Fear Is the Key (To Great Presentations)

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Steve Torjussen is Managing Director of Sales Training Stuff Ltd, a UK company specialising in sales, management and leadership training. He is author of an ebook, 101 Amazing, Top Hints, Tips and Techniques to Improve Your Presentations. We are privileged to re-print this article from Winning Edge magazine.

Have you always wanted to know the secrets of people who continually make powerful sales presentations, who are able to influence buyers and decision-makers positively, and who invariably win business from clients?

The ability to make effective sales presentations is a skill that’s crucial to your sales success. At the same time, 80% of the population fears public speaking. People say that, after spiders, presenting is the thing they fear most. Curiously, death is only seventh on the list, so it seems most people would rather die than stand up and make a presentation!

The truth is that everyone is nervous about presenting. The secret is what to do with those nerves to help you, support you and drive you to make the right impact on your audience. To begin with, we need to think about the overall message we convey when we are standing in front of our prospect, client or customer. We are there to communicate clearly and influence people positively. We want to get our message across and perhaps gain commitment from them for a sale. To do this, research has shown conclusively that we will send our message in three ways, through:

  • The words we use to talk about our products or services
  • The way we deliver those words ie. our verbals
  • Our body language or physiology.

It is these three factors together that will provide our audience with the overall message and impact. What is surprising though, is the dramatically different impact each of these elements makes on the thinking and behaviour of the audience. If you haven’t come across these findings before then you’ll be amazed at the differences shown in the graph on the right.

Because the audience only receives 7% of the message through our words, we ignore the other elements at our peril – they make up 93% of what people pick up. Think about it. The last time you did a sales presentation you probably prepared and practised the words you were going to say. You may even have got them word perfect. But did you prepare (or even think about) the verbals and physiology at all? If your verbals weren’t in line with your message and your physiology didn’t match the professional message you needed to send, what impact did you have on your prospect, client or customer?

It’s not until all three elements are put together that we can ensure a powerful and congruent message is produced that will engage, convince and ultimately persuade your audience.

With this in mind let’s look at ways in which our words can be more congruent with our body language and voice, ways that will make us look confident, competent and professional, showing us to have a high level of conviction and assertion.

Building rapport

When you are in front of your prospect, client or customer, you will need first to develop rapport with them. You will want to create a sense of commonality rather than have a ‘them and us’ situation. One very key way of doing this is through eye contact.

We actually want to make eye contact with whoever we’re talking with. This is something that takes place subliminally, ie. it is out of the realm of our consciousness. So, we stand in front of the group having decided we need to make that eye contact with them. But what actually happens when we’re up there? Typically, everyone is looking at us, which can be quite daunting, so we avoid eye contact and find an interesting spot on the carpet to stare at, or the ceiling or an area on the Powerpoint slide. When people are looking at us, we become self-conscious and nervous. We know we should be looking at the group, but our nerves have a different effect on us.

To ensure we give our audience the impression that we are genuinely interested in them and that we are having a series of one-to-one conversations, try the following:

  • Move eye contact to different individuals, in harmony with the natural punctuation of the speech
  • Randomise the eye contact rather than simply going from one side of the room to the other and then back again
  • Don’t leave anyone out.

Eye contact is also a great way of receiving feedback. You can see if people are interested in what you are saying or not. If they are switching off, then you can choose to change what you are doing in order to regain their interest. If they are switched on then you can pick up the buying signals. So eye contact can:

  • Help you gain rapport
  • Give you valuable feedback on how your sales presentation is being received
  • Enable you to identify any buying signals and decide to move on in the process.


What sort of things do you do with your stance and feet when making sales presentations?

Often our nerves are conveyed to our audience via body language and this can take over when we’re making an important sales pitch. What is it that we do that either makes us look nervous or look confident? With any type of presentation, but especially with sales presentations, you will want to appear confident in front of your customer. Let’s examine what makes the difference.

When we talk of nerves, we don’t need to get rid of them completely – even if that were possible. A degree of nervousness is natural, stemming from the adrenalin we produce, and it’s probably essential for ensuring high performance. The aim should be to harness your nerves and make them work for you, rather than against you.

In order to convey confidence, honesty and assertion to a group, the ideal stance would be to have your feet shoulder/hip-width apart, and your legs straight with no movement from the waist down. The feet should also be pointed slightly outwards as opposed to straight.

This does not mean that movement is a bad thing. The key is that all movement is for a purpose, not coincidental, and you should always be aware of the effect it has on your audience. Whilst you should not be uncomfortable, movement should not primarily be about your own comfort as a presenter.

We can put nervous energy to excellent use. In a one-to-one conversation, we use our hands for expression, along with facial movement and tonality. One of the expressive gestures is known as the descriptive gesture. This involves moving our hands to show how tall, short, small, thin, wide etc. something might be. Don’t be afraid to use your hands and arms in this way when presenting to a group. The size of the gestures will need to change – the larger the group, the larger the gesture needed. The gesture should extend from the shoulder rather than just from the elbow as in normal conversation. So if you’re describing something that is particularly tall you may want to raise your arm up high to add a strong visual movement, and at the same time huge weight, to your message.

This also applies to the second type of gesture, the rapport gesture. This involves looking at the individual whilst delivering your message, and stretching your arm out, keeping the palm upwards. This gesture is excellent in helping achieve both rapport with individuals and cohesiveness with the entire group.

One thing you will notice is that individuals will start to nod when you speak to them whilst using the gesture, particularly if you nod minimally yourself. This is useful feedback as it indicates that cohesiveness is developing. It can be a very powerful signal to you that progress with the sale is moving on nicely.

The verbals

The body leads the voice. You have to compensate extremely hard not to get a corresponding change in pitch. So use your physiology wisely. The voice is also affected by energy levels and when these are low, tonality, speed and volume will be affected. Ensure that your passion is demonstrated effectively using the speed, volume and pitch of your voice. If you find later on that your gestures do not look natural, there is a good reason for this. Normally, the gesture is fractionally ahead of the words, but when we start to introduce more gestures, this tends to swap round – with the words creeping ahead of the gesture – which can appear stilted. This will improve with practice.

Practise presenting

If you follow these guidelines you will find that you can start enjoying presenting to your prospects, clients and customers. This is only a snapshot of the techniques that can be used, but practise these skills frequently and you’ll find they become easier, and you’ll get an amazing return on your investment.

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