How to Create a Winning Sales Presentation

By Tim Parker

All of us who sell B2B products and services visit with prospects to explain how we can help and, hopefully, to sell them our wares. Almost the first question we ask ourselves to prepare for an upcoming sales meeting is, “Which sales presentation are we going to use?” This is rarely the right first question. A presentation that comes “off the shelf” cannot address the issues that a particular prospect is worrying about when he calls.

So what are the right questions to ask? For the presentation itself, there are three: “What are the client’s issues?” “What information will persuade him?” And “What should be on the slides themselves?”

Let’s take each of these in turn.

The Client’s Issues

When a client asks for a meeting, on the phone or in person, it is because he has a problem he wants to solve. This is the first reason not to use a canned sales presentation that talks about your firm, its approach and its services. No one cares about your services except you. In your first conversation, you need to understand the issue the client is trying to solve. "Seek first to understand, then to be understood," is how bestselling author and consultant Stephen R. Covey put it.1

Since clients rarely articulate their issue in an objective way, you usually cannot understand it from what they choose to tell you. You will need to ask many questions – listen aggressively if you will. You won’t need a sales presentation; trying to lead the prospect through a sales deck at this point is certain to tell them a lot of things they aren’t interested to hear, and highly likely to bore and irritate them.

In one recent case, a prospective client approached us to write and design a print advertisement for his consulting firm. Although he thought he wanted a print ad, what he really wanted was to raise the profile of his company in the marketplace and generate more leads. After several conversations, he realized that an ad was not likely to give him much return on his investment; it would not show clients the consulting firm’s depth of expertise. He concluded that the best way to raise his company’s profile was to publish articles in industry publications read by clients, and we have helped them do that ever since. Understanding the real need was essential to successfully proposing a way to help them.

In general, we advise holding off on the sales presentation until you are ready to start talking about how you can help solve the problem, in a second or subsequent meeting. However, it helps to have a standard presentation somewhere on your laptop, especially if you are working in a client with more formal expectations. I once visited a large fashion house in Switzerland for the first time, having persuaded my colleague to leave behind his boilerplate sales presentation. When we walked into the CEO’s office, the projector was set up and the first thing the CEO said was, “Please show us your company presentation”! 

The information that will persuade

After you fully understand the client’s issues (which usually takes more than one conversation), it will be clear that there are only a few important ones. When the time comes for a sales presentation, instead of taking a generic one off the shelf, you can create one that primarily and specifically addresses what the client is worried about. Two real examples show the payoff of this approach.

In the first one, a consulting and IT services firm had the opportunity to present to a leisure company that had to rebuild its logistics IT infrastructure. In the first sales meeting, the firm held off from making a presentation. Instead, it found that the executives of the leisure company had two overriding qualifications for the firm they would choose:

  • Having the financial expertise to build a business case for this initiative
  • Having the change management expertise to help manage the implementation

These were not the only areas of expertise that were important to the prospect. It also needed a consulting firm that could design and build a new IT architecture to support its logistics operation. However, since that was the consulting firm’s particular area of expertise, the prospect did not need persuading. The consultant had reams of presentations he could have taken to the sales pitch to explain how his firm develops IT architectures. It took an enormous amount of self-restraint not to, and to focus on the two issues the client was actually concerned about—building the business case and managing the change. By doing so, the consulting firm reassured the client that it had the right expertise. Within a week, the client signed a $500,000 contract for a feasibility study.

The second example was a packaged consumer goods company looking to rebuild its corporate intranet. Its overriding issue was, once it was built, how to get employees to use it.

The question was ostensibly, “Can you help us build an intranet?” However, the real issue, since corporate had little power to compel anyone to use it, was different: “How can you make sure that people will embrace it (so that we don’t lose face)?” Out of a flock of competitors, the consumer goods company asked two IT services firms to give final sales presentations. One of them, a global technology firm, focused on the technology aspects of intranets, showing off one it had developed elsewhere. However, this firm mostly wasted its precious hour in the spotlight, since no one had ever doubted their technical competence. Their smaller competitor co-opted an organizational behavior expert from a specialist firm onto their team and explained to the client how it would address its biggest concern. After the meeting, on their way back to the office, this team received a phone call to tell them that they had won the business.

Once the client’s critical issues are clear, it is much easier to assemble the right slides (and team) because you know the questions to address and you can ignore the ones you do not. You can demonstrate that you have deep expertise, perhaps even thought leadership, in the few areas the client really wants to hear about. Some of this will be on your slides, but most importantly, it should be reflected in your team. This means that most sales presentations should be no longer than 10-20 slides; if you skip the boilerplate, that’s an easy target.

It is worth noting that any buyer of professional services wants to know that you have a record of accomplishment solving similar problems for other clients. The way most clients prefer to validate a company’s record is to talk with its past clients. Absent that opportunity, client case studies and testimonials are the best substitute and provide valuable reassurance. If the prospect has not already talked with past clients or seen case studies and testimonials—for example, on your website—be sure to put some in your presentation or have them to hand out.

The slides themselves

So what should be on the slides? The short answer: Not a summary of everything you plan to say.

A good sales presentation is a conversation. Research shows that most people are more pleased with a conversation in which they do more of the talking. Moreover, most of us underestimate the proportion of a conversation that we consume with our own voice. A presentation that maps out a monologue from start to finish will not engage or please a prospective client. How you conduct a sales presentation sends important signals about how you will interact during the engagement: If the presenter does all the talking, the client has every reason to expect that he will be ignored during the engagement.

Use presentation slides primarily or exclusively to convey information that is best presented visually. That might include, for instance, information that is too complex or voluminous to remember, or a proposed project plan with tasks and milestones. It does not include bullet-point prompts for everything you plan to say. That will free you to have a conversation with the client, albeit directed by you, using the slides as occasional visual aids rather than as a railroad track. Since you will not have prompts for all you plan to talk about, and since in a conversation the other party can always change the direction, you need to know your subject deeply. If you cannot cover all the essential bases yourself, you should have team members in the room who can.

Does it matter how well your slides are laid out? Yes, for the same reason that no matter how good your material is, if your shirt is untucked and your shoes are not shined, you will not make a good impression. The four basic principles of visual design (originally coined by Robin Williams2  and often affectionately referred to as CRAP) are:

  1. Contrast:  Present elements that are not the same very differently so that they stand out. This creates visual drama and interest to capture and hold viewer attention.
  2. Repetition:  Repeat similar elements with similar styles. This reinforces meaning for the viewer and helps him relate and navigate between elements. It also serves to “unify” a document.
  3. Alignment:  Align elements and make spacing consistent so that the page looks tidy and is easy to navigate. Text for instance, should be either left- or right-aligned, not both.
  4. Proximity:  Group similar or related elements together to form a cohesive whole. Keep items that are not related visually separate from those that are, and make sure the most important points are most prominent.

Example: careful organization makes a big difference when there is a lot of information to present

 

Issues:
  • The title’s placement, alignment and caps diminish its prominence
  • The organization and hierarchy of information is not well planned
  • Insufficient planned white space on the page makes it dense and hard to read
  • Horizontal borders are not carefully aligned; vertical borders are cluttered, distracting and unnecessary
  • Grey boxes placed behind text for emphasis are misaligned
Solutions:
  • White space, left alignment and large, strong font clearly contrast the title
  • Emphasis is accomplished with the neat contrast of grey cell fills rather than underlying box objects; this also facilitates easy text edits within those cells
  • Information is set into a table with column and major row titles in a larger font and minor row titles in bold; this repetition enhances readability and steps the reader through the information
  • Clean vertical separation is accomplished with left text alignment rather than lines, minimizing clutter
  • Content is well organized, with plenty of well-planned white space and similar elements in proximity to each other

 

The most important determinants of a great sales deck are that it addresses the issues the client cares about and that it complements the conversation, not constrains it. As important, but worthless without the prior two, is that it looks professional and is easy to read. If you follow these guidelines, you will go to sales meetings with a manageable number of slides. In addition, you will be spared the collective groan that occurs when the client observes there are 60 slides in your sales presentation. More important, you are far more likely to have a productive discussion that leads to new business.

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1 Covey wrote the best seller “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”
2 “The Non-Designer's Design Book”