If you watched any of the 2020 Republican or Democrat National Conventions in the US you’ve probably been struck by how hard it is to play to an audience you can’t see. Even usually charismatic performers have struggled to perform and connect without audience feedback and involvement. Cracking a joke and pausing for laughs that nobody can hear looks plain awkward, as does delivering a killer line, waiting for applause and approval, and getting only silence.
Making your pitch in an online environment is tough. It calls for a different approach and a different type of preparation. Even when the threat of Covid-19 has disappeared (and who knows when that will be) it’s almost a certainty that many clients will choose to continue with online platforms like Zoom. It’s more cost effective and convenient for them; so why wouldn’t they?
So, sales people who want to be effective had better sharpen their online presenting skills. And, while the audiences for sales presentations might not be given to whooping and cheering like those in a political rally, you still need to develop a presentation style that works without the eye contact, nods, glances between colleagues, and thoughtful hmmms that usually confirm that your points are hitting home.
Working and Presenting From Home
While working from home is nothing new to me, most of my sales experience was face to face with people in a room presenting my business proposals to them. Of course I’ve also had to ‘present’ outlines of proposals over the phone sometimes, giving enough information away to secure the face to face interview but not enough to render the face to face irrelevant! (That’s a difficult balance to strike I can tell you.)
One major challenge of online presentations is simply getting used to using the new technology and setting up our presentation environment. I’ll cover some tips for doing this in a future article.
Eye Contact Matters - But Where Are the Eyes?
But let’s start with the basics for communicating effectively with the people whose faces you see on the screen. Eye contact is always important - online and offline. But where are their eyes and where are yours pointed from the perspective of the audience? Concentrating on looking at your camera, rather than at your screen is good advice, but only up to a point.
In some ways you have an advantage online because you can ‘maintain’ eye contact with each individual (at least from their point of view). But this also comes with the risk of looking a bit intense and scary, like you’re trying to hypnotise them. It’s easy to forget to blink and to stare at the camera in a very unnatural way, which can be quite unnerving for those on the receiving end.
It helps to glance at the images of your audience to see if they are engaged and to gauge their reactions. Naturally, we will try to make eye-contact with the image rather than the camera - but this makes you appear to them to be looking down rather than ahead.
When you look at the camera to make eye-contact you can't focus on their faces to get their reactions, nor can you focus on one person at a time. Of course, your audience is unaware of all this. Getting the balance right so that it all looks natural is difficult and takes practice.
Cultivate the Right Image
One thing I always do when I’m going to be on a video call is that I wear a work or formal shirt. Why? Well it puts me in the right frame of mind for the call, as it evokes the feeling that I’m ‘working’. For me, wearing formal work clothes is my norm – it isn’t for everyone I know, but it makes me feel right and I hope it also creates the right impression with the work colleagues, customers, stakeholders that I’m communicating with.
One great advantage I’ve found with presenting remotely is that I can practise as many times as I like. I can record and play back these sessions to myself so that I appear as professionally I’d like to. Nobody knows you’ve done this but it will help you to come across as spontaneous and natural.
Doing this preparation in the privacy of your home is a massive (and underutilised) aspect of presenting remotely. It’s how you learn to keep going without being thrown by the lack of audience response. It’s certainly proved its worth to me over the past few months.
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.