Reality is in the Mind of the Beholder

By Heather Baldwin

Reality is whatever an audience perceives. In other words, if you’re shriveling with fear on the inside but outwardly acting confident during a presentation, the audience’s reality is that you’re a confident presenter. The same is true for negative perceptions. Your company may have the best customer service department in your industry, but if your prospect’s representatives have talked to a disgruntled customer who perceives your organization to be unresponsive, that’s their reality, says Frank Paolo, a nationally-known author and business presentations consultant ( Thus presenters must uncover not only the reality of prospects’ situations, but understand their perceptions and determine what perceptions they want to create.

Say, for example, audience members are coming to the presentation with a negative perception of your product or organization. Because perception is reality, you must deal with it immediately; otherwise “it’s sitting there like a smell in the room,” says Paolo. Don’t wait for audience members to ask about it; tackle the issue head-on by saying something such as: If I were you, I’d be sitting there thinking sure, this guy is going to promise me the moon. He’s going to tell me we’re going to get our shipments on time like he did two years ago when they ran out of stock and boosted the price. Then, says Paolo, go on to show them how you have addressed the concerns you know they have.

After you’ve detailed exactly how you have turned around your organization, Paolo suggests you conclude with something such as: What I’m asking for is a chance to show you that it will not happen again. I’m asking to come back on June third and hold myself accountable. If I didn’t deliver on every single point we’ve addressed, you can fire me on the spot and I’ll hand you a check refunding the money you spent with us.

Put yourself in the audience’s position. Imagine you had a negative perception of the presenter’s organization and he or she came in with a proposal like that. Do you think you could be persuaded to go with the company again? You bet, says Paolo. And here’s where perception and reality are important. “The perception is that your company is doing something radical and new,” says Paolo. “The reality may be that you’ve been doing this all along.”

The process is akin to acting. Just as actors must exaggerate emotion to convey it onscreen, presenters sometimes need to aggrandize certain points to emphasize them. It’s not lying, cautions Paolo, it’s simply turning perception into something grander than reality.

Take the question many sales reps get about whether they take calls at home. Most will simply answer yes and move on. But if this is a point you want to emphasize, you can shape an audience’s perception of your availability by handing out your business card at the end of the presentation and saying: Please turn it over and write down this number – 203-555-1234. This is my home number. You can call me any time at that number and I am at your service. You’ll create a more positive perception about your availability with this action than with your competitor’s simple yes. The reality, however, is that both of you take calls at home.

Or say you’ve just arrived at a prospect’s office to give a presentation and the receptionist offers you a seat. The reality is there’s nothing more you’d love than to sit down after a long day on your feet and flip through a magazine while you wait. But if you say that you’ve been sitting all day and would prefer to stand, you’ll greet the prospect standing up. His or her perception of you – and thus reality – will be that you’re an energetic person who is ready to work. You’ve just controlled the prospect’s perceptions and put yourself one step closer to winning the sale no matter what was the reality of your energy level.