Structuring A Winning Sales Presentation

Dana Dakin: Speech to the Security Analysts of San Francisco

Obviously, making a winning presentation is a topic of some interest to a few of you. What I would like to accomplish today is to warn you against using a formula approach - which most of you know doesn't work - and show you how to craft a genuinely effective presentation.

In our business, a winning presentation is a compelling argument presented by real-life people who want to get across the challenge of what they do. It is a sophisticated, high-powered kind of low-key sales. In fact, it could be interpreted as something other than selling in the strict sense, because he who wins in the institutional investment circle is he who is eliminated last.

You must spend your time on what makes you different and qualitatively better than the other choices. This requires dealing with the negatives and carefully explaining who you are.

Let's look at how you can move creatively from step to step in the process of packaging a presentation to win:

Step 1: Decide What Makes You Different

This is never easy. In fact, it's far more difficult than putting yourselves in the boxes that have become popular among consultants.

There was a time when everybody in this business had the same positioning statement: "We believe in absolute relative return over a full market cycle." (I suspect a few of you still use that.) People were afraid to be different; they wanted to cover all the bases. But playing it safe presented problems then and it's far more dangerous now.

So how do you articulate a strong positioning statement? This is a task for your best and brightest, regardless of their titles. I suggest you begin by getting everybody working together on the statement " We are the only…" and them continue by adding clear identifiers, definitions, achievement and the specific benefits you deliver. Incorporate statistics if they characterize you and any qualitative factors that reinforce what you want to say.

Step 2. Get a Reading on What the Marketplace Thinks about You

Outsiders, as a collective body, will bring an important external view to your positioning process and reveal some of the key messages you should be delivering. Among the issues you want clarified: What is the market's current bias and why would you most likely be hired? Is your style in or out of favor? Is it understood or not? Do you solve a problem that is of particular or growing concern?

This market research should be done in a qualitative way. Compile a list of current clients, consultants, potential prospects and even ex-clients who will contribute an important, more hard-nosed point of view. Ask them a few well-crafted, open-ended questions to get to their real feelings about you. Believe me, ten minutes of careful, unbiased listening is all it takes to get valuable data.

With these internal and external views in place, it is then possible to move forward with your positioning team to shape a strong, memorable, statement that effectively differentiates your capabilities. I should add that having a clear positioning statement will also help you reach what I call "early consensus" within your firm, a critical milestone in developing a successful presentation. And don't quit until you achieve broad agreement throughout the firm.

Step 3. Clearly Identify Your Weaknesses, Both Real and Perceived

Is performance down? For good reasons or bad? Did you just have a transfer of ownership or significant change in asset size? Is only one person in control of investment decision making? Are you an unproven team? Remember, nobody's perfect. And if you think you are, it's probably time for this kind of review.

The reason you should look at your weaknesses before your strengths is that it gives you a grounding from which to build the thrust of your presentation. This is an elimination trial, and handling resistance will help you get the sale.

If you don't keep control of your story, if you aren't totally aware of your weaknesses when you construct the logic, you stand to lose credibility and the business.

Step 4. Compile Evidence of Your Strengths

This does not mean innocuous facts. It means convincing proof that what you say is true. So, what falls in the category of evidence? A number of things:

  • Performance: annual numbers to show consistency; rising or declining statistics to show where you make relative gains; equity returns relative to the total fund to show the added value of your asset decision
  • Results of simulations to demonstrate how your ideas work back-tested over time
  • Statistical measures of your portfolio that confirm the underpinnings of your style
  • Your stock list, organized to show how you make a decision
  • Composite snapshots of your people and their CVs
  • A visual delineation of your process
  • A review of past investment themes and how they impacted your performance
  • Your current client list
  • A documented overview of asset growth

Imbedded in every firm is an endless stream of evidence, and it's enlightening to assemble it for tangible review.

Step 5. Build a Lasting Story

A lasting story is one that captures your strengths, confronts your weaknesses and shows evidence of momentum and staying power. This forms the logic of the sale.

To simplify the process, visualize a page with three columns: list your strengths in column one, weaknesses in column two, and all solid evidence in column three. Then begin linking potential related ideas, such as a strength that might cancel out a weakness or evidence that reinforces a strength or disproves a weakness. From this exercise, which usually takes a lot of thought over time, you can literally begin to see your story unfold. With the pieces of the puzzle assembled, you can then "storyboard" what you want to say. Storyboarding is a process used by advertising agencies in designing TV commercials. It links what is happening visually with the corresponding audio. I suggest adapting it as follows in structuring your presentation:

  • List each point you want to make on a page of its own
  • Add supporting bullets or evidence that help make the point
  • Write the underlying objectives for making the statement - what you want to accomplish with the content on that page

Then go page by page through all the points and start ordering them: This point should go first, this second because it proves the first and this next because it is the opportune moment to bring it up.

Now, what do you do with weaknesses? Typically, firms deal with their weaknesses in one of three ways - by covering them up, by confessing them or, best of all, by capitalizing on them, explaining how they connect to the firm's opposing strengths. And where do you use your strengths? Where the impact is greatest. But always remember that understatement is usually the best course.

Now let me throw in a few overused ideas that don't make a good story:

  • We're independent
  • We plan to stay small
  • We want to have fun
  • You'll never have to worry about down years
  • We've always done it this way

The end result of this process is that you gain control of your own story. It should be interesting, logical and sound believable. One trick is to ask yourself: What would I be thinking right now if this were being presented to me? What would I need to know right now to be a believer? What doubts am I harboring when I hear that point of view?

Step 6. Develop an Effective 'Dog and Pony Show'

The next step is to transform the presentation content you've developed into a presentation that has impact, moves along efficiently and is, in its way, entertaining. This means it should be staged and rehearsed by an appointed director, usually the marketing person. Developing presentation content is a collaborative process, but pulling it all together into a well-coordinated whole is definitely a one-person job.

Probably nothing gets a sales person going more than this issue. How often have we all heard horror stories about portfolio managers who ignore the game plan in the midst of a presentation review? I think that problem has something to do with the whole question of how selling is viewed in the business. How many here dislike the word "selling?" Marketing people think it's a way of solving the world's problems; portfolio managers view it as a questionable act, but something you've got to do. For them, it conjures up images of manipulation and the formula close.

But the truth of the matter is, you're there to sell. And the goal of building a good dog-and-pony show is to convince the audience to choose you. You aren't there to show off. And you certainly aren't there to bore people, which happens too often.

The implication of this is that you spend more time on less; you don't drag out all your charts and get bogged down in detail. You must focus your ideas in such a way that the committee members can wrap their arms around your story and build the trust required to select you.

Step 7. Personalize the Script

Personalizing helps engage the audience and sustain their interest and, I might add, yours as well. Few of us are showmen and it would be inappropriate to try to be. The committee is looking for very specific human qualities: integrity, judgment, ability to adapt, concentration and intellectual vigor. What they will overlook is ego (short of arrogance) and eccentricity, as long as they trust you. They don't have to fall in love with you. But remember, they're anticipating seeing you over the long term and will quickly eliminate anyone who makes them uncomfortable.

The script should ensure that your positive personal qualities are projected. I refer back to that three-column spread you visualized earlier and ask that you add a fourth column headed "charm." By charm I mean the ability to establish a personal connection that compels people to respond. Under this column you include analogies that help make your process clear, anecdotes, personal definitions, contradictions that made you go back to the drawing board and examples with universal relevance.

Another idea I want to include here is the power of transitions. When you turn over a presentation to the next person, you have the opportunity for a trial close as well as responsibility for setting up the next "act." In radio programming this is called a "segue," the point where one song ends and the other begins. You succeed when they fit together relatively seamlessly.

Step 8. Dramatize with Props that Make Your Presentation Come Alive

Props don't have to be slick. Most of the time a few simple pieces of paper will carry the show. But they should have a clean, disciplined look and give enough detail to reinforce how you're different. And they should be simplified to the appropriate degree.

Obviously, I could spend a whole session on graphics. But the most important point is this: Support materials are there to make the presenter more effective. If they put him or her into a strait jacket, as so many of those ghastly flip books do, you have to take a major step backwards in terms of connecting with the audience and holding their attention.

Step 9. Be Well Prepared for the Q&A

The Q&A often makes the sale. Knowing this, the best firms will change a standard presentation to handle a common question. Also, the way you answer the questions communicates a great deal. If you pause to make sure of your understanding of the question, you appear thoughtful as opposed to arrogant. If you field a question back to a presentation partner, you show respect and teamwork. If you pull out a special chart to make a point, you communicate responsiveness. Finally, humor, to the right degree, will always help your cause.

Step 10. Tailor Your Opening Remarks to the Audience

Never go in with a canned speech because it is vital that you immediately establish rapport. Go in with awareness of the environment: Is it hostile or friendly? Who preceded you and who else will they talk to that day? Also, go in with a definite mindset: "This is what I want them to believe." That's far more effective than motivating yourself with "I want to win."

In closing, it's important to remember that the odds for losing are really quite high and you've got to be good at it. The old saying in the business is "bridesmaids can be brides." How you handle the disappointment will help determine if you make it into the next final.

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© 2008 Dana Dakin, All Rights Reserved