Sales Presentation: Format

Monday, March 15th, 2010 , 0 comments

In the last part of our series containing expert tips on sales presentations, we focus on the structure of a sales presentation. Is there a particular order you should conduct your presentation in? How should you structure a presentation in order to ensure that it has maximum impact?
Our advice has been collected from bloggers, authors and experts around the world, as well as our team of presentation specialists at m62.

Consider Attention Span

Different audiences have different attention spans, depending on a range of factors from passion of speaker and relevance of content to time of day and temperature of room.

All of our presentations at m62 are designed with two versions in mind – one that runs from the beginning to the end of the presentation in 20 minutes, and one that runs from the beginning of the presentation to the end of the Value Proposition in 5 minutes. The two versions are designed to be appropriate for both the CEO who may only have 5 minutes to spare, and for those who have the time to listen to the full presentation.

In the case of being given a longer time slot, it is important to adjust your presentation to audience attention spans. Experienced speakers may be able to tell when an audience’s attention is waning, but the average attention span for middle managers in a sales presentation is twenty minutes. If you’re going to be exceeding this length of time, schedule in a soft break to ensure that your audience stay on track. Watch this short presentation on the influence of attention span on presentation structure for more details.

Start Effectively

Starting a presentation effectively can be a challenge. On the one hand, many audience members will not be fully concentrating when a presentation starts. On the other hand, taking too long to get to the point will encourage the audience to disengage. There are two strategies to counteract this. Chip and Dan Heath think that part of the problem is that presenters have been taught to “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, then tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you told ‘em”. They recommend starting with a bang- something which can work well, as long as it is a big enough bang to avoid going unnoticed by audience members checking their phones. The danger with this method is that your audience may switch off quicker as you have manipulated attention span, thus meaning that they could miss the end of your presentation.

The other option, and the one we practise at m62, is to recognise that your audience will not be paying full attention at this time, and to use it instead to build credibility. This way, your audience will have made the Initial Purchasing Decision on content designed specifically to influence them positively, and should be in the ‘application hunter’ positive mindset for the rest of the presentation. In the case of the audience including the CEO, you may want to start with the Value Proposition and then present the first five minutes of your presentation. Under these circumstances, your audience are likely to require something different.

Audience Breaks

Kosslyn, in Clear and to the Point, suggests that presentations should be structured to allow for natural breaks. He argues that the audience should be given an overview of the presentation structure during the introduction, and shown where they are within this structure as the presentation progresses; and that topics should be introduced in relation to the audience’s prior knowledge and concerns. Presentations should end with a clear visual summary.

It is important to use attention span to structure the presentation and allow for breaks, so that your audience’s minds do not begin to wander. Asking a question or presenting the audience with a puzzle are good examples of soft breaks. Hard breaks may become necessary as the time spent presenting lengthens; allowing your audience to rise from their seats to get a coffee or take a toilet break will greatly increase attention levels when you return to presenting.

Understand the client’s problem

People can’t make a decision to buy until they think they understand what it is that they’re buying. Your presentation should detail what the audience will be buying, why they should buy it, and how they know you can deliver it.

Structure your presentation by setting out clearly your understanding of your client’s business problem, and then explain how your offering solves the problem that your prospect suffers from. At m62, we have found that positioning your value proposition – your key benefits – between 3-5 minutes is optimum, as that is when audience attention levels are at their highest. The rest of the presentation after this should be focused on justifying – reassuring your audience that what you promise can be delivered.

Position of Value Proposition

When structuring a presentation, be careful not to give the punchline too early. As blogger Jan Schultink points out – “in the first few seconds, people are ‘trying to figure you out’ and are not paying attention to the content”. Use the start of a presentation to build credibility and engage the audience. If you present your value proposition at the very start of a sales presentation, the audience might miss the most important part of your entire talk.

Presenting your value proposition when audience attention levels are at their highest ensures that your audience are more engaged with your most important message, and will be more likely to recall it accurately. The rest of the presentation can then be used to prove these points.

Organise for your Audience, not your Company

When delivering a capabilities presentation, most companies want to give an overview of all the products they offer. But, instead of presenting material in this way, try to see things from the client’s point of view – and organise material in terms of the problems you can solve for them, not your own company’s organisational chart. Start by picking the five benefits that will be most valuable to your prospect, and structure your entire presentation around these. This gives you a logical format to proceed with, and reassures your audience that you are dedicated to delivering what they want.

Closing Line

Close your sales presentation by suggesting the next step in the sales cycle, and asking for action. Don’t worry too much about finding that perfect line – as sales expert Joey Asher writes in How to Win a Pitch, “the fact is that “closing” is overrated. Despite what some sales books say, there are no magic words to convince a person to buy from you.” If you’ve proved that you can meet their needs better than their other options, and they see value, then they will buy from you regardless of how you “close”. If you haven’t, they won’t.

On the other hand, you ask the question in order to force the prospect into thinking about an answer. Even if the answer isn’t agreement, the prospect is considering the close. At m62, we actively encourage presenters to ask the question, if the prospect is in a position to answer. Presenters should be careful however not to press the issue if the prospect is unable to make a decision, for example if he has other pitches to see.

Support the Recommendation

Gene Zelazny, author of Say it with Presentations, follows the approach of his McKinsey colleague Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle. A presentation (or document) should start with the recommendation, then give an overview of the conclusions supporting that recommendation, and then, in turn, look at each conclusion and the evidence that leads to it. This is the approach advocated by m62 for sales presentations. The recommendation in a sales presentation is to buy, or to move towards the next step of the sales cycle. The conclusions supporting this recommendation are value proposition statements (e.g. ‘reducing costs’, ‘competitive advantage’). Then each statement must be proved, in turn.

Interactive Presentations

In their book Selling Visually with PowerPoint, Robert Lane and Andre Vleck make the case for non-linear, interactive sales presentations. ‘The standard way of using PowerPoint – a strictly linear movement from slide to slide from the beginning of a presentation to its bitter end – forces people to be lecturers rather than conversationalists.’ Better, they argue, to allow the audience to share in setting the agenda, using hyperlinks to move seamlessly between slides as required by the audience. This is a good way of ensuring that the audience feel involved and are only exposed to information that is relevant to them, but it can mean that certain important points are left out. A balance should be found between audience interaction and presenter control.

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