The most persuasive speakers sell their ideas well before the presentation

A successful presentation starts well before the meeting.
A successful presentation starts well before the meeting.
Image: REUTERS/Mike Segar
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Here’s what the most persuasive presenters in business know: The sell should start well before the meeting even begins.

To improve the odds that your presentation is successful, you must discuss it with key players in advance.

Taking this “pre-sell” step means that by the time you give your presentation, you’ve already convinced the most important people in the room that it has merit.

The power of pre-selling

There are three benefits to pre-selling:

  1. Finding out where people stand. If you learn that everyone supports the recommendation, you will start the meeting pretty confident that things are going to go well. If you know that your finance person has some issues, you can be ready for her questions. If everyone disagrees with the recommendation, you’ll walk in knowing things won’t go smoothly, or you might just cancel the meeting entirely.
  1. Improving your recommendation. In many cases, the people you meet with will identify important questions and gaps. This is important input; it will help you create a better recommendation.
  2. Boosting your confidence. One of the reasons people get nervous when presenting is uncertainty. They think, “Will this presentation go well?” and, “Are there big gaps in my analysis?” and, “Will people ask tough questions?” Letting the mind wander down this road can be terrifying. If you pre-sell, the uncertainty will come down.

The approach

When you pre-sell, the most important thing is to meet with people well in advance. Schedule a time to review a draft of the recommendation perhaps a week before the meeting. In the best case, you will get input and suggestions on your recommendation, and you will then need time to work with them. If you meet with someone the day before the meeting, you don’t have that time.

Bring along a draft version. It should clearly be a draft. The file name should perhaps be “New Product Presentation – DRAFT.” The cover page should say “DRAFT” or “SECOND DRAFT” in big letters. If you bring someone a draft, you are clearly asking for their input. The document isn’t final; it is coming together, and there is plenty of time to change things. This sets the right tone.

If you show up with the final version of a presentation, the entire dynamic of the meeting shifts. At this point, you aren’t asking for their input and ideas, you are simply trying to sell them a recommendation. The meeting goes from being a work session to a pitch. This is also why meeting early is important.

Listen carefully to suggestions, and be sure to address the input. If someone points out a typo, and you fix it, you’ve created a positive connection. You respected their input and acted on it. If you don’t fix it, you send a very different signal: that it didn’t matter or you don’t care. This doesn’t enhance your position.

You may not be able to meet with everyone before the meeting, but don’t let this stop you. If you get to even a few of the key players, you will strengthen your position.

Most of the work of presenting occurs before the meeting starts. Indeed, it is my firm belief that if you prepare well, you are almost guaranteed that things will go smoothly. Pre-selling is perhaps the single most important way to improve your presentations.

Tim Calkins is a clinical professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the author of the forthcoming book, How To Wash A Chicken – Mastering the Business Presentation.