Did you read the title of this article and tune in hoping for a magic bullet that would transform every presentation and client meeting into a sure-fire winner? Sadly, life is never quite that simple. The only advice I can offer to make sure you never fail is to never set objectives for the outcome in the first place.
Fortunately (or not), this is the approach that many businesses seem to adopt - even if not by design. They don’t set objectives for what they want to get out of a client meeting so, by definition, they cannot fail. But, even if risk of failure can’t be eliminated, there are steps you can take to make it much less likely.
Most businesses find it easier to accept the need to set objectives for what they want their clients to get from meetings and presentations. Most tell me this is blindingly obvious – ‘we are just presenting a business update,’ or ‘we want to secure the contract.’ Too often they are content to leave their measurement of success at these bland and non-measurable levels.
Accurately measuring whether a session was successful from the presenter’s perspective needs far more detailed consideration. The presenter will (or should) have put a lot of effort and preparation into the session. Probably there are considerable rewards on offer to them personally or their business. Defining what success would look like calls for a detailed plan of objectives that match the importance of the event.
What Might Your Priorities Be?
When it comes to priorities and objectives, it’s impossible to generalise. They will be specific to the client, contract and the depth of your existing relationship. The sorts of things you could target are these:
Itemise what you need to achieve from the session and you can then add appropriate trigger statements or questions to the presentation or discussion.
Structure Your Desired Outcomes
Instead of coming out of a client meeting and convincing yourself that it ‘went OK,’ try to add a bit more structure to your evaluation. The way I do this is to explicitly write down what I need to achieve – probably no more than 5-8 things – sometimes fewer!
I then rank these. I set myself a base of what I absolutely ‘need’ to achieve and I expect to be successful in realizing these at least 80-90% of the time. This sets the lowest level of success I would be satisfied with. It could be whether I communicated my key messages to the audience and confirmed this based on feedback (both verbal and non-verbal) during the session.
Assuming I achieve the base level of “Must” the next level up is my “Intend” level. These objectives should be achievable anywhere between 50-30% of the time; they are becoming much more of a stretch.
Finally, I have my “Like” level. These are the things that I only succeed in getting 5-10% of the time. When absolutely everything goes to plan and the audience or client I’m with is 100% attuned to what I’m saying. You could look at this as being the ‘magic wand, all the stars aligned level.’ But it still helps to shoot for the stars.
Hopefully, this type of structure will help you plan to get more value from meetings and presentations, and have a clearer idea of whether you’ve actually made progress.
And don’t forget, the same applies to internal meetings where your goal might simply be to elevate your profile and standing with colleagues and stakeholders. Understand the outcome you want and plan how you will make it happen.
Most of us believe that we focus on what’s most important. In fact, the reverse is usually true: any information or issue we are made to focus on becomes the most important.
Observe how news seems to come in waves. A particular event (possibly a tragic one) hits the news and then similar events seem to happen across the country. Often, those events were happening and going to happen anyway - but nobody paid them any attention. Opinion polls consistently show that issues in the news assume a higher level of importance: ‘something must be done about…’
So what’s going on? As Robert Cialdini explains in his book Pre-Suasion: ‘we can be brought to the mistaken belief that something is important merely because we have been led by some irrelevant factor to give it our narrowed attention.’
Before 2015 most people had no strong views on the EU, it was a fact of life. Once the issue came to dominate the news agenda it grew in importance to the point where people started to define themselves according to their views on EU membership, some even became a bit obsessive.
In a very unscientific way, I’ve recently observed how the degree of strict adherence to social distancing seems to be related to the percentage of news coverage dominated by coronavirus.
For a mundane example, think about what happens if you are having a conversation with somebody and your mobile phone rings. Try as you might to ignore it, it has a grip on your attention. ‘Who is it? Could it be important? Sorry, what was that you were saying?’
Focusing Attention in Presentations
As a presenter, one of your chief tasks is to be persuasive. In the context of the tendering process this means convincing your client that yours is the most advantageous solution.
It’s likely that your proposed approach will have strengths and weaknesses compared to your competitors. While you must always address all of your client’s requirements, you have more influence over the relative importance of those requirements in your client’s mind than you probably realise.
I recommend that you actively research your client’s hierarchy of needs and match your proposal’s strengths against these. Try to positively influence the relative importance of your strengths in their hierarchy and, similarly, aim to persuade them that the relative strengths of your competition shouldn’t rank so highly in their hierarchy of needs. Let’s look briefly at how you might do that.
What Comes First?
A key consideration is the order in which you present information. The thing we hear first is normally assumed to be the most important. Subsequent information tends to get filtered through the ‘reality’ of the first information we receive and accept. Once accepted, this idea can exert the same magnetic force of attention attraction as the ringing mobile.
When planning your presentation it’s impossible to overstate the importance of how, and in what order, you intend to present information and arguments. Think about how you need to frame and manage the flow of information so that it is focused on your strengths and so that people remember those strengths and perceive them as important for a successful outcome.
Other methods of focusing attention include:
There’s plenty more I could include on this topic, but that would be a book rather than an article. For now, I’d just like to encourage you to think a little harder about how you can use presentations as an opportunity to shape and positively influence the discussion and the decision making process.
I am indebted to a close contact of mine Ian Brownlee for bringing to my attention the results of an International study on Presentations 2000 to 2012 (updated in Dec 2017).
The study aimed to identify why audiences lose interest and stop paying attention during presentations. I’m sure this is something any presenter would want to understand.
I hardly need to explain why this is a bad outcome. In short, you’ve wasted your best opportunity to get your message across and wasted everyone’s time into the bargain.
I don’t believe that anybody deliberately sets out to deliver a bad presentation. The vast majority of presenters seem to genuinely believe they are presenting well. They might not be totally confident in their own ability but they believe they have done all they could to deliver their messages successfully - even when they haven’t.
Can You Rely On Audience Feedback?
Understanding current performance levels is the first step towards improvement. Unfortunately, audience feedback isn't much help. It's very difficult for an audience to objectively critique a presentation and it’s even more difficult for the presenter to receive this critique objectively.
A better place to start might be to understand the most common behaviours that will make your audience switch off. Bear in mind too, that remote presentations make the task of keeping your audience engaged that much harder.
In no particular order here are 5 of the most common issues that arise:
Grasp the Limitations of Working Memory
Without going too deeply into the science behind it, maintaining audience engagement is all to do with our working memory. This is how much information our brains can evaluate and retain. Miller's original research suggested this to be 7+/- 2 pieces of information. More recent studies by Cowan & Shu and others suggest that the memory can process up to 14 connected or related visual elements – lending further weight to the oft quoted cliché that “a picture paints a thousand words.”
Shu, et al, also state that Working Memory is able to easily process 3 chunks of incoming information at one time. E,g., The good, the bad and the ugly. The Father, the son and the holy ghost, etc.. Listen to any politician and note how often points come in groups of three!
So in practical terms, to improve your presentations you must avoid overloading the working memory:
Doing all of this is easier said than done. It’s beneficial to have an objective external opinion to coach you on how effectively you are implementing these points and to provide encouragement and coaching on subtle ways of improving.
If your presentation is of critical importance to you and your business, you really want to do all you can to keep your audience alert and engaged, and ready to absorb the points you need to communicate.
The Bid Coach consultants are experts in effective communication. We help individuals and businesses large and small to improve the effectiveness of their presentations so they become sought-after experts and win more business.
I have many years of senior sales and account management positions.
This experience taught me how to interpret exactly what clients are seeking, and what they need and expect to see and hear from the successful bidder. We draw on this experience to give your team an additional competitive advantage by building on their existing strengths while improving their team-working and self-awareness.