Five Keys to Making Your Pitch Like a Test Drive

Buying a car is easy. You go to the Honda dealership. You say, “I’d like to test drive the new Civic.”

The salesman says, “Sure. Let me get you the keys.”

You give it a spin and you get a feel for it. You know pretty quickly whether the car is right for you.

Hiring a service provider for your business is much more difficult. You can’t take an architect for a test drive. You can’t ride around in a lawyer.  You can’t hop inside your accountant and give him a spin.

That’s why your sales pitch should do everything possible to give your prospect the closest thing possible to a test drive. Everything in your pitch should be aimed at giving your prospect a sense of what the experience of working with you will be like. 

There are five keys.

Key 1. Focus your message on a solution to the prospect’s key business problem. The prospect is not hiring a law firm. It’s buying a solution to a troublesome legal problem.  Your main job in a pitch is not to show your credentials. Your main job is to give the prospect a sense of your proposed solution to their business problem.

Key 2. Keep your message simple. From the prospect’s perspective, one of the main experiences of working with you will be meetings, conference calls and other forms of spoken interaction.  Your prospect wants to know if you are able to speak to her in a way that is simple and easy to understand. If your presentation is simple and user-friendly, that says a lot about what it will be like to work with you. It says that you’ll be user-friendly. And that’s good.

Key 3. Be passionate.  If you’re hired, the prospect is going to have to spend a lot of time with you.  If they see that you’re passionate, then they’re going to sense that spending time with you will be a pleasure. What if you’re not passionate about your work? Consider a new line of work.

Key 4. Be interactive. Make sure that the prospect has plenty of time to ask questions and discuss your ideas. Q&A is a test drive of the intellect.  The more interactive the presentation, the more the prospect gets a feel for what a meeting with you would be like. That’s a good thing.

Key 5. Rehearse. Good preparation is obvious to the prospect. If you show up well prepared, it gives your prospect a feel for how well you’ll be prepared for them on a daily basis.

Follow these five keys and you’ll give your prospect a sense of what it will be like to work with you. It’s the closest you can come to giving your prospect a test drive.

Five Storytelling Tips From Barack Obama


When Sen. Barack Obama made history last week, I wrote a post about his skills as a storyteller.  I included the above clip from YouTube, in which he tells the story of his first trip to Greenwood, S.C. and how it produced his campaign’s signature chant “Fired Up! Ready to Go!.”

I’ve thought more about the Greenwood story and I think there are five storytelling lessons we can take away.

Lesson 1: Start with the Point

Like all good storytellers, Obama begins with the point. “I want to [tell] a story that some of you know. It shows the importance of one voice. It’s a story of my first trip to Greenwood.”

In addition to ensuring that your listeners get the point, starting with the “moral” creates a mystery that drives the narrative. Knowing the story’s destination, listeners pay attention to unravel the mystery of how to get to that destination.

Let’s say that you’re an attorney giving a presentations about litigation strategies. You might start a story by saying, “I want to tell you a story that illustrates how little mistakes can lose a lawsuit.”  If your listeners want to win lawsuits, they’ll listen carefully to find out how.

Lesson 2: Narrate Chronologically.

Obama allows his story to unfold as a series of chronological events.

I fly into Greenville and get in late. It’s about midnight. I get to my hotel about 12:30. I’m exhausted. I’ve been campaigning for 10 straight days and I miss my daughters. I miss my wife. I’m dragging my suitcase into my hotel room when suddenly I get this tap on my shoulder. I look back. It’s my staff person who says, “Senator, we’ve got to wake up at 6 am tomorrow.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because we have to go to Greenwood like you promised.”

Of course, Obama could have just said, “We woke up early and drove to Greenwood.” But that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as allowing the story to unfold in movie-like fashion.

Any business person can enliven their presentations with the same narrative style. You could say, “My CFO was angry.”  Or you could say, “I went in to see my CFO to discuss our budget. Sitting behind his desk, he looked angry. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I’ve decided that you’re either an idiot or are trying to make me angry. Which is it?’”

The narration is more interesting.

Lesson 3: Details make it live.

Obama includes vivid details.  Once he arrives in Greenwood, S.C. he describes meeting Edith Childs, who originated the chant “Fired up! Ready to Go!”

“She’s dressed like she’s going to church,” he said. “She’s got her church hat on.” The church hat brings the story to life.

I worked with a lawyer who told a story about an emergency hearing held in a judge’s home. He grabbed his listeners by describing the living room where the hearing occurred.

Lesson 4: Reemphasize the point.


Obama ends by reminding the listeners of the point: “One voice can change the world.” Reemphasis brings finality.


Lesson 5: Practice


Obama has told the Greenwood story many times, refining it with practice. Great story tellers rehearse a lot. Stories tighten with age.


Learn to tell a story. As Obama knows, it’s a skill that can take you a long way.

Try Giving Your Next Presentation “Naked.”

Everybody has a dream. Mine is that more people will present naked.  And why not? Presenting naked takes less preparation and, if done right, blows the audience away.

“Presenting naked” is stripping away the trappings and “layers of clothing” that presenters use to hide their insecurities.  No PowerPoint. No lectern.  No notes.  Take a flip chart if you want. But nothing else.

You walk out in front of your audience — fully clothed. Stop. Wait for quiet. Then you passionately lay out a stripped-down message. The bare simplicity, relevant stories, and energy blow away audiences because most speeches are so dry and complicated.

Easier said than done?  Not really.  It only takes guts and a little know-how.  Presenting naked is easy if you know how to create a listener-focused presentation, how to rehearse, how to leave room for questions, and how to speak with passion.

How to Create Your “Naked” Presentation

Most presentations stink because they fail to focus on the audience’s true needs and interests. We’ve all sat through horrifyingly bad business presentations.  The worst I can remember was when I was a utility lawyer attending a meeting with about 50 utility executives in Birmingham, Alabama.  We were there to hear a three-hour presentation on anti-trust law by a lawyer from another firm. It was horrible.  He cited dozens of cases and delved into all sorts of economic theory that may have appealed to anti-trust lawyers and professors but had no appeal to utility executives.

I could hear the Blackberry’s clicking under the tables. No one was listening because the presenter didn’t focus on what the audience really wanted or needed to know – how to avoid jail.

How to Focus a Message

Naked presentations focus like a laser on audience interests.  Here’s how to quickly focus a message. On a blank sheet of paper, write down the three most important questions that your audience needs answered. Choose your questions carefully because they are the heart of your naked presentation.  Simplify your questions as much as possible.

If you’re delivering an anti-trust presentation to utility executives, you might focus on these questions:

  • What can you say to your competition?

  • What can you do to your competition?

  • And can you say in internal e-mails about your competition?

Determine the answers to your questions

Fill out your presentation by answering the questions and telling stories to illustrate your answers.

Here’s how it might sound.

I’m here to talk about anti-trust issues in the utility business. And I’m going to talk about three things:

  • What can you say to your competition?

  • What can you do to your competition?

  • And what can you say in internal e-mails about your competition?

Let’s talk about the first issue. What can you say to your competition? 

Then write on the flip-chart two or three things that you can and can’t say to your competition.  Tell stories illustrating your point. Move on to point two.  After point three, recap the core ideas.  Leaving time for questions, you shouldn’t speak for more than 20-30 minutes.

Applying the Model to Sales Presentations

While this model won’t necessarily work for everything, it can be far better than most presentations.  How about a sales pitch? I worked with a senior vice president of sales for a large distributor of airplane parts. He had a meeting to pitch an airline on the idea of outsourcing the airline’s parts-management process to his company.  The natural tendency for many sellers is to begin the presentation with a description of the company and the service offering.  Usually those presentations are deadly boring.  

In helping him with his presentation, I asked, “What are the three simple questions that your prospect would most likely ask?”

My client thought for a moment then came up with three questions his client would have.

  • Why can you do this better than us?
  • How can this save us money?
  • How can this generate more revenue for us?

“That’s your presentation,” I said. “Just tell him that you’re going to give a presentation about how you can make his company more competitive. Then outline the three questions and answer them, telling stories about how you’ve done the same for other airlines.”

That’s what he did and he blew them away.

That’s what a great “naked presentation” does. It gives what the audience wants, nothing more. Strip it down. Tell stories. Take questions.   Dump the theoretical crap. Dump the company history.  No one cares.

Leave Plenty of time for Audience Q&A

Too many presenters leave just a few minutes at the end of their presentation for questions.  In fact, many of my clients have confessed that they limit the time for questions because they’re afraid of being stumped, embarrassed by a question, or losing control of the presentation. 

But naked presenters understand that the goal isn’t to control the audience but to help them. Questions aren’t to be feared. They’re to be embraced.  There’s no better way to connect with an audience than to allow them free rein to ask as many questions as they want.   A good “naked presentation” allows at least half of the allotted time for questions. 

Jack Welch, one of corporate America’s best communicators, sometimes will go further than that.  Sometimes he will speak at executive roundtables and deliver what I consider the ultimate “naked presentation.”  Rather than delivering a speech, he will walk into the conference room, sit down at the front and say, “So what do you want to know?” And he fields questions for the entire period. 

He gets raves for his “naked” approach.

Rehearse and Deliver with Energy

“Naked presenters” also know they must do more than inform; they must sell ideas.  That means speaking with passion. And that means rehearsing out loud.  Rehearse until you can deliver like you’re having an animated dinner conversation with a close friend. Practice strong eye contact. Record yourself and make sure that you sound excited, like you’ve just discovered something wonderful.

Naked presenting is simple and authentic. It’s just you, chatting passionately without props and telling stories about the stuff that matters most to your listeners. 

Maybe someday everyone will present naked. That’s my dream.

Five Ways to Make Presentations “Q&A” Friendly

The best parts of most business presentations are the question and answer sessions. Of course, it’s a good idea to tell your listeners to “feel free to ask questions at any time.” 

But there are several strategies to ensure that your audience engages in lots of Q&A. Here are five.

Reserve half of your time for Q&A: If you have a 30-minute presentation, you should prepare no more than 15 minutes of “lecture.” Too often, Q&A is treated as an afterthought: “We’ll take questions at the end.”  But Q&A is when the audience can seek answers to its most important questions.  Why not give them plenty of time for getting those answers?

Don’t put off raised hands: When someone raises a hand with a question, drop everything and answer it.  Even if the question deals with something that you will address later. You want to make it clear to the audience that you welcome questions. Putting off questions – such as putting them in the so-called “Parking lot”— sends the message that you consider questions a bother.  If the question is a little out of order, give a brief answer and tell them that you’ll deal with it more as the presentation goes forward.

Keep the slides to a minimum: Having too many slides sends the message that the presentation is very tightly packed and that you probably won’t have time for questions.  The audience thinks, “Wow, this guy has 60 slides. If I ask any questions, we’ll never get out of here.”   If you have fewer and simpler slides, it sends the message that the presentation is “roomy” and has plenty of time for audience interaction.

Look happy to get questions: Smile at the questioner and nod with interest.  The reason that you’re giving a presentation is to help the audience understand.  You should be thrilled when someone asks a question. Act thrilled.  You don’t have to say “great question.”  Just take the question seriously and not like it’s an interruption. Smiling at the questioner is like rewarding a dog for sitting on command.  Once rewarded, the chances are the audience will ask more.

Ask yourself a question: Sometimes presenters will ask for questions and no one in the audience will raise their hand.  First, we recommend that you wait.  Often, if you sit silent for 10 seconds or so, people will begin to raise their hands.  But you can also “prime the pump” by asking the first question: “One of the most common questions we get is. . .”  That will often get the Q&A session going.


There are a lot of reasons why Sen. Barack Obama made history last night.  A terrible economy. A brilliantly run campaign. A message that connected with a lot of voters. The nation’s changing demographics. A genuine desire for change by a lot of Americans.

But one major reason for his victory was Obama’s extraordinary ability to communicate with listeners, connect with them, and move them. 

Much has been written about his skills as an orator. To be sure, the man has a wonderful voice. He could make the contents of a bottle of Nyquil sound interesting. And he’s got wonderful speechwriters.

But he’s also a heck of a storyteller. 

Below is a clip from YouTube that shows Sen. Obama on the campaign trail giving us all a wonderful lesson in how to tell a story.

He does what all good story tellers do. First, he sets the theme. “It’s a story that shows the importance of one voice.” Then he tells the story in a straight line, relating a simple chronological series of events. That’s the easy part.

The art is in the clever selection of details to bring the tale to life. My favorite is the description of Edith Childs’s hat.  Little details like that bring a scene to life.

Finally, he ends by reiterating the moral, how a single voice can change the world.



Stories in a Sales Pitch Give a “Taste of the Wine”

I hate buying wine because you can’t taste it until you get home.  And by then, it’s too late.

Buyers of business services have the same problem.  You don’t know whether you’ve hired the right lawyer until the judge renders the verdict. You don’t know whether you’ve hired the right architect until you have the very expensive drawings in hand. You don’t know whether you’ve hired the right contractor until you’ve spent $50 million dollars on a new office building.

That is why sellers must tell success stories as part of a sales pitch. It gives the prospect a chance to “taste the wine” before they buy.

Let’s say that you’re pitching for a chance to defend a lawsuit in a complex anti-trust matter. The company is considering three extremely prestigious law firms. 

Just looking at the resumes, won’t give a sense of how well any of the firms will perform in this particular lawsuit. But if you tell a detailed story about how you defended a similar lawsuit and won, it gives a prospect a sense of what result they can expect before they make a decision. It gives the prospect a “taste of the wine before they buy the bottle”.

Of course, other factors play into the decision. Personality and relationship are important.

But one key factor in the decision will be whether the prospect can get a feel for the result they will get prior to making a decision. Stories help give that feel.

Tell stories during your presentations. They give your listeners a “taste of the wine.”

CEO Must Remember that “It’s Connection”

“I’m worried about accidentally saying something that the analysts will pounce on. As a result, I speak slowly and have lots of “uhs”. I know I sound tentative. But I don’t know what to do about it.”

Those are the the words of the CEO of a $1 billion-a-year publicly traded company. I was working with him last week in preparation for a major presentation to analysts. 

Speaking in meetings, he is charming and engaging.  He smiles and is highly animated.

But when he stands to speak about his company to Wall Street, his voice is flat and tentative. He sticks to a script all costs. As a result, he doesn’t sound confident. Of course, that’s not what you want when you’re the CEO of a $1 billion-a-year company.

I understand his dilemma. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to make a mistake and allow the analysts to pounce. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to sound dull and uncertain.

What’s a poor CEO to do? 

My advice was to loosen up and rehearse like crazy. 

He clearly needed to speak with more animation, something he could do with no problem. In fact, when we worked together, I told him to get more excited and put away his notes. He sounded highly engaging. It was an incredible transformation.

Of course, he didn’t deliver his presentation perfectly. He made a few mistakes. But his mistakes weren’t catastrophic.  And with more rehearsal, he will make even fewer mistakes.

Too many people over-rely on notes in an attempt to get the words perfect. The problem is that the search for perfection makes you come across as tentative.

Better to loosen up. Remember the goal of speaking isn’t perfection. It’s connection.