These days, computer-generated presentations are practically a given when you visit prospective clients. But just because you’ve created the snazziest slides this side of the Mississippi doesn’t guarantee you’re going to get the prospect to sign on the dotted line. According to experts, what makes or breaks a presentation are your selling skills, plain and simple.
* To find out which techniques work, we talked to authorities on sales and presentations as well as to successful entrepreneurs who use presentations to grow their businesses. Then we devised the following 10-step, start-to-finish process for creating and delivering presentations that are both pretty and powerful.
* Step 1: Don’t Touch That Computer “The biggest mistake you can make when giving a presentation is failing to determine ahead of time what the prospect’s needs are,” says Tom Hopkins, author of Selling for Dummies (IDG Books). “So you start presenting and making statements of fact that aren’t the hot buttons for that person.”
The process of creating a successful presentation actually starts long before you sit down at your computer to create an outline. The best way to begin is to gather as much information about the prospect as possible. To do this, you’ll need to ask the right questions when you first talk to a potential client.
“Be sure to ask open-ended questions,” says Thomas Winninger, founder of the Winninger Institute for Market Strategy and author of Price Wars: A Strategy Guide to Winning the Battle for the Customer (Prima). “Use who, what, where, when, and why. Ask, ‘How soon will you be doing something on this project? Who will be making the decision? How much time will you have? When was the last time you did something like this?'”
In addition to getting information from the client, Winninger suggests researching the company and the industry, using the Internet and other sources. “You should always have data that relates to a client’s industry in your presentation,” he explains. “This raises a prospect’s receptivity level to the other information you present.”
Step 2: Stage a Sneak Preview
Although this isn’t true in every case, if you’re up against stiff competition, you may need to do a preliminary presentation just to get an audience with the prospect. Putting your pitch on a floppy disk or compact disc and sending it to a potential client may do the trick.
This strategy worked for Darryl Gordon of Kenneth C. Smith Advertising in La Jolla, California, who creates presentations for other companies. “A few years ago, I was contacted by Quantum Communications, a small ad agency in San Marcus,” Gordon recalls. “They wanted to pitch a very large account and were worried about competing against the other, larger agencies that would be pitching. They brought me in as a consultant and told me they wanted to do something totally different–something that would show they should be allowed to compete.”
Using Aldus Persuasion (now Adobe Persuasion), Gordon created an interactive, multimedia presentation. “Then we put it on a SyQuest disk and stuck it in a box with a bag of microwave popcom. We gave no indication of what it was–just included a message that said ‘Sit back and enjoy.'” Quantum got the go-ahead to pitch the account.
Another variation on the sneak-preview theme is employed by small-business owner Ray Litman of Ray Litman Photo Graphics in Phoenix. Instead of calling on clients individually, Litman uses Software Publishing Corp.’s Harvard Graphics to create high-quality slide shows; he then presents them to local service organizations and trade groups. “All of us here are bombarded daily with cold calls, and we don’t want to do that to our clients.” says Litman.
Litman explains that the group presentations allow him to get in front of prospective clients and show them his work in a setting where they’re receiving information rather than a standard sales pitch. “Many times, the next day we’ll get a call from someone who saw our show and wants to talk to us” Litman says.
Step 3: Pick a Plan of Attack
Once you’ve gathered information about the client and been given the green light to give a presentation, you’ll need to decide on the format (for example, overheads, slides, or an onscreen multimedia show). Answering the following questions will help you make that decision.
Who is your audience? What’s their business background’? How technologically savvy are they? An older audience may be intimidated by an elaborate multimedia presentation, whereas a technology-oriented crowd might look condescendingly on a 1ow-tech overhead show.
How large is your audience? While a large crowd calls for a high-resolution, smooth-running slide presentation that everyone can easily see, an informal overhead presentation may be just the thing to encourage dialogue in a small group.
What tools are available? And how much time do you have to use them? Exciting multimedia shows may be all the rage, but it’s important to know your limits and make the best of what you have. It’s better to create a well-planned, graphically pleasing slide show than to try out an interactive presentation on a client before you’ve thoroughly tested it.
What technology is available at the site? You may be limited by the lighting or projection equipment at your client’s site. If so, it’s up to you to prepare a presentation that’s nonetheless effective.
Whatever method you use, the theme that continually crops up with each of the presenters we talked with is simplicity. Although you wouldn’t go into a high-power meeting with nothing but a few black-and-white overheads, neither should you overwhelm your prospects with technology– an approach that often has the unfortunate effect of detracting from your message.
Keeping this philosophy in mind is a top priority to entrepreneur Luong Tam of LTD in San Rafael, California, a multimedia production house and Web site developer with a staff of four. Tam and his team use Macromedia Director to create a custom CD-ROM presentation for each client. The disc is a “living portfolio” of LTD’s work, showing multimedia projects the company has created for other clients. Although Tam uses attention-getting graphics and music at the beginning of a presentation, the rest of the interface is simple.
“I like to let my work stand for itself,” says Tam. “So our ‘brochure’ has a friendly interface–we’ve found that the simplest interface is the one that gets us the job.” Tam adds that he tries hard to make sure the technology is secondary. “The communication is what’s important,” he states.
Step 4: Choose Your Tools
Although there are many good presentation programs available, Kristine Moore, partner of Mavis and Moore print communication seminars, advises: “If your software does what you want it to do and you’re familiar with it, there may be no need for you to run out and get something else just to create your presentations.” Moore practices what she preaches by using PageMaker desktop publishing software for everything–including presentations.
Other presenters are equally devoted to their favorite software packages. For example, Litman’s company uses Harvard Graphics exclusively on its network of five computers. “We find it’s head-and-shoulders above the rest for features and ease of use,” says Litman. “It gives us the ability to take an image and modify it onscreen quickly and easily until it’s exactly what we need. Many features can be accessed with the click of a button–including changing the leading, revising the background color, or creating a bar graph. In other programs, you have to struggle to achieve that degree of polish.”
Gordon also talks about ease of use, in his case with Adobe Persuasion. “I love interactive multimedia, but as a designer, I don’t want to have to learn another language to do a presentation,” he says. “In Persuasion, links are extremely easy to create. It’s like using PageMaker with an interactive format.”
When you’re evaluating presentation software, here are the main features that expert presenters suggest you look for.
Templates. Does a variety of template styles come with the product? Are they well designed? Are they easy to modify?
Graphic capabilities. How easy is it to create and revise charts and graphs? Are you limited in the number of colors you can use? Does the program offer fades, builds, and other transition effects?
Revisions. How easy is it to modify existing presentations?
Handouts. Will the program automatically create audience handouts from your slide presentation?
Presenter’s tools. If you plan to give presentations electronically, does the program make it easy to hide and reveal slides and to jump from one slide to another?
Step 5: Concentrate on Content
After determining the type of presentation and the program you’re going to use, it’s time to create the content. As you do, you’ll need to go beyond simply explaining your company or product–you must also use effective sales techniques.
According to Ted Tale, author of Just Sell It: Selling Skills for Small-Business Owners (John Wiley & Sons), the best presentations “convince a prospect of three things: First, that you have something she needs. Second, that you’re the right person for her to get it from. And third, that whatever price she pays will be justified.”
Although it’s crucial to describe the benefits of working with your company, it’s possible to go overboard. Experienced presenters stress the importance of keeping your presentation short and straightforward. “The best advice I can offer is to be well prepared and get your message across rapidly,” says veteran presenter Jeff Bekos of Market Media in Norwalk, Connecticut. Bekos uses Microsoft PowerPoint to create overhead presentations on advertising vehicles for supermarkets–presentations he gives regularly at such companies as Coca-Cola, Nabisco, and Heinz.
“You don’t want to bore people with details,” says Bekos. “People are so busy these days, they’re grateful for a presentation that’s to the point.” He advises presenters to include answers to anticipated questions in the presentation and to use charts and graphs to make numerical data easier to understand. “In my presentations, I stress the benefits of our product and include graphs that get right to the point– and I make them easy to understand by not putting in too much data.”
Step 6: Dare to Design
With your content determined–preferably in the form of a detailed outline–you’re ready to begin designing. The type of presentation you’re creating will greatly affect this process. For example, if you’re leaning toward interactivity, Darryl Gordon recommends beginning your design on paper. “I draw boxes representing different screens and connect them with arrows,” he says.
Gordon also advises spending time perfecting the opening screen. “When you open up a book and want to find something, you go to the table of contents. The opening screen of an interactive multimedia presentation has the same idea,” he explains. “It should be attractive and easy to read. You also need to establish links back to the table of contents from the other pages, and make sure there’s a way for the viewer to move backward and forward one page at a time.”
Using audio and video will add excitement to interactive presentations. “There’s a lot of material available now that’s royalty free;’ Gordon says. However, he cautions presenters to limit the number of multimedia effects. “You don’t want to go crazy with this stuff–it can get distracting.”
One way to keep your presentations simple is to think of ways to show your information rather than spell out every word you plan to say. Kristine Moore says, “A lot of the people who attend our seminars tell us that they have trouble describing their visions to clients. I tell them to show examples of other, similar projects they’ve done–give visual examples.”
Financial figures and statistics also benefit from a visual treatment. “Charts breathe new life into numbers,” says Roger C. Parker, author of Desktop Publishing and Design for Dummies (IDG Books). To make sure your charts clarify rather than confuse, it’s important to choose the right format. Generally speaking, “pie charts show how parts relate to a whole; vertical bar charts make it easy for readers to compare data that changes over time; horizontal bar charts display comparisons that do not involve time; and line charts effectively display trends,” Parker explains.
Besides looking good, charts can enhance your credibility to clients. “Put up one chart early in the presentation,” Winninger advises. “This frames you as a data-based presenter, not just information based.”
If you’re leaning toward a more traditional slide show (including overheads, 35mm slides, of electronic images), the place to start is with a template. Bekos creates his own by using one of PowerPoint’s backgrounds and extensively modifying it to meet his needs. “There’s more detail in my presentation than the typical template,” he notes. “And I have my own cover page that includes our company logo and some custom graphics.”
Step 7: Hand It to Them
With all the effort you put into your presentation, it’s easy to forget about audience handouts and leave-behinds. But they’re an important way to emphasize your message.
Typically, handouts consist of pages with small black-and-white renditions of your slides and a space for notes. But you might want to consider leaving behind something a little more impressive. For example, Bekos prepares an outline of his presentation for his clients. “I don’t like to give them a copy of my entire presentation up front,” he says, explaining that a simple outline with a space for notes is easier for the audience to follow. Afterward, he gives them a more elaborate package, consisting of black-and-white full-page copies of each slide with a color cover and spiral binding.
In addition, Tate recommends that you hand out testimonial letters. “The most powerful tools to use in a presentation are letters from satisfied clients, because that’s a third party telling the prospect that you’re a good person to do business with” he says.
If your audience is small, think about printing all your leave-behind materials in color and having them bound at a local copy shop. If your presentation is electronic, you may want to leave a disk with your client. Most programs allow you to create a self-running version of your presentation, and viewers don’t need to have the original software to run it.
Step 8: Take One,Take Two…
It was good advice when your More gave it to you before your first school play, and it’s good advice now: Practice makes perfect. According to experts, being prepared is the best way to combat nervousness. Start by giving yourself enough time to put the presentation together. Once it’s done, you’ll need time to review it thoroughly and rehearse it several times.
If possible, practice in front of an audience, and ask the members to point out mistakes. Those little typos may seem insignificant, but you can be sure your audience will notice them when they’re magnified on an overhead projector.
In addition, make arrangements to get advance admittance to the room where you’ll be giving the presentation. This will enable you to check your materials, set up your equipment, rearrange furniture as needed, and adjust the room lighting.
“You don’t want any glare on the computer screen,” says Tam. “Check all the lights–you may need to turn some off or move the computer or close the blinds.”
Step 9: Take the Stage
Before you launch into your presentation, take a minute to establish rapport. “You can do this by discussing something topical, giving a sincere compliment, or talking about something you have in common,” suggests Hopkins. Prospects will be more receptive to your ideas if you break the ice.
But you shouldn’t act as if you have unlimited time, Winninger cautions. After establishing rapport, he advises that you say something like, “I appreciate your taking the time to see me. I have just a few things I’d like to show you that other clients have been able to benefit from.”
Next, position yourself to present. “If you’re presenting to a group, try to stand along the long wall– this helps open up the group,” says Winninger. “Likewise, if you’re presenting to an individual, try to have some type of visual to show right at the beginning. Ask him to come around the desk so he can see it more easily.”
Once you start talking, “you don’t want to give too much information without stopping to anchor it,” says Winninger. Anchoring involves pausing periodically to solicit verbal agreement from the client. Stop and say such things as “Based on what I’ve shared with you, which of these options would you prefer?” or “Given this information, what do you think your timeline will be?” Getting an anchored agreement every few minutes can ensure a successful close at the end of your presentation.
Step 10: Shake on It
Although most experienced salespeople develop their own styles for closing deals, a few basics always apply. First and foremost, you have to ask for the sale. Experts say people would be surprised at how many presenters don’t do this.
Litman at Photo Graphics says, “We try to do a handshake deal right after the presentation. We’ll say, ‘You’ve seen what we can do, do you have any questions?’ If not, we ask if they have any objections, and try to take care of them immediately. Then we try to take an order. About a quarter to a third of the time, the client is ready.”
Tam of LTD agrees. “It’s important to try to take advantage of the opportunity while the client is excited. After the presentation, I ask, ‘What will be our next step? Whom should I contact about getting started?'”
Winninger suggests that, instead of asking for a sale in a yes-or-no manner, you give a prospect three choices for his or her buying decision. For example, you’d say, “There are three things you could do here: A, B, or C. Which would you prefer?” Each choice would be a slightly different version of how the job could proceed.
“You don’t want to fall into the trap of ending by saying, ‘Here’s what I can do for you,'” Winninger says. Too often, the client will say, “Thanks, we’ll get back to you” and then go look at what your competitor has to offer. If you give them choices on a project, clients are more likely to seal the deal.