Archives for November 2013

CEO Learns the Secret of Sales Presentations…the Hard Way

In business, a persistent fact of life is that sales people sell features rather than benefits. This practice loses potential customers—and even worse, the sale.  The same practice occurs in pitches, where presenters speak all about themselves—their products and/or their companies—and lose their audience.

Jeff Lawson learned this the hard way. He’s the CEO of Twilio, a San Francisco start-up company that is building the future of business communications by enabling phones, VoIP, and messaging to be embedded into web, desktop, and mobile software. In the October issue of Inc. magazine, Mr. Lawson describes how his early pitches to raise financing were met with stiff resistance from venture capitalists.

Puzzled at the rejection of what he was confident was a company with great technology and great potential, he sought answers from the undisputed king of pitches, Steve Jobs.  Mr. Lawson set about watching several of Mr. Jobs’ keynotes and “studied how he set the stage [by] describing the state of the world as you know it, and why it sucks. And then, boom—he gives you the answer to a problem you didn’t know you had until five minutes ago.”

Then and there Mr. Lawson discovered two essential elements of every presentation: put your audience first and tell your story in a meaningful progression, a logical flow. First establish a need and then demonstrate how your solution fulfills that need. In plain terms, tell the investor audience that there is a market opportunity and then tell them how your company is uniquely positioned to leverage that opportunity.

In even plainer terms, sell the benefits, not the features. Mr. Lawson had been pitching the features of his company, not why those features are important to his investor audience. Using the lesson he learned from Mr. Jobs, Mr. Lawson switched the sequence of his pitch and started with the potential of providing “a way for buyers to talk to sellers online…how any industry could use a way to communicate with customers online. Finally, [he] explained how Twilio fills that hole.”

In the transformation, Mr. Lawson made his pitch all about his audience. He then told his story in a logical progression, starting with the unmet need for online communication in commerce and then moving on to how Twilio’s technology fulfills that need. As he summarized the shift, “The point isn’t how our product works. What matters is what it can do. That story arc makes a huge difference.”

And a big difference it made indeed—the company has since raised $103 million of financing.

Think of your story as an arc with a beginning, middle, and end; and that the line that connects these essential elements has a clear and meaningful progression.

Go with the flow.

About the Author:

Jerry Weissman is principal of Power Presentations Ltd, a company that offers presentation coaching to enhance corporate value. Based on his experience as a producer at WCBS-TV in New York City, Weissman developed a unique methodology and set of techniques to help presenters and speakers clear their minds by organizing their content and deliver it as a series of conversations rather than as performances. Weissman also is author of a number of best-selling books on presentation skills, the latest being In the Line of Fire: How to Handle Tough Questions–When it Counts. This blog also ran in Forbes magazine.

Reorder Objects More Easily in PowerPoint’s Selection Pane

As you build a slide’s design, you may add a lot of objects to it. Complex animation may especially include many objects.

Do you spend a lot of time reordering objects? By that I mean moving an object behind or in front of another object? Usually, the way I reorder objects is to right-click an object and choose Send to Back, Send Backward (1 layer), Bring to Front, or Bring Forward (1 layer).


But sometimes I want to bring an object forward a few layers, but not to the front. It can be time-consuming and confusing to get the order right.

In PowerPoint 2013, you can use the Select pane and simply drag objects where you want them. It’s a great new feature. (I’ve been asking for it, too. Do you think that Microsoft listened to me?)

Here are the steps:

  1. On the Home tab, in the Editing group, click Select, Selection Pane to display the Selection task pane on the right.
  2. Either select an object on a slide or select it in the Selection pane.
  3. Drag it upward to move it forward. Drag it downward to move it backward.

You can even change the order of objects within groups!

Click here to watch a short video of how I reorder objects in the Selection pane.

About the Author:

Ellen Finkelstein is a noted presentation design consultant and trainer, a Microsoft PowerPoint MVP and author of a number of top-selling books in the presentations field. For more information, visit


Sink the Agenda Slide

How would you like to go to a movie, let’s say, “Titanic,” and have the movie open with this screen (below).

Titanic Agenda 2

It would be a bit of a spoiler, wouldn’t it? Yet that’s the way most business presentations seem to begin, especially internal corporate presentations.

When I work with corporate executives on their presentations, they almost always insist they need an agenda slide to show their audience exactly what issues are going to be covered, in order to keep everyone’s attention. And  yet…James Cameron seemed to have no trouble keeping everyone’s attention in Titanic.

In a sense, the executives are right. In a poorly structured and written presentation, the agenda is necessary to help the audience make sense of what they are hearing, just as a really bad movie, (I’m looking at you, Tom Cruise)  could use an agenda slide to make sense of the story.

A great movie, on the other hand, never leaves you confused or lost. You know what’s happening. Even a mystery should be mysterious clearly. You may not know who the killer is, but at least you know where you are in the story.

That’s how a good presentation should be too.

The opener should grab their attention and prepare them for the message you are going to present to them.

The introduction should lay out the change you are going to lead the audience through. How they will benefit from this change should be unambiguously stated. The message they are to remember should be presented to them in a short, clear and memorable form.

The body should flow naturally from the message to the arguments, examples and stories that will explain and support it, with concrete examples, specific data and iron-clad logic.

The conclusion should return to that message, driving home its meaning, its relevance and its importance; planting that one crystal clear point deep in the minds of the audience.

If you do that, your audience will know where you are going. They will understand how each part of the presentation relates to the whole. They’ll know what to expect.

Your presentation will carry your audience towards your destination smoothly, powerfully, irresistibly, like the great ocean liner herself.

Just watch out for icebergs.

About the Author:

R.L. Howser  is a speaker, writer, university professor and journalist with more than 30 years of experience as a professional communicator. He teaches presentation and communications skills at Tokyo University of Science (Tokyo Rika Daigakku), Hosei University and the Kenichi Ohmae Graduate School of Business. Howser also was the 2010 Toastmasters Japan Champion of Public Speaking. For more from his blog, Presentation Dynamics, visit


Presenting to Differentiate: Stunningly Awful vs. Terrific Tactics

Vendors want to differentiate, vendors try to differentiate, but most vendors fail to meaningfully and successfully differentiate, in the opinion of many of their customers.

When done poorly, differentiation can be stunningly awful; when done well it can be truly terrific. Let’s explore.

What Is Competitive Differentiation? 

Most vendors define this as “capabilities that we have or do better than our competition.” Pretty straightforward, right? But do customers share this definition?  Likely not. 

Customers are looking for solutions that fit their perception of their current and expected future needs.  A vendor with capabilities that meets these current and future needs exactly is clearly the best choice, everything else being equal (such as price). 

With that in mind, a vendor who seeks to “differentiate” by simply presenting capabilities that another vendor lacks is at risk. What if the customer doesn’t see the need for these additional capabilities?  What if they don’t care or, worse, can’t use them?

Then these additional capabilities become a liability.

For example, let’s say you are shopping for a new set of kitchen knives. At the store, you are looking at several knife sets and the sales person steers you to one particular set of 10 knives, saying, “This set is better because it has 10 knives – one more than most – plus a sharpener, so you can keep all of your knives razor-sharp.”  The other sets on display only have nine knives. 

Sounds like a win, right?  However, it turns out that your knife block only has room for 9 knives and no place for a sharpener. You are concerned that the extra knife and sharpener will end up rattling around in a drawer – and possibly be a hazard.

Differentiation has occurred, but not positive differentiation!

The larger knife set is perceived as “too much” and possibly “too expensive” (if it costs more than the set of 9) or “cheap” if the price is the same as the set of 9, since the perception will likely be that each knife individually is worth less.

Parallels to Software

The world of software is similar.  Let’s say you are looking for a tool that helps you to address availability problems with your website.  You’ve decided you want something that sends you an email message with an appropriate link when a problem is imminent, so that you can click the link that logs you into the system, find the root cause, and address the problem:

Vendor 1 does an excellent job doing Discovery with you – and then presents a demo that specifically shows email alerts and the ability to drill down and find root causes.

Vendor 2 does a good job doing Discovery with you – and then presents a demo that shows email alerts and ability to drill down and find root causes, and also shows you a system dashboard while describing why dashboards are so wonderful.

Who will get the order?  Shouldn’t Vendor 2 get your business?  After all, they have what you need plus a fabulous dashboard.

You give the order to Vendor 1, however. Why? In doing Discovery with you, Vendor 1 learned that you hate to have to open a pile of applications and review dashboards.  You explained that you’d much rather only have to pay attention when a problem is pending – and email alerts are your preferred mode of receiving this information.  Vendor 1’s demo was right on target.

[Interestingly, Vendor 1 also had dashboard capabilities, but elected not to show them, since you had communicated your strong dislike of dashboards.  Turns out that both vendor offerings were essentially equal in capabilities, but Vendor 2 showed a capability you didn’t want or couldn’t use:  Negative differentiation. 

Note also that Vendor 1 asked a few additional questions in Discovery – with respect to how you want to consume the alert information – and uncovered your dislike of dashboards:  Vendor 1 achieved some additional positive differentiation through the more complete Discovery work.

In spite of the above rather sad scenarios (for the knife sales person and Vendor 2), most vendors view differentiation in terms of the features and functions of their offerings.  “Ours has this, and theirs doesn’t” or “Ours does this better than theirs does.”

Positive feature- or capability-based differentiation only takes place when the customer agrees that the capability is beneficial in their specific situation – when the customer visualizes using the capability sufficiently often and/or the problem the capability addresses is sufficiently important to solve.

Otherwise, the extra features and capabilities are perceived as making the offering too complicated or too expensive:  “We don’t need the Cadillac; we just want the economy car version…”

When to Differentiate?  All the Time

From the customers’ perspective vendors are “differentiating,” positively or negatively, with every contact, every meeting, and every deliverable.  Let’s explore possible negative differentiation first.  How do you feel about:

– Vendors that cold call you – repeatedly?
– Vendors that take forever to answer your email inquiries – or ignore what you asked?
– Vendors that leap right to showing you a “solution” without sufficient Discovery?
– Vendors whose demos look complicated or confusing, in spite of having a pile of “competitive differentiators”?
– Sales people that speak ill of their competition?
– Sales people that are “cagey” about providing pricing information?
– Vendors that over-promise and under-deliver?

Interestingly – and sadly – the list above is what often occurs with typical, traditional vendors and sales people.  Most of us as customers perceive these items as unpleasant and they contribute to an overall negative impression.  Unwittingly, perhaps, these vendors and sales people have differentiated negatively.

Let’s look at the same list again, but with a different approach to each item:

– Nurture or “trickle” marketing activities (as opposed to cold calling).  [For extra credit, contemplate the intent of this article…!]
– Rapid, specific responses to email inquiries.
– Thorough and intelligent Discovery – before presenting solutions.
– Crisp, focused, engaging demos of the Specific Capabilities needed by customers.
– Sales teams that are clear and honest about their own offerings’ strengths and limitations.
– Clear and transparent pricing information.
– Building a vision of how the customer will move from their current (painful) state to their desired (glorious) future state with the solution in place and operating. 

Generally speaking, these activities are viewed favorably by customers.  Vendors that follow these processes are already differentiating positively in comparison with “traditional” vendors.

In addition to the observations above, there are (at least) three major opportunities to differentiate, positively, in sales interactions with customers:

1. During Discovery
2. During demo delivery
3. During discussion of implementation and beyond

Let’s examine each…

How to Differentiate

1) During Discovery:

This is one of the most effective ways to out-flank your competition.  Do Discovery with a bias towards potentially differentiating capabilities you offer (and your competition lacks or doesn’t do as well), such that those capabilities become part of the customer’s vision of a solution. 

The use of “Biased Questions” is a terrific and highly successful technique of introducing capabilities that you believe should be important to your customer, but the customer has not yet requested those capabilities.  They may (often) be unaware that such capabilities exist. 

Here’s a quick example:  Let’s say that your offering provides alerts in the form of email messages when certain thresholds are reached (as many offerings do) – but in your case, you can also set alerts based on approaching a certain threshold. 

During Discovery, you might say, “Some of the other organizations we’ve worked with that had situations very similar to what you’ve outlined so far, found that the ability to set alerts based on approaching certain thresholds enabled them to take action before problems grew large – and they were able to save hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result.  Is this something you might also find useful in your practice?”

Your customer responds, “Why yes, that sounds really great – and I can see how we could use that.  Wish we’d had it before!”

This capability has now become a Specific Capability desired by your customer – and you can prepare and plan to demonstrate it accordingly.  Since your competition can’t offer the capability, but only the simple alerts, you have successfully positively differentiated.

2) During the Demo:

Most vendors try to differentiate during demos – and very often end up “buying it back.”  This is an intriguing problem inherent in software sales.  From the perspective of most vendors, offerings with more capabilities should be better for the customer, right?

Nope!  Have you ever heard customers say, during price discussions, “Well, you showed us a bunch of stuff we’ll never use, so either take those capabilities out or reduce the price.”  The customers’ perspective is that they are buying much more product than they need (“Cadillac vs. economy car”), so they demand a price discount as compensation.  This is known as “buying it back” – a very sad situation for the vendor!

A more elegant and wise approach to differentiate during a demo is to use Biased Questions when you believe you may have uncovered an unmet need or other opportunity.  The process is the same as using Biased Questions during Discovery, but in this case you can also offer to demonstrate the capability (if the customer would like to see it).

3) During Discussion of Implementation – and Beyond:

Traditional sales people (and sales teams) are done with their sales cycles when the purchase order arrives, leaving implementation to their professional services team, partner organization, or the customer.

Stronger sales people and sales teams develop a vision with the customer of the steps and process of moving the customer from their current problem state to completed implementation – the “go live” date.  (Some sales methodologies call this process developing the “Transition Vision”).

The truly terrific sales people and sales teams carry this further out into the future – to the point where the customer has his/her first small win, small victory, or initial ROI.  This is also the point in time when the customer can become a real reference.  What a wonderful way to positively differentiate!

Beyond the Software

But wait, there’s more…  In earlier articles and blog posts I recommend (rather strongly) against inflicting corporate overview presentations on your customers.  Interestingly, some elements from typical corporate overview presentations can be harvested and used to differentiate very nicely – but not in the form of the dreaded traditional corporate overview. 

Once a customer has seen that your offering can provide a solution to their problem, they begin to be interested in learning more about your organization. After all, they are not just buying your code, but they are also buying a relationship with a vendor. 

Think about how customers perceive your strengths, as an organization. For example, what is your reputation regarding support? Implementation? On-time and as-promised releases (Oh, please…!).  Technology leadership?  Some of these strengths represent opportunities to differentiate, beyond your software.

For example, let’s say you have a particularly strong and active users’ community – and your competition does not.  Here’s an opportunity to use a Biased Question to differentiate:

You say, “Some of the other customers we’ve worked with that had situations very similar to what you’ve outlined so far, found that one of the most important aspects of the relationship with the vendor had nothing to do with the software itself.  They found that interactions with the users’ community enabled them to easily solve problems they had previously struggled with, deploy more broadly than expected, and implement new, unanticipated applications that were shared within the community. 

“They were able to realize hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional gains and savings as a result.  Is access to this sort of community something you might also find useful in your implementation?”

Your customer responds strongly in the affirmative.

You add, “Well, I’d be happy to connect you with some of the principals of the local users’ group so that you can get introduced right away…”

The result?  Positive differentiation based on organizational strengths. [The process of identifying these strengths is known as “Whole Product Analysis”, the term coined by Regis McKenna and popularized by Geoffrey Moore in “Crossing the Chasm” – really good stuff]

What About Price?

Really?  If you have to differentiate on price you’ve failed to establish sufficient value – both with respect to the customer’s problem and especially the value of your solution.  (Time to return to doing Discovery…!)

Truly Terrific Competitive Differentiation – What, When, and How

What:  Look for opportunities to differentiate positively – capabilities or strengths that are perceived as beneficial by the customer – and be aware of how easy it is to differentiate negatively in the eyes of the customer.

When: All the time, and especially during Discovery, during demo delivery, and during discussion of implementation and beyond.

How:  Through the use of Biased Questions – and sources for topics can come from either the capabilities in your software or the strengths of your organization.

About the Author:

Peter Cohan is principal of The Second Derivative, a company that specializes in helping organizations improve their sales demonstration effectiveness skills. For more information, visit

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