Sales Presentation Lessons from Billy Mays

Anyone that wants to learn how to create and deliver sales presentations should take a little time to study Billy Mays, the famed television pitchman who died over the weekend.

Of course, most people in business would never attempt to pitch with Mays’s revved up, over-the-top style.  And I would never suggest such a thing.

But there are a several of things we can learn from Billy Mays.

First, energy sells.

Mays is best known for his hyped up style of almost yelling into the camera as he sold everything from OxyClean, to Mighty Putty, to Flies Away. Of course, business people should not present like a television huckster.  But they do need to speak with more energy. Too many people in business speak with all the energy of a houseplant.

Second, always start your pitch by focusing on the customer’s problem.

In his pitch for the “tool bandit”, Mays starts by saying “Tired of fumbling with your tools or wasting time trying to find them?”  Use the same approach in your sales pitch.   Start by focusing your sales pitch on the business problem that your prospect sees. If you’re pitching for the chance to build an office building, start by focusing on what your client sees as the biggest problem with the project.  If the key issue is cost, then start by focusing on how you understand that your prospect is concerned about getting the project done within budget.

Third, build a relationship.

One of the reasons that Mays was successful was that he was on television constantly. People felt like they knew him. That familiarity led to trust. Sure he was goofy. But people liked him.  Good sellers understand that a good sales pitch doesn’t stand on its own. They understand that to you greatly increase your chances of winning a sales presentation by developing a relationship with the prospect prior to the pitch.  For that reason, good sellers are constantly seeking chances to meet with and listen to the prospect prior to the pitch. Those pre-pitch encounters help  build a relationship that often pays off with a sale.

Billy Mays was a great seller of consumer products. But we can all learn from his ability to connect with prospects and make the sale.

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To Win Business, Deliver a Solution-Oriented Pitch

If you want to start giving the kind of sales presentations that win business, get rid of the “dog and pony show” and deliver a solution-oriented pitch.


A solution-oriented pitch sounds like an insightful, personalized business analysis that is highly valuable by itself. It’s a presentation that demonstrates that you are well on your way to solving the client’s key business challenge.


Place a Dumpster in Your Client’s Driveway


A solution-oriented pitch is like the blue dumpster that a building contractor left in my driveway one April afternoon. 


Let me explain.


My wife and I were planning a major renovation for our house. We obtained bids from three contractors. Mark was the highest bidder by about five percent. One day, I came home from work and in the corner of my driveway was a huge blue construction waste dumpster. I was stunned.


My wife didn’t know anything about it. I called Mark and asked if he knew anything about it.


“I put it there,” he said.

“But we haven’t selected you,” I told him. “You’re higher than the other bidders.”


 “We’re always a little higher,” he said. “But you’re interested in getting this project completed by the end of August before the kids go back to school. If you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to get started right away. I put the dumpster there so that as soon as you pick me, I’ll be ready to start demolition right away.”


“If we don’t pick you, what happens with the dumpster?” I said.


“I’ll haul it away and pay for it myself,” he said. “I’m taking the entire risk there. I just want to get started. And if you pick me, I’m starting right away.”


Maybe it was a pressure tactic. However, my wife and I saw it differently. We thought Mark was showing us how badly he wanted the business by expending resources for our benefit before he actually had the job. He was working at solving our problem before he was even hired.  He got the job.


Demonstrate That You’ve Expended Resources to Solve the Client’s Problem


A great pitch should be like the dumpster in the driveway. It should be a demonstration of how you have expended resources and begun solving your prospect’s problem before you’ve even been hired.


Of course, just expending resources for your prospect isn’t enough. You need to show that you understand your prospect’s problems and have a good plan.  That takes work.


The best pitches present solutions so detailed and compelling that they make the prospect think, “Wow you guys have really thought through this problem and have come to us with some substantial work demonstrating a commitment to solve it.”


Get your prospects thinking that way, and it becomes very hard to turn you down.


Let’s say that you sell medical supplies and an outpatient surgical center has asked you for a presentation on your gloves, masks, gowns, and other sterile garments.


What would a poor seller do?   He would show up and give a presentation going through all the various products that his company offers, talking about the features and benefits. Then he’d end the presentation by asking for an order. This is a standard “dog and pony show.”  The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t show any sense of familiarity with the client’s business challenges.


Before Pitching, Seek a Chance to Analyze the Prospect’s Business


A good seller — a seller interested in using a solution-oriented approach – would accept the invitation to give the presentation in the following way:


 I’d love to give you a presentation.  But before, I come, I’d like to take a tour of your facility, speak to some nurses, and your purchasing agent.  That will allow us to give you a presentation that will best meet your needs.


If a full tour were not possible, the good seller would at least ask for the chance to speak to a few decision-makers prior to the presentation.  He would seek any information possible to allow him to present a solution-oriented presentation.


Armed with detailed information about the key business issues, the good seller would then be able to position his presentation as a solution to some key business problems. That would position him to lay out a solution-oriented pitch.


During the Pitch, Lay Out the Client’s Business Problem. Then Propose a Solution


The model for a solution-oriented pitch is simple. You begin by detailing the client’s business problem.  Then you detail a solution that should stand on its own as a valuable piece of consulting work.


Just like Mark our builder, you’re putting a “dumpster” in the client’s driveway. Don’t spend any time talking about the history of your firm. Don’t talk about how many offices you have worldwide. Don’t talk about your revenues. Who cares?


Don’t even talk about your credentials. Your credentials will be apparent as you talk about your solution and how you’ve implemented similar solutions for other clients. Focus the presentation solely on what the client really cares about—a solution to her business problem.


The presentation might go something like this:


Over the last week, I’ve done an audit of how you’re using various operating room supplies including gloves, masks, and gowns.  We think you’re probably spending 10 percent too much. We also think your infection rates are unnecessarily high. And we think that we can improve the safety of your team members.


First, let’s talk about costs . . . .


Second, let’s talk about infection rates . . . .


Third let’s talk about improving the safety of your team members . . . .


Instead, of sounding like a typical salesperson hawking products, the good seller’s presentation sounds like a consultant who has identified a business problem and has started working on a solution.  That’s called putting a dumpster in the prospect’s driveway.


And that’s the kind of sales presentation that wins business.

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Have the Courage to Focus on a Single Hot Button

During a presentation yesterday to a group of about 150 economic developers from communities across the country, I made the point that the best way to start a sales pitch is to detail what you understand as your prospect’s single biggest challenge.  “Then you promise to help them find a solution to that challenge,” I explained. “The rest of the presentation delivers on that promise.”

As I said it, there was a man seated in the front row who squirmed uncomfortably.

“I just don’t agree with that,” he said, interrupting me. “That’s dangerous.”

I love being challenged during a presentaiton. It’s a chance to liven things up.

“Why do you disagree?” I said, smiling patiently.

“There are usually many hot buttons,” he said. “You risk missing the other ones if you just focus on one.”

He was right. You do risk missing one if you narrow your focus. But it’s a risk that you should take.

Of course prospects have lots of problems.  But you’re job in a pitch is to find out the single biggest one that you can help solve and focus on it. 

You have a limited amount of time in your sales presentation, usually only 30-45 minutes. A good pitch offers a solution to a prospect’s business problem. But no one can credibly propose a good solution to four or five major business problems in a single short presentation.

Of course, picking a single major problem can be scary.  The gentleman seated in the front row today was scared of picking the wrong one.

Here’s my response. “Don’t pick the wrong one.”

The best sellers hedge their bets with due diligence, working the phones and building the relationships.  That allows you to be confident in judging the prospect’s key problem.

And of course you can touch on other key issues as you go through your presentation.

But the best pitches propose a solution to a single key business problem.

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“No-Nos” to Avoid at the Start of Your Speech

You’re standing in front of a group of fifty people. Your heart is pounding. Your palms are sweating. You’re about to begin your big presentation.  What you say next can put you on the path to success or set you off on a downward spiral that will make you and your audience miserable.

How can you ensure that you don’t start off badly?

At Speechworks, we tell our clients a few don’ts:

  • Don’t apologize.
  • Don’t tell a joke.
  • Don’t beat around the bush.

Don’t apologize

“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to start by telling you that I’m not really a very good speaker. And I’m really nervous. So I hope that you’ll bear with me.”

That’s the absolute worst way to begin.  You never want to start with an apology for your own anxiety or even worse, lack of preparation (“I’m sorry I’m a little disorganized this morning but I just got word that I was supposed to speak yesterday.”)  Apologies put the audience on the defensive.  Your audience thinks, “This is going to be another bad speech that I have to endure.”  You’ve now made it more difficult to connect with your audience.

To deal with anxiety, practice like crazy. And rehearse your first line over and over so that you can get through it well.  But don’t let that first line be “I’m so nervous.”

Don’t Tell a Joke

“I’d like to start this presentation with a line that Elizabeth Taylor would tell her husbands: ‘This won’t take long’.”

I actually heard someone begin a presentation with that horrible joke.  It’s not funny or relevant to the subject matter of the presentation. And some people might find it offensive (I apologize if anyone was offended by reading the joke here.)

But this joke is typical of most “ice breakers” that begin presentations. They aren’t funny. They are usually irrelevant. And they are often offensive.  As a result, jokes make you seem amateurish.

A far better way to begin a presentation is simply to lay out for the audience a key issue that they are facing in their lives. If you start by focusing on something that’s important to the audience, they’re more likely to want to hear more.

Don’t beat around the Bush

“Before I get started this afternoon, I have a lot of people I’d like to thank for inviting me.”

If you have to thank one or two people, then do so. But remember that no one is listening or cares. It’s a waste of time.  We recommend thanking your introducer briefly, pausing, and then starting right into the meat of your message.  People’s time is valuable. Don’t waste it.

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Come On Stage Wearing Your Boots and Spurs

When you walk in front of your audience at the beginning of a speech, you should show that you’re excited and that what you have to say is going to be important and valuable. That’s why we tell our clients to come before their listeners wearing “boots and spurs”, not “bedroom slippers”.

What we mean is that you need to walk out with a spring in your step, looking at the audience with a positive look on your face.  Before you speak, everything you do needs to convey the sense that the audience is going to benefit from what you have to say.

How you walk out at the beginning of a presentation is like the overture of a movie.  At the beginning of “Star Wars”, the overture sets a definite tone. It says, “This is going to be fun.” 

Similarly, how you walk on stage should set the mood. And if you want the mood to be positive, you need to act positive in the way you walk and look.



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Please Don’t Start Your Speech With A Joke.

“I like to break the ice at the beginning of my speeches with a joke.”

I hear that all the time. I don’t get it. How does a joke break the ice? Usually jokes thicken the ice by wasting the audience’s time. The audience thinks, “Not another lame joke to start a presentation. Ugh.”

I have a pretty strict policy against using jokes to begin a presentation.  But if you must use a joke, make sure it passes a three-prong test. The joke needs to be:

  1. Funny. This prong eliminates 95 percent of opening jokes.
  2. Relevant.  Most opening jokes are “throwaways” that have nothing to do with the  topic of the presentation and merely make the listeners wait an extra minute before you begin.
  3. Tasteful.  The joke must not have a chance of offending a single person in the audience. Since nearly all the best jokes are offensive, few survive this prong.

I worked with an engineer who asked me if he could open with the following: “I’m going to start by telling you what Elizabeth Taylor tells her husbands: “I won’t keep you long.””        

Did the joke meet the three-prong test? No.

It’s not funny. I’ve tried it out several times and I’ve never gotten a laugh. Relevant? Not close. In the presentation, the engineer wanted to persuade the management of a major office building to reengineer the building’s HVAC, and lighting system.  

The joke is also marginally offensive.  Divorce isn’t funny to a lot of people. And there might be some Elizabeth Taylor fans in the audience. Why risk offending anyone in your audience for an irrelevant, stupid joke?

At the start of your presentation, just get to the point. Skip the joke.

I searched YouTube for a good hour for a joke that wasn’t offensive and used no foul language. Here’s the best I could find.

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Tips from Three Camp Counselors and a Maitre d’

In the last week, we have dropped our three kids off at camp.  You can learn a lot about how to greet your audience from the way counselors greet kids at the beginning of camp.  The same is true from a maitre d’ at a restaurant.

Kids are nervous at the beginning of camp. They’re leaving they’re parents. They’re also uncertain about what to expect for the next several weeks of their lives.  In those first moments, their minds are on high alert as they try to glean anything they can about what to expect. 

The camps all know this. As a result, they all do the same thing. They show lots of enthusiasm for the kids. They want to establish the feeling that “This is going to be fun.” 

When I dropped Benjamin, my 17-year-old, at Stanford (he’s spending eight weeks there studying linear algebra and computer science as well as playing Ultimate Frisbee), the kids all had to run a gauntlet of cheers, welcoming them to the eight-week program. It was fun and the kids couldn’t help but smile. Benjamin raised his arms like a victorious boxer.  It established a positive tone, the exact tone the camp was trying to establish. The other two camps (Elliott, 15, went to Clemson Tennis Camp and Annie, 10, went to Gwynn Valley in Brevard NC) did the same kind of thing.

Similarly, great speakers understand the need to establish an upbeat feeling at the beginning of a presentation.  Listeners to a speech are like campers. They don’t know what to expect. They’re a little anxious about whether the presentation is going to be a waste of their time. “I wonder if this presentation is going to stink like all the other ones,” is the unspoken context. 

Great speakers seek to dispel that anxiety. And they do it by establishing a positive tone even before they open their mouths.  They walk into the room with a spring in their step, making eye contact and wearing a postive look on their face. They’re “wearing their boots and spurs” as we like to say at Speechworks. That upbeat approach tells the audience that the speaker is confident that everyone will find the next 30 minutes of their lives valuable. It gets the audience in a positive frame of mind. Everyone relaxes.

On the other hand, you establish a far different tone when you greet your audience like the maitre d’ greeted us yesterday at the brunch spot in Brevard, NC. 

We walked in around noon. The place was crowded.  “We’d like a table for four,” I said.

She didn’t look at me. Instead, she looked down at her clipboard and said, “Well, you’re going to have to wait. It’s probably going to be 30 minutes.” Her tone made her sound like we might never get served.  We decided to go somewhere else.  Why bother with something that was starting out so negatively?

Many people start their presentations with the same low energy and sense of forboding. It’s a mistake. It makes people nervous and makes them want to leave.

You have a choice at the beginning of a presentation. You can act like an upbeat camp counselor greeting a nervous camper. Or you can act like an overworked maitre d’.  From my point of view, the decision is easy.

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Beat Nerves at the Beginning of Your Speech

To beat nerves, practice the first minute of your presentation three times as much as the rest. If you practice the entire thing five times, practice the first minute 15 times.

It’s critical to get off to a strong start. You’re nervous. And if you stumble at the beginning, you’re going to go downhill from there. But if you do well at the beginning, you’re going to relax. You’ll gain momentum and you’ll do fine.

A year or so ago, I was about to give a speech to a Rotary Club. And for some reason I was particularly nervous. But I knew my first line: “I’d like to start with a statistic that comes from a researcher at UCLA. . . ” I must have said that line 20 times in my head as I waited for my turn to talk.

I stood up. My heart was pounding. But I got that first line out perfectly. 

The speech went great. 

Practice the first minute over and over. It’ll get you off to a strong start.  And you’ll overcome your nerves.

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How to Thank People at the Start of a Speech

Several years ago I attended a speech by the president of a major industry association.  He was speaking at a Rotary Club about the state of his business. After being introduced, he spent the first five minutes of his 20 minute speech thanking people for inviting him.  That’s a quarter of his speech!  And it went downhill from there.

It was a nightmare.

The problem, of course, is the “Thank yous” are wasted time for the overwhelming majority of the people listening. They want to hear what you have to say, not who has helped you along your way.  

We used to tell people to dump all “Thank yous.”  You’re there for your audience. Give out your “thank yous” personally in private. That should be enough to show your gratitude.

But we’ve modified that advice based on the fact that so many people ignore it. The fact is that speakers want to give some “thank yous”.

So here’s what we say now: Thank people for 10 seconds. Pause. Then begin. If you can’t thank everyone in 10 seconds, you simply have too many people to thank. You pause because it gives the audience a clear sense that the real speech is about to begin. The pause says “So we’ve got that out of the way. Now let’s start.”

I love marketing guru Seth Godin’s idea on this subject, which he posted about this week.  He recommends taking photos of all the people you want to thank and projecting them up on the screen in your auditorium prior to your speech. It will save you from having to formally thank them during the speech itself.  As much as I love this creativity, I’m not sure how practical it is for most speakers.

Of course, thanking people in speeches can be appropriate, such as when you’re accepting an award. But those speeches are usually incredibly boring. Think about the Academy Awards.

 Speaking of Academy Awards, here’s the “Thank You Very Much” musical number from the 1970 movie “Scrooge”.  In the song, the people of the town are celebrating the death of Scrooge, the miserable old miser. The song was nominated for best original song but ultimately lost to “For All We Know” from the movie “Love and Other Strangers.

Of course this “Thank You” speech works wonderfully. So you can ignore the above advice if you put your “thank yous” to music. Otherwise, keep it tight.

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