In my last entry, I spoke about looking in the mirror, knowing when to look closely and when to avoid constant scrutiny. In this entry I am asking you to look closely at who is in your audience when you are presenting to win business.

Let’s say you decide to buy a new computer. The sales person starts explaining to you all the bells and whistles of the Mac OS X (my latest purchase). While he is giving his sales pitch, you are growing noticeably impatient. At no point during the one-way data dump does he find out how you plan on using the computer; what you do for a living; who your clients are; if you need to share information internally; what you may need to be successful; or why are you are considering a Mac, when you have been a long-time PC user!

By finding the answer to such specific questions the sales person would be able to learn that:

You work in a business environment;

Yes, you need to share information with PC users (affecting what software you buy);

You are using it for video editing;

You plan on creating DVDs;

You will be editing pictures.

He would be finding out your expectations for a new computer, why you feel a Mac would meet your requirements, and whether you are impressed with this Mac. These important details might secure the sale of not only the Mac, but also all the related software.

Now, you may think: “I wouldn’t want my retailer to ask me so many questions”. On the other hand, if a sales person is going to help you with the “right” solution rather than just “a” solution, then why not? This information might save you time and money as you try to set up the Mac to meet your business needs.

Let’s take this philosophy and apply it to your high-stakes business presentations.

I often find myself at the back of a training room critiquing very qualified individuals making business presentations that could potentially win them lucrative contracts. No matter what industry I work with- finance, engineering, media, architecture, research, or public relations – it seems presenters always start their presentations with “our company, its history, and what we can do for you”. It’s like watching ‘Ground Hog Day’. Many of these companies are very successful in their own right, so they must feel confident that their presentations are effective. But will this approach work some of the time, most of the time, or all of the time? My experience tells me it works some of the time. Nothing works all of the time, so I will focus on most of the time.

To increase the chances of winning business, “influencing tools” are the magic wand. The power of influence comes from knowing the other party. If we don’t know who we are speaking with, how can we influence them? We can’t.

Learning about your audience by looking online, searching their name, and asking your network are all good places to start, but your preparation is far from complete. To find out what clients want (notice, the intentional use of WANT, not NEED—“need” is to survive, “want” is to prosper), you need to ask questions about their previous experiences and listen to how they are motivated emotionally (ego, trust, safety), politically (hierarchy, how we do things), and culturally (their unspoken biases).

Before getting up in front of a room to present, you should know as much as possible about everyone in the audience. Seems like an insurmountable task? Maybe, but remember these tips as you plan your next presentation: the more you know, the more you can address their specific issues; the less you know, the more fatal assumptions you will make. Without information or understanding of your audience’s perspective, the more you are throwing information against the wall in the hopes that it will stick.

Your next presentation will be improved if you can answer the following questions:

  • Who is in my audience?
  • Who are the decision-makers?
  • What is their decision-making process?
  • Who are the key influencers?
  • What are their experiences with providers?
  • What does my audience value?
  • What is the level of understanding of my topic?
  • What are their key issues?
  • How do they like to receive information?
  • What do I have in common with them?
  • What are their expectations of the presentation?
  • What will motivate them to accept the information or recommendation? (Emotional, rational, political & cultural, motivators)
  • How will they describe my presentation to peers?

Even if you know how only one member of the audience would answer these questions, it will help, but it usually is not enough. In any presentation, it is the unknown that is your enemy; you don’t want to find yourself in a pack of wolves as you describe “our company, its history, and what we can do for you”!

Next Steps: When preparing your next presentation, take the time to ask your clients what they want, in order to increase your chances of winning the opportunity. What are their experiences? What do they hope to gain from your presentation? What is important to them? Why are they changing providers or starting a new initiative? Watch how your audience listens to your entire presentation. Better yet, watch them take positive action after your presentation.