The 10 Cardinal Sins of Sales Presentations
Few of us were born to pitch. Of course, throughout history, there have been notable standouts, like the greatest showman. Back in 1850, P.T. Barnum wooed even the poorest of people to part with their pennies to see “the peculiarities of [their] time.” More recently, the inimitable Billy Mays, who died young in 2009 but not before he had elevated his craft to stand as the gold standard which has yet to be surpassed to this day. He was renowned as the “King of the Pitch” and just about singlehandedly ushered in the era of the infomercial.
For the rest of us mere mortals, a good pitch takes breaking it down in a formulaic manner and practicing until our cheeks hurt from smiling.
First, the errors
Let’s begin by calling out what not to do. Actually, we’ll start this section by highlighting that this is a safe space, no judgement here! We’ve all made an error (or three) when we’ve pitched. Moreover, we’ve probably snorted at, mocked or told tales about the disastrous decks and presentations that we’ve had the misfortune of being in front of. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, right?
Okay, now that we’re all agreed that we’ve all made presentation errors and that some people have elevated pitching to an artform far above the skill band of the rest of us, we can look into what errors commonly surface. Without judgment. We’re going to learn from these errors and never repeat them.
10 Cardinal Sins of Sales Presentations
- Bad Decks. We’ve all seen them and suffered through them, experiencing something akin to death by a thousand cuts. There’s even a name for this phenomenon, “Death by Powerpoint,” so it’s definitely a thing. Here, there are multiple ways a deck can be “bad,” which includes everything from low quality graphics to the practice of using microfonts so that only the superhuman amongst us (or software developers) can see what’s written.
- Dense Slides. Call it the cousin of bad decks, but the dense slides error deserves its own section. If you can’t get through the contents of your slide in a minute or less, they’re too busy. Whatever you’re selling, you’re the expert and you should be able to explain the value of your offer and how it will change your prospective customer’s life. That’s what you should focus on and use as few words as possible to be succinct about the offer. Dense slides are an eye chart and you’re probably not an ophthalmologist.
- Reading Slides. The only cardinal sin worse than creating dense slides is reading from them. There is a special place in Hell for people who do this. What’s worth noting here is that people have different learning styles; some may be reading the slides and more-or-less tuning out your voice. For others, the reverse is true, they may be auditory learners and glaze over when you present a text-dense slide. Many learners are visual so the more pics the merrier. If you’re reading your slides, you’re giving the perception that you’re unsure of the content and that’s a quick 1-2 steps towards being distrusted by your potential customer.
- Blah Blah Blah. People who speak in a monotone are the flatliners of the sales pitch world. The pitch of their voice never changes. They maintain a steady volume that, if you traced it like an EKG, it would be one long, flat line without any ups or downs, which makes presentations interesting. Not so good if you’re referencing revenue goals, but ups and downs are great if you’re talking about changing the loudness of your voice.
- Speaking in Tongues. Yup, another sin that many presenters make. Don’t assume that your audience is versed in the alphabet soup and jargon that you’re accustomed to throwing around the office with your colleagues. Each time that you say a term or acronym aloud, say it, pause for emphasis, then say what it means, pause again, then continue. Now, your audience is as hip to the jargon and buzzwords as you are.
- Sorry My Bad. Apologizing for not being an expert or not having great slides (no excuse, you’ve got Kroma!) is a sure-fire way to send your audience on the fast train to disengagement. It won’t take more than 2-3 seconds before your audience whips out their mobile phones and starts scrolling or texting messages about how awful the person is that’s presenting. “Worst pitch ever,” or something along those lines will likely be texted en masse from whichever room you’re in. Be confident. Open with who you are, why you’re qualified to be there and excited for the opportunity to give your presentation.
- Practice Schmactice. If you’re doing a TEDx talk or a keynote on a grand stage, your presentation needs to be fully rehearsed. If not, your audience will be swift and ruthless in their reaction and it will be unlikely that you’ll ever be on that stage again. For the typical sales-client presentation, having your pitch memorized can come off as disingenuous if it’s over-rehearsed. You want to know the content and have an established flow, but you also need to the dialogue flow naturally. There’s a fine line between cocky and confident and you’ll need some practice to pitch from the right side of that line.
- Don’t Look at Me. The eyes have it as they say. Make eye contact and maintain it, ideally with your audience as a whole versus with any single individual observing your presentation. That’s creepy. Regularly scan across your whole audience, in person (yes, that will happen again one day) or your virtual gallery. Doing so keeps everyone engaged and it keeps you dialed into your audience’s reaction informing you if you need to speed up, slow down, alter your voice tone, pause to take questions or whatever you need to do to regain their attention.
- The Never-ending Story. Did you ever hear the one about … and then it becomes the story with no end point that is so convoluted and so not funny that the audience tunes out and begins scrolling through their social feed. Don’t be that presenter. If you want to present like a pro, tell stories, especially if they’re personal ones – but not too personal – and keep them short enough to move through the content quickly yet detailed enough so that they get the whole story.
- Going Over-the-Top. This is where “less is more” rings true. A little animation is good: a lot is not. You don’t want every element or each slide spinning in, fading out or developed with so many builds that your audience gets motion sick. The same holds true with humor, stories, dissing the competition, bold font and everything else – use everything at your disposal but do so in moderation.
Indeed, the cure for what ails you as a salesperson who can’t pitch starts with doing pretty much the opposite of each of the 10 Cardinal Sins of Sales Presentations. Can’t get in front of a live audience? No problem. Record your self by filming a video on your phone. Or stand in front of the mirror until you’re relaxed enough so that it feels – and looks – natural.
The stakes are high, perhaps higher than ever. The double-disruption of automation and artificial intelligence is bad enough. Add to that the onslaught of the coronavirus, record unemployment, and a challenging year for revenues and now there’s some real pressure. Each of us needs to be poised, polished and presentation-ready when we have our chance to get in front of an audience of one or one thousand. Use that opportunity wisely – take the time to get prepared to present like a pro.
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