Over the past few months I’ve been working with some very interesting companies to help them improve the persuasiveness of their corporate sales presentations. Here’s one of my favorite articles that demonstrates the application of Sales Linguistics to sales presentations.
Whether you’re trying to win the big multi-million dollar account or sway industry analysts, your corporate sales presentation is a key event in most every deal. It is the pivotal moment where you can communicate your advantages, gain momentum, and develop the personal relationships necessary to achieve your goal.
After reviewing hundreds of corporation presentations over years, I can honestly say that they all are basically the same. You could almost take slides from one company’s presentation and insert them in another, and no one would even notice. They are all fact-based infomercials that approach customers with the same message--We’re the industry leader with a state-of-the-art solution who partners with our customers. The problem is all the competitors are making the exact same claims. As a result, nothing unique is communicated. Therefore, the real question to ask is, “How can you differentiate your corporate sales presentation?”
The answer to this question may be found by studying “The Great Communicator,” former President Ronald Reagan. In 2000, Ronald Reagan was ranked as the eighth-best President in U.S. history according to a survey of seventy-eight historians. It’s not surprising that he was ranked behind national heroes like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. However, the most surprising part of the survey is that he was ranked as the most underrated president of all time. Ultimately, what made this president so unique was his ability to communicate and persuade.
President Reagan had a natural ability to create rapport with a wide spectrum of people. He was able to obtain support from both major political parties and from people from all walks of life. Although his political enemies may have heartily disagreed with his agenda, they found it hard, if not impossible, to hate him personally. So, how would Ronald Reagan change your sales presentation?
There's an exciting new area of study called "Sales Linguistics" that provides key strategies on how to structure language-based interactions that turn skeptics into believers. The goal of sales linguistics is to understand how salespeople and their prospective customers use and interpret language during meetings and presentations. Let’s examine the structure of Ronald Reagan’s using Sales Linguistics concepts, principles, and terminology.
1. Reagan Would add a Great “Cowcatcher”
Most people associate the term “cowcatcher” with the metal grill on the front of a locomotive. However, “cowcatcher” has an entirely different meaning in the entertainment industry. It’s the opening moments of a show when the entertainers try to grab your attention and cause you to stop and look.
Ronald Reagan, the Hollywood star, knew the importance of a cowcatcher. Before and during his presidency, he wrote over six hundred radio addresses by himself, in his own handwriting. They were not the work of a team of speechwriters. Perhaps the most impressive part of every radio address was the opening cowcatcher, the first sentences of every program.
“It has been said a baby sitter is a teenager acting like a parent while the parent is out acting like a teenager.”
“How much do you miss Dinosaurs? Would your life be richer if those giant pre-historic flying lizards occasionally settled on your front lawn?”
“It sometimes seems that we can get more emotionally aroused over mistreatment of animals than we can if the victims are human.”
The best corporate sales presentations start with a great cowcatcher. A great cowcatcher engages the mind, appeals to the imagination, and helps the presenter gain credibility. For example, a company I worked for was the top-rated NASDAQ stock for a period of five years. In fact, during one two-year time frame, $32,000 worth of this company’s stock grew to be worth $1,000,000. I always opened my presentations with a chart of the stock price and some facts about the stock’s appreciation. The customers would be more than intrigued; they were downright fascinated and eager to learn more. Many would buy my company’s stock that very day!
2. Reagan Would Use a Captivating “Hook”
Following the cowcatcher, you need a “hook.” Now that the listeners’ interest is piqued, you need to hook them on why they should use your product. Your best hook is to tell them stories. For example, lets take a look at how Reagan opened with a provocative cowcatcher and then hooked the audience with a story about baby seal hunts.
“It sometimes seems that we can get more emotionally aroused over mistreatment of animals than we can if the victims are human.
"A few weeks ago a writer in the Los Angeles Times did an article on the 1978 Canadian baby seal hunt. One line in the article was very thought provoking; ‘If seal pups were as ugly as lobsters, their harvest would go unnoticed. Accompanying his article was a photo that proved his point. It was a snow white baby seal with its black nose & round eyes looking like something you’d put in the nursery for children to cuddle.’”
The stories we should use in the corporate sales presentation are about how customers are successfully using our products. Most corporate presentations include an obligatory slide that shows twenty or so logos of the major companies that use the salesperson’s products. That’s not what I am referring to here.
The sales presentation should include six to eight slides of how specific customers are using the products, the operational results that have been improved, and the financial impact on the bottom line. In addition, it should include a quote from a customer whose name and title the audience can identify with psychologically. For example, include a quote from your customer’s CFO when presenting to a financial department. Finally, this section should have some eye-catching graphics that tie the whole story together. These could be pictures of your product at work, the person who provided the quote, or an example of the end result.
3. Reagan Would Incorporate Mental Imagery
It’s not enough to say that to stand out you have to be different. Rather, you need a more sophisticated, indirect approach that differentiates your solution in the minds of customers. You can’t tell customers you’re unique, different, and one of a kind. You must demonstrate it to them, starting with the imagery of the corporate presentation. Reagan naturally employed mental imagery to psychologically engage his audience.
“It’s nightfall in a strange town a long way from home. I’m watching the lights come on from my hotel room window on the 35th floor.
"I’m afraid you are in for a little bit of philosophizing if you don’t mind. Some of these broadcasts have to be put together while I’m out on the road traveling what I call the mashed potato circuit. In a little while I’ll be speaking to a group of very nice people in a banquet hall.”
These two paragraphs from one of his radio addresses help create a personal receptive state where the audience is open to his thoughts. The words, “nightfall,” “strange town,” “long way from home,” provide the mental imagery that enable the listeners to be quickly transported to Reagan’s place and mood (in an unfamiliar place a long way from home).
The second sentence is an “operator” on the first sentence. It (“watching the lights from my hotel room”) further defines where he is physically and forces the listeners to adjust their viewpoint to the thirty-fifth floor of a hotel room. Both of these sentences are “verifiable statements.” Most everyone has experienced being a long way from home and feeling homesick. Most everyone has been in a high-rise building. As listeners receive information, they check with their past experiences to verify the statement’s accuracy. Assuming the listeners have been homesick before, this statement is agreed to and considered truthful. The honesty of the statement is also passed on to the presenter. These types of verifiable statements enable the presenter to quickly gain credibility and rapport.
The creators of almost all of the hundreds of presentations I have reviewed over the past couple of years come not from sales but from marketing departments. Unfortunately, these people usually have had little interaction with customers and no direct sales experience. They assume that customers think like they do and that the selection process is completely unbiased. Therefore, their presentation is a point-by-point list of reasons why a customer should select their product. As a result, the corporate sales presentation provides little mental imagery. The presentations are slide after slide of boring bullet points of information, with very few graphics to break up the monotony. This is the true definition of “death by PowerPoint.”
4. Reagan Would Employ “Softeners”
Preapologizing is a sales linguistic technique for developing a receptive state with an audience. This is one form of a “softener.” A softener eases listeners into the next thought or can be used to set expectations. Usually, Reagan’s radio addresses discussed the economy or issues of foreign and domestic interest. When Reagan said, “I’m afraid you are in for a little bit of philosophizing if you don’t mind,” he is signaling that the intent of this week’s message is different. He’s adjusting the listeners’ frame of mind from being issue based to being more reflective and introspective. Basically, he’s telling them to relax a little.
He’s on the road, about to give a speech on what he calls “the mashed potato circuit.” How do you interpret that statement? Speaking to a group of people in the heartland of America is quite different from speaking to people from the East or West Coast. What would you have inferred if he had called it the “steak and wine circuit”? Perhaps that he considers these dinner speeches less than important and feels he should be performing his “real” job of leading the land. There’s an underlying meaning that he is trying to communicate. However, the interpretation of the statement is dependent upon each listener’s viewpoint, and there is no right or wrong answer. Regardless of the answer, listeners empathize with the position he is in.
Too many sales presentations are built upon black or white, all or nothing statements. These statements force the customer to either completely accept or reject the premise or argument being made. In reality, customers reject far more statements than they accept and this lessens rapport. Therefore, the best sales presentations incorporate softeners to lessen the likelihood of rejection. For example, instead of listing “We provide the most state-of-the-art technology” on a bullet point, you should use “Our technology offers these advantages.”
5. Reagan Would Be Sure to Include Some Humor
When people laugh, at some level they agree with you. Humor helps relieve the stress that is inherent to all sales calls. Like a seasoned salesperson, Reagan had a knack for making pithy comebacks that rendered his opponents’ political body blows ineffective, thus allowing him to escape his position on the ropes. In the 1984 presidential debate, age figured to be a big issue since challenger Walter Mondale was seventeen years younger than Reagan. To counteract potential criticism that the oldest man to ever serve as president was too old for the job, Reagan said, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Every salesperson should follow Reagan’s lead and use humor during the corporate sales presentation. It shows you don’t take yourself too seriously. If you tell jokes, the punch line should always be self-deprecating and at your expense. Observational humor about common experiences such as children, traffic, or taxes is a safe area too. Humor helps build rapport and lower the defenses between buyers and sellers. Remember, everyone is somewhat nervous during a sales call and humor lightens the mood and helps everyone relax.
Like every salesman, President Reagan had a product to sell. As a politician, his product was not only his policies but, equally important, himself. While each of his radio addresses had a political purpose, he also wanted to deliver a very powerful message that was camouflaged beneath the content of the story. Similar to the typical corporate sales presentation, he wanted to use this special moment to motivate his customer to buy. Sales Linguistics enables us to study the structure of the language he used in order to turn strangers into friends, and skeptics into believers.
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