Master the Online Presentation

By Henry Canaday

With the glut of information, their time crunched to the limit, and sales budgets trimmed to near starvation, prospects have almost lost the ability to sit through a standard sales presentation. Does that mean sales reps have no way to communicate a good pitch? Not exactly. But things certainly have changed.

The virtual presentation is taking the place of face-to-face meetings more and more. If a good inside rep can present virtually to five times as many prospects as an outside rep in the same time period, the opportunity to grow sales is enormous – or could be, with effective online presentations.

Tom Drews, CEO of What Works! Communications (, teaches sales reps at such companies as Cisco and Symantec how to present in the new virtual world, where the trick is not so much getting the meeting as it is getting and keeping attention. He has some tips for doing that effectively to get results.

Discovery comes first. If possible, talk to decision makers on the phone before the presentation so you can tailor it completely to their needs and problems. If discovery is not possible (because you’re conducting a Webinar to a wide range of prospects, for instance), lead off by asking them what their challenges are. Ask them to type these in the Webinar chat room.

This step makes it necessary for the salesperson to listen well, as he or she would in an effective live presentation, Drews notes. Experienced online presenters can customize on the fly, even shuffling their slide decks, to address the discovered challenges.

Then begin the presentation, focusing on the value your company brings. Start with a one- or two-minute grabber: for example, a testimonial from a satisfied client. “This is the elevator pitch,” Drews explains. Give audience members another chance to ask questions to keep them engaged.

The PowerPoint slides that accompany the main segment of your presentation should be simple and vivid. Break up complicated slides. You don’t want your audience to read your slides while you talk. Use photos and visuals where possible.

You cannot use body language or eye contact to engage your audience during virtual presentations, so your voice is very important. Use a handset and landline for clarity. Vary your voice’s pace, volume, and pitch. Pause for effect and to let your audience members absorb critical points. Don’t annoy them with hems, haws, and accidental silences. Smile and be enthusiastic. Even if they can’t see that, it will come through in your voice. Record your own voice beforehand and ask colleagues for some honest reactions.

Add “Hollywood” to your presentation. “Think like an actor, director, or producer,” Drews urges. Humor helps. If you don’t have arresting pictures, download illustrations or images from such online sites as iStockphoto®. If you can add a brief video of yourself, that adds interest.

Use annotators on your slides to highlight important points and keep things lively. Address questioners by first name. “Then the others will think, ‘He or she will call on me,’” Drews says, “and they will pay attention.”

Avoid technical glitches by knowing your software thoroughly. Have one PC as your host, another to see what attendees are seeing. Finally, end with a next-steps document that lets listeners fill out their action items and you commit to yours.

Drews says virtual techniques can also be used well before a full presentation. For example, send two-minute clips with emails that ask prospects to go to a 6- to 10-minute on-demand video. You don’t have a live audience here, but you still want to keep your prospects engaged. To make these pitches personal, you can send brief video of yourself, including slides that make your most important points stand out.

Drews does two-hour video training and two-day classroom training on online presentation skills. In both cases, he says, the success secret is to practice, practice, practice. Despite the ubiquity of the Internet and frequent use of Webinars, Drews says the vast majority of salespeople still have a lot of work to do to become truly effective in this new presentation medium. Inside reps need to master it, and even outside reps will have to learn the same skills.

In the Webinar “Small Message, Big Impact: Crafting Persuasive Presentations,” Terri Sjodin lays out a strategy for developing presentations in any medium, of any length and for any audience ( The first step is to be “brief, clear, and concise,” Sjodin argues. Many reps fail here, she says, because they are “winging it, going with whatever pops into their mind,” rather than carefully formulating their approach.

A common mistake in even thoroughly prepared presentations is being long on information and short on persuasion. The best presentations are a “marriage of rock-solid arguments and rock-solid supporting information,” Sjodin says. But reps like presenting information because it is “safe.” Trying to persuade people is risky, because they can say no. And persuasion may feel too much like a hard sell, with which many reps are uncomfortable.

The three pillars of a persuasive presentation are case, creativity, and delivery. Sjodin urges salespeople to start by understanding the best case they can make to a prospect: “First, think of your ‘David Letterman’s Top 10’ most compelling arguments.” This will shape the supporting evidence you use and help prune away unnecessary information.

Think of presentations as a debate or as lawyers making arguments and providing evidence to juries, Sjodin says. Lawyers first summarize the points they will make and then make them in detail with just the evidence needed for proof. This approach can be adapted to a wide variety of circumstances, since the intent of a presentation determines both length and content.

For example, a two-minute phone call or elevator encounter is aimed chiefly at intriguing the prospect enough to give you more time. So don’t try to present the full case, just enough to arouse interest. Then aim to prove at the follow-on meeting that it was worth gathering all the decision makers together. Only then do you truly want to go to the “jury” with all your convincing evidence.

Audience matters heavily when crafting messages. Salespeople may have to sell to Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials all in the same day. “Boomers are generous and like to bond,” Sjodin observes. “Gen Xers are skeptical, and Millennials are used to plenty of external stimuli.”

These considerations can shape presentation delivery and the medium you choose for the meeting. But in all cases, use your own authentic voice. “Stepford wife or IBM perfection doesn’t work any more,” says Sjodin.

Decision makers will also have their individual priorities. CFOs are interested in return on investment; technical staff, in how your solution works. If you have your top 10 persuasive points selected and supported, pick the arguments most relevant to each listener.

Sjodin says the two most common needs prospects have are to save time and money. These are good places to start, but telling prospects at the outset that you can help them make more money may elicit pushback. “They get defensive and think, ‘Sure, you can help yourself make money.’ That argument is more effective later in the relationship,” Sjodin explains.

Whatever your aim – an appointment, a big meeting, or a close – you must take your prospects through five stages. Get their attention. State the need. Show how your company can satisfy the need. Make prospects visualize themselves adopting your recommendation. Finally, persuade them to take action.

Most of all, do your homework and earn their attention. Concludes Sjodin, “Owners and top execs like to see people who are hungry and work hard, just like they do. It will also make you a lot more confident.”