Screwing Up Can Improve Your Presentation

I was once working with the chief operating officer of a large restaurant chain when he made a startling confession. He told me that he once considered requiring his restaurants to ruin one meal every evening. “It would be easy to do,” he said. “We could just badly burn a steak.”


Why would he do such a thing?


He explained that the ruined meal creates a chance to build a lasting rapport.  “Our studies show that if we apologize for the mistake, handle it quickly, and give them free drinks or a free dessert, then the customers will love us and come back more than they otherwise would have if everything were normal,” he told me.


So what does this have to do with being a great speaker?  Just as restaurants see mishaps as a chance to build rapport, so too can speakers take advantage of mishaps to connect better with their audiences.


Just yesterday, I had to give a presentation for a law firm where the fancy projection system failed to work. When everyone saw me scrap the PowerPoint and just move forward, it actually helped me connect better with the audience.  It was like I had somehow won points by cruising through the problem without a hitch.


You can do the same.


The key is to have the right attitude.  If you shake off the problem and move forward, then the audience will connect with you.  You become the hero overcoming the odds in one of the little mini-dramas of life.  They cheer for you to win and love it when you succeed.


Does What You Actually Say Matter as Much as How You Look?

There is a famous study by a UCLA professor named Albert Mehrabian that says that 93 percent of the impression that you make when you speak is based on how you look and how you sound.  Many people in the public speaking business love to point out that, according to the study, only seven percent of the impression that you make is based on what you say.

Like many scientific studies, this study has been widely misinterpreted. I read Lisa Braithwaite’s blog “Speak Schmeak” this weekend and was delighted to find a public speaking coach that agrees with me that the study has been widely misinterpreted.  Braithwaite points out that 

Mehrabian was studying incongruent verbal and nonverbal communication when a person is expressing feelings. He looked at how subjects responded to images with different facial expressions and recordings of a voice saying a single word with different inflections conveying like, dislike and neutral emotion.

Here’s what Mehrabian says about his research being applied outside of the parameters in which he intended it: 

“Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”

The point is that the study only applies to situations where people are discussing feelings and attitudes, not business presentations.  Of course what we say during a business presentation is important.  Far more important than 7 percent.

With that said, I still like to reference the study.  But I’m always careful to point out that the study can’t be cited for the fact that what you say isn’t that important. But I do think the study highlights the general idea that how we look and sound does matter. Even in business presentations, we need to pay attention to how we look and how we sound.  People judge us on an emotional level. 

I don’t need a study to tell me that.

What If all Presentations Were 10 Minutes Long?

At a workshop the other day at a bank, I posed the following question: “What would happen if the CEO of this bank decreed that all presentations can be no longer than 10 minutes?”

Here are some of the comments I received.

“So many of the presentations go on and on and no one is listening. If we knew that the presentation would last no longer than 10 minutes, we’d probably pay closer attention.”

“I’m not sure if that would be possible.”

“We couldn’t do it.”

“It would certainly make us think harder about what we were going to say.”

“We’d have to get to the point quicker.”

“We’d spend less time in meetings and could spend more time with customers.”

When the conversation died, I then asked, “Would the bank’s productivity increase or decrease?”

Everyone thought it would increase.

Your Prospect Doesn’t Care About Your Story

Tom Peters

“Your customers don’t care about your story, they care about their own stories.” Those are the words of Tom Peters in a recent blog post. 

Indeed, one of the biggest mistakes sellers make in their presentations is trying to find a “way to tell our story.” If you want to win sales presentations, forget about your story. Focus on your prospect’s story and how you’re going to give that story a happy ending.  

A good sales presentation focuses on one thing: proposing a plan to solve the prospect’s problem.

That means that the presentation should begin by defining the problem the prospect faces. Then the presentation details a solution to that problem. Then you stop.

To be a great presenter, be a great listener first

One of the interesting ironies of great speaking is that you need to be great listener first. The best speakers have a strong sense of their audience and their needs.

How do you get to understand that audience? You listen to them.   Before you speak, you seek opportunities to discuss their needs with them so that you can tailor message to meet their needs.

I ran across a nice blog post recently on the Four Styles of Listening, posted at Say It Just Right . That’s the blog of communications coach Joan Curtis. In the post she explains that there are four listening styles:

  • The compassionate listener
  • The too busy to listen listener
  • The trees for the forest listener
  • The it’s me listener.

Which are you?

Geithner Gives Lesson in How to Pitch an Idea

I have no idea whether Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s plan to save the banks will work. I certainly hope it does work.

But the plan he laid out yesterday is a nice example of how to get people excited about an idea: give a detailed plan.

If you recall, Geithner’s initial discussion of plans to save the banking business last month were not well-received.


 The universal complaint was that the ideas were too vague.  The stock market plunged.  And as I noted in a recent blog post, one of the ways to screw up a pitch is to give a vague plan of how to help your prospect.

What a difference some details can make.

Yesterday, the market soared almost 500 points on news of Geithner’s proposal to revive the banking industry.    And note the headline of the New York Times article, “Rescue Plan With Some Fine Print Dazzles Wall Street.”

The point is that the selling is often in the details. If you give your listeners a clear and well-defined plan — with fine print — there’s a good chance that they’re going to get excited.  Those details help your prospect visualize success. They think “Oh yeah. Now I see how this is going to work! That’s exciting!”

And if you’re trying to make a sale, that’s a very good thing.

Is “Provocative Selling” a Good Thing?

Is it is a good thing in a sales presentaiton to be “provocative” and challenge your prospect to think differently about their business?  That’s the question posed in an interesting post by Niall Devitt in the Sales and Sales Management blog.  

The post suggests that a good seller doesn’t just address what keeps the prospect up at night. A good seller also addresses challenges that the customer is not even aware of.

It talks about moving our thinking and methodology about selling from focusing on “What keeps our customers awake at night,” to “What should keep our customers awake at night.”

I agree, but with a caveat.  You certainly need to address what keeps your prospects up at night. But I love the idea of taking your thinking about your customer a step further and proposing detailed and global solutions to problems. 

Instead of just saying, “I have a plan to stop the leak in your basement,” you need to be saying “Of course, we’re going to stop the leak. But more importantly, we’ve got a plan to reduce your overall water usage, saving you thousands of dollars a year.”

The only caveat is that you need to be careful in proposing your ideas that you don’t come off like you know more about your prospect’s business than your prospect.

However, the best sellers and the best presenters do more than just solve the immediate problem. The best sellers and presenters get the prospect to think differently about that problem.

To my mind, provacative selling is another term for leadership.

The goal is always to stand out from the crowd — but in a good way

Marketing guru Seth Godin has an intriguing post today about “Fitting in versus standing out.”     He points out that in everything you do, you need to choose whether you want to fit in or stand out.

In the public speaking and sales presentation world, I think the choice is obvious. You need to stand out.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you need to be fool. You need to stand out as the obvious choice, the best partner, or a clear leader.

The problem I see is that many people find that extremely scary.  “If I present like that,” one client one told me as I urged her to speak with more passion and to hone her points more, “then people are going to notice that I’ve changed.”

To which I respond, “Yes. We’re not here to help you become average. We want you stand out.”

Stand out in a good way. Stand out in a good way. Stand out in a way that makes people want to be aligned with you.