretend that we know exactly what someone is saying – even if we have no idea what they’re talking about.

Why do we do it? Because we’re afraid of looking stupid. Because we’re afraid of what other people will think of us if we admit that we don’t know something. This fear of being found out, this imposter syndrome, isn’t natural. It’s something we were taught.

Nobody Really Cares

The reality is that the amount of time we spend worrying about what others think of us is directly proportional to precisely how much nobody else cares.

Everyone has got something on their mind, everyone has issues of their own. We walk around thinking that people are watching us, always judging. It’s just not true. We’re too busy thinking about ourselves to spend more than a few seconds thinking about anyone else.

Somewhere along the way we learned that we are to be perfect and infallible from the very start, from the moment we show up. And we’re supposed to know everything when we get there. How could we not be afraid of being found out? So we pretend that we know things we don’t, all to avoid being exposed. It’s exhausting.

There is a cost to this habit of just nodding along. When we pretend that we know what’s going on when we really don’t, two things happen:

  1. We rob ourselves of the opportunity to learn, and
  2. We rob others of the chance to know who we truly are.

A small authentic act of being genuine, unpretentious and real is a tremendous thing because it is only in that authenticity that we are able to feel a sense of connection with others.

Choose Authenticity

Pretending to know something you don’t, pretending to be something you’re not – it serves no purpose. Authenticity breeds connection, respect, and admiration. People are naturally drawn to it, and they want to be around authentic, genuine people.

The most fearlessly authentic people that you have known are the ones that attract the most to them in the form of friends, esteem, success and admiration. They are the happiest of people.

My profession is sales. I know for a fact that the most consistently successful salespeople are very genuine and authentic while not being afraid to show up with a point of view and to challenge a customer’s conventional thinking with new ideas and new approaches. They don’t pretend to know things they don’t, they are open to learning, and they maintain a genuine desire to help where they can.

In the executive ranks, the most admired and respected leaders have an authenticity and humility to them – they are the leaders that have legions of employees ready and willing to do whatever they ask, just because they ask. Wielding fear and shame as a tool for motivation can have short-term impact, but it is fleeting and ultimately toxic. It is not leadership, it is tyranny.

In everyday interactions with friends and colleagues, the people who are truly authentic are the ones who everyone seems to like, for no other reason than they feel like true, real people – and we yearn to be close to that because it brings that out in us.

Nick taught me that when you’re honest, genuine and real you can have a deep and meaningful impression on someone, even if you have no idea that you’re doing so.

To practice, start with something simple. The next time you’re in a small-talk situation at a cocktail party and someone makes reference to a topic with which you’re unacquainted, simply acknowledge that you’re not familiar with the subject and ask them to explain. It could be a movie, a current news event, an industry article – doesn’t matter. Just practice. Ask some questions. Then pay attention to how you feel, and how the other person responds to you.

I promise that you will be better for it. You will find it to be freeing, invigorating, and refreshing.

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