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It's All in How You Say It: The Top 9 Sales Presentation Mistakes - and What To Do Instead

By Colleen Francis

Excellent presentation skills are critical to every sales person's success. At its most basic level, selling is about communicating your message with clarity and persuasion. Whether your audience is one person in a meeting, ten people in a boardroom or 100 in an auditorium, sales presentations are your chance to solidify your relationship with your clients, by communicating to them that you understand their issues, challenges and objectives - and how to solve them.

So why do so many good sales people, give so many bad presentations?

Over the past few weeks, I've had the chance to help several of my clients with their sales planning for the next year. In almost every case, this has meant sitting through presentations from vendors or partners who are trying to sell something to me, or to my customers.

The results have been enlightening, to say the least. The most common mistake I saw was sales people who had spent 90% of their time working on what they were going to say, and only about 10% - or less! - on how they were going to say it.

93% of the way communication is interpreted is through how you communicate, not what you say. It may not be fair, but the fact of the matter is that whenever you make a presentation, you are being judged at least as much on your presentation skills as on your content. That's how communication works, whether we like it or not.

With that fact in mind, here, in no particular order, are the Top 9 Sales Presentation Mistakes even good sales people make - as well as a few tips on what you can do instead!

Mistake #1: Apologizing up front.
Whether you arrived late, left the laptop with your presentation on it in the cab, or simply forgot all those handouts you so painstakingly put together in the hotel room, never start your presentation by apologizing. It sets a negative tone for the entire meeting, and it also makes you look like you're shirking your responsibilities.

Customers like to work with agents - not victims. So 99 times out of 100, you're better off saying nothing rather than apologizing. If you're late, don't ask for extra time; just adjust your presentation to compensate. If your handouts aren't ready, do the presentation like you never meant to offer handouts in the first place, then offer to send them the materials after you finish.

The only thing that starts a meeting off on a worse note than an apology, is an apology with strings attached: "Sorry I'm late, BUT I'll still need the full hour…" or "I apologize in advance that this presentation is so long, BUT I need to cover a lot of information." Nothing good ever comes after the word "but."

Don't believe it? Then just think about the last time someone told you: "I really like you, BUT I just want to be friends…"

Mistake #2: Running the guilt trip.
"I have 15 minutes left, and I'm only through 20 of my 58 PowerPoint slides, so I'm going to be going through this last bit a little fast." Sound familiar?

Guilting your audience into paying attention not only doesn't work; it's insulting. Don't try to force your customers through your agenda. Your presentation needs to focus on their needs - period. If that need is wrapped up in the first slide and you only discuss this one point for an hour, then you've done your job.

The best product demonstration (and fastest sale) I ever made was to a company who spent two hours discussing how my opening screen could save them time and money.

Mistake #3: Excuses, excuses!
Making excuses - "I'm so tired," "I got in late last night" or "I'm feeling a little under the weather" - is a sure-fire way to be certain that the next excuse you make is to your manager or supervisor, explaining why you didn't make the sale.

Talking about yourself instead of your customer's needs will only waste their time. Who cares where you were last night, how long your flight was or how late you were up? Get over yourself, quit whining and start focusing on your customer. And no matter how tired, sick or frazzled you're feeling - at least act like you're excited to be there!

Mistake #4: Reading between the slides.
If you could put everything you needed to close the deal on your presentation slides, why would we need you?

Forget about never letting 'em see you sweat; don't ever let your customers see you reading from your slides! Your slides should contain key points, not elaborate prose, and they shouldn't mimic exactly what you're saying. Stick to the following four rules for all your slides, and you won't go wrong:

a. No more than 3 bullets per slide.
b. Maximum one line per bullet.
c. Font at least 28 or larger.
d. Maximum of 5 slides per 20 minutes.

While we're on the subject of slides, please, please, please put all your customers' issues, problems and objectives up front, and save your corporate marketing material for last. Believe me, your customer isn't even slightly interested in hearing about how great you are, unless they first hear about how you understand their problems, and how you can solve them.

Also, try to add some graphics or pictures to your slides, to illustrate what you're talking about. In a sales presentation, a picture can be worth a thousand bullet points, plus you can use them as a guide to help prompt you on what to say next.

Mistake #5: Forgetting to smile!
In sales, our job is to ensure that our prospects or clients leave the room feeling better than they did before they interacted with us. How likely is it that they'll be feeling happy if we've spent the last hour staring at them with a stern or frozen demeanor?

Smile! Show the passion you feel for your product and company. And don't be afraid to let your positive attitude shine through.

Mistake #6: Turning your back on your audience.
Talking with your back to people - often seen hand-in-hand with looking back to read directly from your PowerPoint slides - is unprofessional at best, and outright rude at worst. Don't do it. Ever.

If you're working in a room with a U-shaped table, don't stay inside the U for long periods of time, talking to one side or the other. This puts your back to at least half of the people you're supposedly trying to communicate with.

Instead, try to stay as close as you can to the top of the U, use the front of the room as much as possible, and move deliberately from side to side, turning slightly to face each side as you speak. And when delivering your most important points, make sure you're dead centre of the table.

Mistake #7: Fast talkers.
Most sales people will agree that they talk too fast. It's good that we can admit that, but not so good if we don't do anything to correct it.

Since most of us speed up even more when we're nervous or anxious, reduce your nervousness - and your speed - by practicing your presentation in advance. You can also slow down your pace by asking your audience questions, then being quiet while they answer.

Varying the pace of your voice will also help keep the audience listening and engaged. For best results, practice your presentation into a tape recorder, then play it back to listen to yourself.

Mistake #8: Get over yourself!
Sales isn't about you - it's about your customers.

I'm constantly reminding sales people to get over themselves. Just last week, I witnessed a vendor staring at her fingers and playing with her wedding ring throughout her entire 30-minute presentation. As you might imagine, the response from her audience was less than overwhelming.

Don't be afraid to open yourself up to your audience. Remember, they want you to have the answer to their problems! So move towards them, gesture and smile. Look at each audience member, don't just glance distractedly around the table. And when you make an important point, give one person a few seconds of deliberate eye contact - share the moment with them - and then move on to someone else.

Mistake #9: Stretching the truth.
Lastly, whatever else you do, don't tell stories you heard somewhere else, or saw on the Internet. Chances are, if you've heard them, at least one of your customers probably has, too.

Also, don't make up references or examples of how your products are being "used" in the field. Last month, I witnessed a sales presentation where the rep told a story that was supposed to be an example of how well his product works. The only problem was, his story was so outlandish, and so obviously fake, that everyone lost interest as he kept going on and on. An informal poll after the session showed that not one of the 12 buyers who were at the table believed the story. As a result, that rep's credibility was irreversibly damaged in their eyes.

Do use real life examples, quotes, stories and testimonials. They're critical to making your story come alive, and persuading people to buy your products or services. Just make sure that these stories are as specific - and as relevant to your customer's situation - as possible.

After all, no matter how much you love that favorite anecdote about what happened at last year's BBQ at your Uncle Fred's house, unless it involves your customers' problems, challenges or your solution for them, a business presentation probably isn't the best place to tell it!

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Colleen Francis, Sales Expert, is Founder and President of Engage Selling Solutions (www.EngageSelling.com). Armed with skills developed from years of experience, Colleen helps clients realize immediate results, achieve lasting success and permanently raise their bottom line.

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