Death by PowerPoint was one of the funniest phrases I’d ever heard – until I started experiencing it after taking a sales management job in a large corporation.
Up until then, I had worked for startups and small businesses where we didn’t spend time in meetings listening as presenters droned on reading their terrible slides. We were too busy trying to sell, service our customers and make payroll!
But joining a Fortune 1000 company introduced me to a different world. On the positive side, there was career advancement, relevant training, and financial security. On the negative side there were far too many meetings, boring presentations, and bureaucracy.
What saved me from becoming just another mediocre presenter was a book recommendation from Mark Templeton, former CEO of Citrix. I was attending my first Sales Kickoff keynote. There were professional sound systems, cameramen, a massive stage, spotlights, loud music and 3000 attendees. In other words, it was kind of like a decent sized rock concert. (But full of salespeople and missing a lot of the cool stuff.)
Mark gave one of the best sales kickoff presentations I ever saw. He used a few slides with mostly just images. He sat on a stool and told a story. He had the audience laughing and cheering. At the end, he recommended that everyone read the book “Presentation Zen” by Garr Reynolds. He said this book helped him tremendously.
How Presentation Zen Helped Me
I took Mark’s recommendation to heart and bought the book. I put its suggestions to use immediately for my own sales presentation deck.
Here’s just some of what I learned:
- Design matters a lot. Positioning, white space, sizing, colors, and visual flow can make or break a slide.
- Less text is best. Fewer words, 3 or less bullets, big fonts.
- Avoid Powerpoint animations. They don’t make the presentation better.
- No clipart. There’s plenty of beautiful, memorable images available.
- Use fewer slides. Deliver more impact with less content crammed in.
- Eliminate extraneous footers that display company name, copyright, and “proprietary and confidential” on every slide
- Slides should not stand alone. They are meant to be visual complements to a speaker.
- Anytime someone says, “this next slide is a bit of any eye chart” just delete that slide.
Another technique I adopted was putting my entire presentation on small squares of paper (think sticky notes) and then taping these squares to my whiteboard so I could organize the entire presentation. Then I could rearrange, eliminate and adjust slides more effectively. I still do this today.
I worked closely with my sales engineer creating, rehearsing, and doing post-mortem calls after our presentations. I practiced presenting to my wife and coworkers. I even recorded myself so I could get better.
I was doing sales presentations via GoToMeeting at least 10 times a week so I had plenty of opportunities to see what worked and what needed to improve. What I learned from Presentation Zen made a huge difference. I was engaging prospects more, qualifying opportunities and making sales.
I started incorporating these ideas for internal presentations as well. We’d have a meeting where everyone expected me to use the standard “corporate” deck and instead I’d wake everyone up with bold images, impactful words and messages that hit home.
One of my favorite moments was a year later, when I saw Mark Templeton present using a version of one of “my decks”. I cannot say with 100% certainty that he saw my presentation and decided to emulate it. But the format looked quite similar!
Here are some of my favorite slides I created for pitching software.
None of these slides are standalone. I was pitching Server Virtualization, Network Acceleration and Hardware Provisioning. While I had fun finding bold images and working on the design elements, my #1 criteria for evaluating a presentation was “Did it help to accomplish my goal?” If it didn’t, I’d try another approach.
A few years later, I was fortunate to be included in presentation training by BJ Bartlett. She is a professional presentation trainer who had worked with Mark Templeton and many other Citrix executives. She was simply fantastic. I learned about:
- Varying tone and modulation
- Speaking with intention
- Breathing from the diaphragm
- Focusing the message of the presentation
- Slowing down and using pauses effectively
- Exercises to improve my intention and voice
- Squaring off and moving toward the audience
As part of the training, BJ had us prepare and deliver 3 speeches in two days. These were filmed. She critiqued us and coached us. Then we critiqued and coached each other.
It was intense and humbling work. At times it was also fun.
As an introverted guy who avoids the spotlight, I found this training to be fascinating. I imagine it is somewhat like acting class. I learned that more rehearsal and deliberate practice were critical for me to deliver effective presentations. I also learned that I needed to be more intentional with my gestures, my tone, and my movements when speaking publically.
BJ explained that very few good presenters “wing it”. She said almost all the presenters who I thought were “naturals” (like Mark T and Steve Jobs) were actually well trained people who invested time, training and practice to hone their presentations.
I strongly recommend working with BJ Bartlett if you ever have the opportunity.
Observing the Masters
I also study presenters all the time and try to copy what I see works well. Sometimes I cannot do this while staying authentic. For instance, I’ll never be silly nor am I a great comedian so copying Dave Chapelle is out. But, I can copy his technique of extended pauses to allow the audience to think. And I can use some of his storytelling techniques.
Not only do I observe the pros, I also observe any presenter. If they are one of my employees, I’ll help them design their presentations, will practice with them and will offer coaching afterward. If they are a coworker who wants feedback I’ll provide it. Many people do not want feedback- they just want it over. I can respect that too.
Do I always put this much effort in my slides and presentations? I do for presentations to customers and prospects. For presentations to my sales teams, I try to.
But sometimes I get lazy and just use the company slides – especially if the presentation is just a “check the box” requirement that nobody really cares about. I can usually judge how boring these are by the % of people in the audience who are texting or checking email while I present.
But most of the time I feel like I owe it to my audience to deliver the message in the best way I can. I believe the same is true for any sales manager and rep.
Give it a shot. Buy the book. Take a class if you get the opportunity.
Your future audiences will be glad you did.