These days it is very popular to use storytelling in a presentation. Audiences remember stories more clearly than any other kind of narrative and they get the point faster.
Here are 3 rules for telling better stories:
-A story needs tension. The audience needs to be aware that something may or may not happen, or that some danger might befall the storyteller, or that things are going to go disastrously wrong if something doesn’t happen the way it’s supposed to. Without that tension a story tends to be passive and not worth remembering or retelling.
-The opening of the story is an opportunity to grab the audience’s imagination. “So, as I’m sitting in the emergency room with no pants on the doctor says “You know, as chain saw accidents go, I’ve seen worse.” Work hard to find an opening that paints a picture of the tension in the story.
-A good story is made up of lots of short little scenes. It’s important that those scenes be conveyed in a seamless narrative form instead of “then this happened, then that happened, then that was followed by this…”
And a few other tips…
-Develop characters in the story. Tell us their name and something about them so we understand when you say “then Bill picked up the accordion and walked to the front of the stage..” why that’s relevant.
-Write the story out. Just because storytelling is a verbal exercise, writing the story will help you iron-out the details and language. If possible, after you write the story, put it away for a day or two, then edit again. Writing the story is just an exercise technique. Don’t read the written story to an audience. Deliver it without notes.
-Once you have a script and flow that you like, record it so you can listen to it a few times. You’ll probably want to edit further. It will get better each time.
-Stories that show your vulnerability are particularly powerful. Don’t hesitate to use them if the situation allows.
-True stories are always better than made-up stories. That said, you are allowed to use some creative license to move scenes around so that the story flows better or the points are more demonstrable. You’re allowed to embellish.
-Target the story to your audience. You probably don’t want to discuss meeting a local sports hero if you are speaking to an audience from the other side of the country.
If you’d like to tell better stories, here are two other tips. Take my storytelling workshop. Have your company host me. The best book on storytelling is “Long Story Short” by Margot Leitman.
Everything that you and your team do in a new business pitch will affect the outcome. But, there are three places you should pay particularly close attention: the open, the close and during Q&A.
The opening because your prospect is actually listening to you (it may be the only time) and it gives you the opportunity to talk about how you will solve their problems or what benefits you’ll bring to them to make them richer, better, stronger, etc.
The close because the prospect, who may not have been paying rapt attention throughout, tunes in again. It’s your opportunity to repeat your main thesis of the benefits you’ll bring to them and ask for the business.
The Q&A session, whether formal or informal, engages the prospect more than any other part of the presentation. Q&A is also an opportunity to get key players, who may not have had a lot of opportunities to present, to get involved.
Body language becomes very important during Q&A. Here are a few things to remember:
- Eye contact is critical, especially for dicey questions. The moment that you answer a question by looking down or at the ceiling, you are telegraphing that you are not confident with the response.
- Make sure you share the eye contact. If prospect A asks the question, start the eye contact with him, but at some point look at others across the table, as well.
- Lean in when answering the question. Don’t sit up straight and never lean back. Sit as close to the conference room table as you can.
- If you are standing when asked the question, take a step towards the person who asked as you answer. Never step back.
- Animated hands are powerful when answering a question, but, don’t touch your face. It’s a tell.
- Smile. That smile says you are confident in the answer you are giving. As importantly, most people look angry when they don’t smile.
- When asked a question that requires a “yes” or “no” response, answer in a full sentence. “Yes, because….”
- Posture is crucial. You look more confident with a strong posture, and you’ll look weaker with a slouching posture. This is important because by the end of the pitch most of us have lost our strong posture. Pump it up again. (See Filling the Space Blog)
- Avoid saying “That’s a good question.” It’s a habit to get out of. It makes you look like you don’t know the answer.
- Be honest. If you don’t know the answer say so, but promise to get back to them the same day with the answer. They will respect you more.
- If your colleague is answering, make sure you look interested in the response. It wouldn’t hurt to nod occasionally in agreement.
- Avoid piling on. If your colleague answered the question, you don’t need to add your two cents.
- Note to the CEO, or leader of the pitch. Allow others on the team to answer questions. Don’t hog the answers and don’t add more information after each question is answered by others.
- Watch the prospect’s face as you answer. If there is doubt, ask “Did I answer your question?”
The Q&A session can make or break the pitch. It should be rehearsed. If possible, slot the Q&A session before you close the pitch, otherwise you will be ending the pitch with odds and ends questions, instead of a powerful close and ask for business.
One of the misconceptions people have about public speaking is that they think it’s all about speaking. Certainly the words you speak are important, and try making a presentation without words…but research, especially in the last 10 years indicates that audiences rely on body language for content much more than words.
One of my clients lost a pitch he should have won because he crossed his arms while the prospect was explaining something to him. The prospect interpreted that move as my client being judgmental.
One of the most powerful body language techniques came out of research from Stanford University. I call the concept Filling the Space. It’s a simple concept that say the more I fill your visual frame…within limits…the more persuasive I am to you and the more confident I appear. The obvious way for me to fill your visual frame is to get closer to you. Next time you see people making presentations, note how much less impactful the speaker who is farther away appears.
But, there are other ways to fill the space in addition to proximity. I can fill the space with hand and arm gestures. Within limits. I don’t want arm gestures that are so exaggerated that I look like I’m trying to land a plane. And, research tells us that the audience is far more likely to understand what you are saying if you use hand gestures while speaking. So, don’t keep your hands at your side. Keep them in front and active.
Another way to fill the space is with slight steps in one direction or the other. Not pacing but a step or two in this way or that.
I can also fill the space by making better eye contact. The more I look at you, the more you look back, so that starts to control your visual frame.
I also can fill the space with my volume. If I speak in a bigger voice…not shouting…that fills the space, as well.
If you start to use some of these techniques you’ll become an infinitely more powerful speaker immediately. Play with them slowly and work them into your repertoire. You’ll find that filling the space is a powerful presentation tool.
For years I have been haunted by Steve Jobs, the presenter. He was an exquisite presenter, with a great style, presence and charisma. We can all learn things from how he worked.
But for years, I had to combat those clients who read enough of Jobs’ presentation philosophy to be dangerous. Jobs preferred graphics over words in his slides. Clients tried to do the same thing, but they had two problems; they didn’t have the confidence to reduce the word count on the slides for fear they might miss something. And, they used stock art and stock photos. Some of the graphics were good. Most were gratuitous and had little to do with the point of the narrative.
Jobs didn’t have to use stock photos for his slides. He had a huge art department that spent months creating the perfect slide to convey the point Jobs was making. Most of us don’t have such an art department, or budget, at our disposal.
So, while everyone tried to emulate Jobs’ presentation style, they couldn’t. But, not just because of the slides.
Jobs was famous for preparation and rehearsal. He worked his presentation until it was close to perfect and tweaked every word to get things just right. Many of the clients I’ve seen put in a minimum amount of time for preparation and almost nothing for rehearsal. If you are going to copy the great man, you gotta do everything he did.
Jobs was a minimalist. He didn’t try to cover every product and every feature and every selling point when he presented a new product. He had one big takeaway and 2 or 3 support points. Most clients aren’t comfortable unless they empty the closet of every selling feature they can think of.
The greatest disconnect that most clients have with Jobs’ style is the product itself. Jobs had spectacular, mold-shattering, beautiful products that the world had never seen before. Imagine if you are the presenter and what you have to show is a telephone no one has ever even imagined that also plays music and becomes a pocket laptop. That’s a really easy thing to present. You own the audience from the moment you take it out of your shirt pocket. You don’t need lots of slides to explain it or justify it. The mere demonstration of the product does it all for you. OK, now imagine you are presenting instead, a line of shoes that are new but very similar in every way to what’s out there in the market now. Or, you are presenting a process for auditing financial records which is a newer version of the one you introduced last year. It is impossible to present them the way Jobs did. The audience just won’t respond. You may need to justify the presentation with more content, more words on slides, more data.
I am a great admirer of how Jobs presented. He was a genius. I loved that his slides were sparse, that he was disciplined to stick to a few points, that he spoke to the audience and not the screen behind him. He had a terrific, yet simple mantra: concrete/simple/emotional.
“Look at the new iMac. It’s thin and light (concrete), it’s so thin it can slide into a manila envelope (simple). Isn’t it fabulous (emotional).”
There are lots of things we can learn from him (Read: Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo). But, applying all of his techniques to each person’s presentation is never going to work.
Every presentation and pitch ends with a Q&A session. It is an incredibly important part of the overall presentation and it should not be left to chance.
It breaks the format of the pitch. Your presentation has gone along a certain path with you and your team talking and, for the most part, the prospect listening. Now the tables have turned. That change in format will cause the prospect to tune in anew to what you have to say. He or she is no longer lulled into the predictable rhythm of your presentation.
I haven’t seen research on it, but I suspect that overall, prospect attention is very high during Q&A, surpassed only when you opened the presentation.
Attention drops during the middle section of most presentations, which is why you’ll often hear questions from prospects on things you discussed in the pitch but that they didn’t hear. When a prospect asks a question about something you covered previously, there’s no need to remind everyone that you already covered it. Simply, answer the question.
Many presentations assume that the Q&A will come at the end of the pitch. Don’t do that. You don’t want the pitch to just peter out after all the questions have been asked. Put your Q&A before the close; this way your prospects’ questions have been answered and their attention is peaked before you deliver your close, thank everyone, and ask for the business. I suggest you say something like “before we close the meeting, are there any questions you would like to ask.”
Make sure your prospect knows they can ask questions at any time; a presentation I attended recently started with the group leader saying they would take no questions until the end. It killed the connection between presenter and audience.
Taking questions as they arise says you are confident in what you are presenting. Somewhere in the beginning of your presentation tell the audience that there will be a Q&A session near the end, but they should feel free to ask questions at any time.
A couple other guidelines:
- Not everyone on your team has to answer every question. Don’t encourage piling on with additional answers.
- Get out of the habit of starting every answer with “that’s a good question”. Just answer the damn question.
- You might have a question for them based on what they’ve been asking. Now is the time to ask it.
Finally, at some point during a Q&A, you will be asked a question you don’t know the answer to. Look at this as an opportunity. Be 100% honest and say you don’t know the answer, BUT, you will find the answer and get back to them before the end of the day. This now gives you permission to call the prospect to discuss your pitch further.
Remember the story of Winston Churchill who said he needed to stay at home and work on his extemporaneous remarks for an event he was going to the next day. If you have a suspicion that you might be called on to give a speech, especially if you are the owner of a company, or the head of a division, or the head of an organization, or the sibling of an honoree; be ready to give a toast.
Don’t try to be funny. Comedians hone their material for months. It’s highly unlikely that you are going to hit the ball out of the yard with a funny remark. Don’t even try. Just be yourself and if a funny thing comes out of your mouth, enjoy it along with everyone else.
A toast is the time to thank people and acknowledge good work, hard thinking, dedication, great food, terrific ideas. Everyone loves to be singled out for their achievements. Just be careful to have a list of the people you want to thank so that you don’t overlook anyone.
Tell a story
If you can find a story that relates to what the event is all about start by telling that story. Literally, start with the story…
“I want to tell you a story about…”
Remember that stories don’t have to be exact. You don’t have to tell everything that happened. You don’t need to give us side bar and back story information. Just tell the story then go into your acknowledgements
“I want to thank…”
And then close it up.
If other toasters thanked the host for the great party, you don’t need to do so, as well. Find something else to say that no one has used.
Be sincere, even if it is mushy. If you want to use the toast to thank someone for the impact he made on your life, do so. It will be a great toast.
It’s not about you
Sometimes in toasts I hear the speaker referring to themselves more than the person they are toasting. Try to keep yourself out of the story other than necessary.
Don’t be crude or rude.
Avoid stories where you have to repeat off-color remarks or sordid activities. Keep it clean and keep it on a higher level. I’m a person who can have a pretty foul mouth, but when making a toast, I’m a choir boy.
If you are the host, never force people to make a toast. This is a purely volunteer activity.
Have a close
Have you ever noticed that when someone is giving a toast they get to the end and seem to run out of steam? You raise your glass thinking it’s time to drink when the speaker gets a second wind? Then they seem to be coming to the end again and you raise your glass and they fool you again. Have one ending and get the hell off the stage. You may think of a better one two seconds after you deliver the first, but thems the breaks. Close the toast. Smile. Drink. Leave.
When all else fails…say the following.
“What a great event. Let’s wish our honoree all the best. To Joe! Congratulations. Now let’s enjoy the party!”.
One of the skills that you should hone is the ability to stand up and speaking extemporaneously. The reality is that there are going to be far more opportunities for you to make a spontaneous remark, or speech, or introduction, then there will be to prepare a presentation, rehearse it and have slide support.
But, how do you develop that skill?
Practice and structure. Structures are concepts that allow you to put your thoughts into a template to help frame your remarks. Here’s a simple one. If I have to give a toast, I already know I’m going to say the following:
- Isn’t this a great celebration?
- Thanks to the hosts for throwing it.
- Congratulations to the honoree
I know if someone asks me for an overview of something I’m involved in, for example, how is teaching at Harvard, I’m going to use this handy structure:
Which translates to:
- Opportunity: This was a great opportunity for me. I love teaching. I love helping people get better at their communications skill. And, from a business standpoint, it’s not so bad to be associated with Harvard.
- Solution: I teach the class using the same style that I use in workshops. I throw out a few key concepts but the main work is getting people to stand and deliver multiple presentations and get plenty of feedback.
- Benefit: It’s great to watch people improve right before your eyes. It’s personally rewarding for me.
A Structure for When Things Go Wrong
Here’s an example of speaking about a difficult situation and a how structure can save the day: Recently one of my friends was personally involved in an unpleasant incident and asked me for advice of how to handle it. I love the ‘3Rs’ structure that some PR people use:
In other words:
- Regret: “I can’t tell you how much I regret what happened, and in particular how much I feel for the other person’s family that had to go through these challenges”
- Reason: “As best as I can tell, here is what happened.”
- Repair: “Here’s what I am going to do to make sure this never happens again.”
Finally, a standard no-fail structure is the use of rhetorical questions to frame your remarks from the onset. There are 3 kinds of rhetorical remarks you can use:
- Basic Rhetorical question
- Polling question
- What-if question
For example, you are asked to speak about the effort in your company to cut energy waste.
- Try a basic rhetorical question: “Would we all agree that cutting energy waste is the right thing to do?”
- Or a polling question: “How many people here make an effort to cut energy waste at home? How many people think we should be doing it here at work?”
- Or a what-if question: “What if there were a way for a company like ours to cut energy waste by 30%. Do you think we should attempt it even though it will mean all of us will have to sacrifice to make this happen?”
Now you’re off and running, ready to go into the specifics:
“I’m happy to tell you that we were able to cut energy 37% and most of you probably didn’t even know you were helping, because it was so easy to do. We achieved it because:
- You shut off lights when you left the room,
- You turned your computer off at night,
- We started recycling bottles and papers,
Practice is the Key
All of these little tricks work, but only become helpful if you practice. Now, you might say that you seldom get chances to speak extemporaneously, but my guess is that you always have opportunities to speak off the cuff, you just don’t realize you’re doing so. And, you don’t need to just use them in the office. There are countless times you speak off the cuff in social and family situations. The next time you see the opportunity, seize it and play around with one of these structures.
Speaking spontaneously will do wonders for your career. You’ll be seen as the go-to person and regarded with more esteem. The more you use these structures, the better and more confident you will become.
Making a pitch while seated at a conference room table has a body language all its own. One of my clients listened intently as we went through each one. He practiced at the table as I went through them. A few months later he called me to say that his last few new business pitches have all been successful and he credited the conference table body language techniques as the cause.
How to Say Hello
When you enter a conference room to greet the prospect, try to avoid shaking hands over the table. Instead walk around the table to the other side and shake hands. Do the same at the end of the meeting.
Where/How to Sit
The preferred place to sit at the table is a center seat, not an end seat. However, you should always sit across and close to your client. The one exception is if the client sits at the end, you should sit on the side, but close to the client.
Assuming you are with a team of people, the most important people involved in the pitch should sit closest to the prospect. That often means that if you are the most senior person at the table, but you won’t be actively involved in the account, you should sit further away.
When it is your turn to present there are a few things to think about. If the chair you are on goes up and down, set it as high as possible. Lean in slightly. Hands above the table. Don’t sit straight up, and never lean back. Feel free to move your hands as you talk, but not as exaggerated as when you are standing. Stay in that position for the entire time of your presentation, including Q&A. The only time to sit back is when you hand off the presentation to your team mate.
When your team mate is presenting it is very important that you look interested. This may be difficult because you may have heard the pitch a million times, and you’re now relaxing after your turn. But, all of the prospects on the other side are watching and you have to look interested. Avoid pushing too far back from the table; avoid crossing your arms as you sit and listen.
If you are presenting exhibits or drawings for the prospect to look at, it’s fine to stand up at your chair and put them out, leaning in as you discuss each one.
Make Eye Contact with Everyone
Make sure that when you are presenting, or answering questions, that you make contact with everyone on the other side of the table, not just the CEO. The other people may not be able to hire you, but they can sure see to it that you are not hired. You can bet that after the meeting the CEO will call her team together and say “OK, what do we all think?” You need all of those people on your side. Do that with eye contact and smiles.
Ask for the Business
Someone on your team should be charged with summarizing the presentation at the close then asking the prospect for the business. Whoever that is needs to look them all in the eye, ask for the business, then, everyone on your side must remain silent until the prospect responds.
Congratulations. You just won a nice account.
Here’s how most teams pitch business. After the initial greetings and the mandatory “We’re excited to be here” they start from the left of the diagram and work towards the right.
WHO → HOW → WHY/WHAT
“Let me tell you about my company (tells company story). Let me tell you about the people I brought with me today (introduces everyone with bios). Let me tell you how we work (describes process). What our mission statement is (reads statement). What drives us (gets teary eyed). What makes our clients so successful (drops names). Here is the agenda for this meeting (reviews every detail). OK. Let’s get started.”
The problem is that the pitch team used the most valuable real estate of the pitch, the opening, to talk about themselves and hardly anything about the prospect. Always remember this in a pitch:
The prospect could care less about your company, your team and your mission statement. The prospect only cares about the prospect.
Then, to make matters worse, the pitch team wants to discuss the WHY—WHY the prospect should hire them.
The prospect, assuming she is still awake, is much more interested in the WHAT of the pitch: WHAT are you going to do to fix my problems? WHAT will you do to make me look better in my boss’s eyes? WHAT strategy will you use against my hated competitors? WHAT will you do to make me more successful?
Here’s a better plan
WHAT → HOW → WHO
The first thing out of the pitch leader’s mouth after Good Morning should be WHAT the team will do for the prospect. This may include saying things like:
“We think the biggest challenge you have to succeed is X. We say that based on this research. WHAT we aim to do is focus ruthlessly on X. Here is HOW we will overcome X. We’ll do these three things. Here is WHO we brought with us today because they are experts at combating X. Our company has a long track record in this area, as well. OK. Let’s get started.”
This opening is totally tailored to the prospect and her needs. Nothing else. It’s all about the benefits you are bringing to the party. And, you will own the client’s attention.
I can hear the cries now. “We didn’t get to tell them why they should hire us.” If you did a good job it will be apparent, but the time to do that is in the close. Give a summary of the pitch and tell them why you are best suited for handling the business. Then ask for the account.”