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.
Bravo to Seth Godin for his post,
“Words. Sentences. Paragraphs. Stories,” in which he complains about public
speeches—and by extension, presentations—that are “based on sentences. At the
end of each sentence, the voice goes up a bit, the speaker pauses, as if
waiting for an applause line…It's my least favorite part of the Techstars pitch
Seth is wisely counseling against "choreographing"
the voice and words. Other forms of “pitch training” choreograph gestures to go
with the words. Choreography is in the realm of performance, and business men
and women are not performers. I don’t know many business persons who had to audition
for their job. If the presenter gets too many detailed instructions, it becomes
an overload, just like a bad golf lesson: “Head down, straighten the legs, bend
the elbows…” Worse still, it forces the presenter into unnatural behavior.
Seth recommends that the presenter speaks in stories. “The
storyteller naturally engages our attention, and she matches her emphasis and
cadence to the rhythm of the story.”
To which I add the Power Presentations approach: be conversational when
you tell your story. Consider every presentation as a series of one-to-one
Power Presentations - Wednesday, September 18, 2013
by Jerry Weissman
“In a World…” currently playing in movie theaters, earned a well-deserved 91% positive rating from the Rotten Tomatoes website. As Rotten Tomatoes describes it, the film is primarily “a romantic comedy about a struggling vocal coach who strikes it big in the cutthroat world of movie-trailer voice-overs.” With main emphasis on the competition for voic-eover industry, the vocal coaching aspect is depicted only briefly, at the beginning and end, as bookends, but that is where the film provides a lesson for presenters.
At the beginning, the main character, Carol, played by actress Lake Bell (who also wrote and directed the film) coaches professional actors to optimize their voices. She has one of her clients practice with a cork between her teeth to improve enunciation. (A 21st Century version of Demosthenes’ pebbles). But the very brief closing scene has Carol (after winning an important voice-over contract) returning to coaching. She convenes a voice training session for a group of young women. Before Carol starts her lesson, she gives the girls a pep talk about the importance of making a strong impression by sounding mature and not like Valley Girls.
Brava! Exactly my sentiments. If you’d like to read my take (and solutions) on the subject, you can find it in my prior post, Valley Girl Talk.
Power Presentations - Wednesday, September 11, 2013
by Jerry Weissman
Last week, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FLA) appeared CNN’s “The Lead” to discuss the highly controversial issue of Syria. At the start of the interview, anchorman Jake Tapper asked the senator, “If you were president right now, what would you advocate?”
Senator Rubio’s answer was, “We have no good options because of two years of inaction.”
Because the senator did not answer the question, Mr. Tapper asked it again, “What would you do?”
For the next nearly five minutes of the interview, Senator Rubio did not say what he would do were he president, instead he used the opportunity to blame President Obama five more times. (See the video)
“The ideal outcome is that Assad falls… but that is no longer possible… directly as a result of the president’s mishandling of the situation.”
“We may have reached the point now that, because of this administration’s total mismanagement of the situation, there is no possibility of a good outcome.”
“What the president is advocating is basically a symbolic act.”
“I hate to keep going back to the same point, but we may have reached the point where there is no good option in this conflict. And again, it is the direct result of the mismanagement of this conflict.”
“I am frustrated that we are now hamstrung because of the options available to us, because the president chose to lead from behind for two years.”
The American public, long accustomed to how politicians behave, have come to tolerate the practice of ducking questions; business people, however, are not so tolerant. They demand answers to all questions or reasons why a presenter can’t provide an answer. No one expects a presenter to reveal trade secrets or competitive information, but diversions into blame are not acceptable. In business, transparency is all.