Julie Hansen is an award-winning sales writer and the author of Sales Presentations for Dummies. We had a chance to talk with Julie about sales presentations in the 21st century and what to do and not do in order to maximize the effectiveness of your next sales presentation.

Sales Presentations for Dummies - Julie Hansen

Tell us a bit about your background. Why are you so passionate about sales presentations?

My career started on the receiving end of many presentations, and I thought, “That looks like fun! I can do that!” But when I switched into sales, to my surprise, there was more to it than just talking through slides put together by the marketing department! Unfortunately for me and most salespeople, presentation training stops with the handoff of slides or is very general in nature.

Sales presentations are unique. They are the bridge between your product or service and your customer. Too many presentations fail not because the solution isn’t a good fit or the salesperson doesn’t understand the needs, but because of the presentation structure, delivery, or messaging failed to help the customer cross that bridge.

I founded Performance Sales and Training to help salespeople communicate their solutions to customers in a way that works today. Over the years, I’ve tested, developed, and compiled best practices for sales presentations; and the results are in my new book, Sales Presentations for Dummies. I also incorporated a lot of my experience as an actor, which helps in understanding what it takes to engage audiences under a variety of circumstances and deliver a message in a compelling and memorable way.

Your company site says that many sales presentations are “stuck in the eighties.” What do you mean by that?

While many areas of sales have evolved (lead generation, business development, etc.), sales presentations have remained surprisingly unchanged over the decades. They still range from boring company overviews and long monologues to cookie-cutter messaging and bullet points.

Nagel - stuck in the 1980's

We don’t live in the 1980’s anymore, and neither do our prospects. There are some significant trends that presenters need to take into account in their presentations today, including:

Declining attention spans. The average adult attention span is half of what it was a decade ago.
Multiple distractions. Smartphones, tablets, multiple priorities. People are quick to tune out when given the opportunity.
Super-informed buyers. Buyers no longer rely on salespeople to “teach,” yet presentations often fall back on this dated concept.

Given the shrinking attention spans of today’s audiences, how can salespeople capture and maintain interest during their sales presentations?

People consume information in bite-sized pieces today, such as texting, tweeting, and news bites. You only have to look at your own habits for proof. Unfortunately, this is at odds with the long, linear way that most sales presentations are delivered. By breaking your content into smaller chunks that correspond with what we’ve learned about audience attention patterns, you can help to ensure that your audience doesn’t miss your key points.

What’s a piece of bad advice about sales presentations that you’ve heard recently?

Lately, I hear a lot of, “I don’t do presentations. I just have conversations.” Presentations come in all forms, including less formal, more conversational styles. But too often, this response simply masks a lack of planning or a clear strategy for engaging your audience and driving towards an objective. When the stakes are high, winging it is a dangerous strategy. Even improvisers have a plan and rules they follow to ensure that they keep the conversation moving forward.

audience in large hall

Name one good habit that salespeople should develop or hone in order to improve the effectiveness of their sales presentations.

Those first few moments of your presentation are critical. It will determine how your audience perceives you and the filters through which they listen to you. Because of this, I recommend making it a habit of spending time developing and practicing your opening. A lot has to happen in that opening. You need to gain your audience’s attention, establish credibility and rapport, deliver something of value, and create anticipation. Too many salespeople save their best stuff for the end when people have already formed their opinion.

What’s the main difference in how to conduct a sales presentation virtually as opposed to an in-person meeting?

The main difference between a virtual and in-person meeting is the lack of visibility. Your audience can’t see you (typically), and you can’t see them. Add to this declining attention spans and technical challenges and you can see why many virtual presentations fail to achieve their goal!

Making yourself visible and keeping your audience consistently engaged is critical in a virtual world. Engagement requires thinking about the challenges inherent in the medium and the technology you’re using, understanding virtual audience behavior, and avoiding mistakes that can cause eyes and minds to wander. Visibility can best be achieved by using a webcam.

Actor Masks

Given that many buyers research a company prior to a sales presentation, how can a salesperson anticipate the informed questions that he or she will receive?

This is where knowing some acting techniques helps. Place yourself in your buyer’s shoes as you look at your site and any company information your buyer would have access to, as well as what’s being said about you in social media. Pretend you know nothing about your company and ask yourself what might raise a red flag, create confusion, or trigger a concern. Brainstorm answers around those objections and determine whether or not they are best proactively addressed.

When contacting a qualified sales prospect for the first time, what’s the most important thing to keep in mind regarding your sales pitch or presentation?

Keep it customer-focused. Share only what is most interesting, important, or relevant to each particular prospect. That means every presentation will be slightly different, and you may have to throw out or tweak a lot of those slides from marketing. Prospects expect a tailored experience. And when you are providing information, remember that your buyer has likely done his or her homework; so you need to bring something new to the table, like an insight or interesting perspective on that information.

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