“Presentation” – Why I Hate That Word!

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It’s Not About You – #3

We all have certain words that cause a negative visceral reaction when we hear them. Mine include cancer, child abduction and rosemary (that most heinous herb responsible for destroying otherwise fine dishes). I’m sure your words are coming to mind now. In sales, the word I most hate is presentation.

The following is a true story that I’ve waited 10 years to write. It’s a little long. Hang in there; the painful lessons were career-altering. I changed one name to protect the guilty:

In the spring of 2000, I was recruited to a just-past-startup organization with a slick web-based Learning Management System. It was my chance to become an internet millionaire and transition to the “new economy.”  So I thought. Turned out it was two years too late as the internet bubble had already burst. However, the painful year was a tremendous education. I learned how not to do enterprise sales and solidified my convictions about new business sales process.

My new company was aligned with a very large performance-improvement company that served as a channel partner bringing us into their Fortune 500 accounts. My second week on the job, we get word our partner had scored a presentation and demo for us at a giant Japanese consumer electronics company headquartered in New Jersey. I wasn’t sure why it was being referred to as a presentation since we hadn’t done any discovery work, but everyone was excited. Since I wasn’t ready to fly solo, the VP/Ops Manager Mark and I plunked down $1000 each for airfare to Newark.

Their star salesperson was so well connected, he even arranged for the division president to attend our presentation to the committee. Because I was new, young and naive, and because our partner seemed so powerful and entrenched with their client, I deferred to their sales process and let them lead. After all, it was their client, they got us in, they must know what they’re doing. That was a poor assumption on my part.

Sales star, whom I’ll call Frank, picked us up at the airport. On the ride to his giant client, Frank assures Mark and me that he’s got it covered. He’ll tee up the demo with a brief presentation… a few overview slides about his company’s relationship with the account and then introduce us as their technology partner. My guy Mark is as smart, likable and confident as any executive on the planet so I figure that regardless of how Frank kicks it off, we’ll be fine. I’m just a rookie along for the ride and looking forward to learning from the experience. And learn I did!

You getting concerned about how this is shaping up? As I tell the story 10 years later, I am having a physical reaction remembering it like it was yesterday. So we walk into the corporate boardroom and the conference table feels like it’s 30 yards long. We set up and are more concerned about the internet connection than connecting with their people. That should have been a red flag. Frank stands at the head of the table ready to go. The president says, “Frank, good to see you. I’ve got 30 minutes, that’s it.”  And what happened next was possibly the most dramatic and formative sales lesson of my life.

Frank went.  And went.  And went. It was an unbelievable, almost surreal experience. Slide after slide with pictures of the various buildings on his company’s impressive campus. I’m looking at Mark with big eyes, having flashbacks to The Gong Show from my childhood. We’re thinking he’s gotta ask them at least one question, right?  Maybe something non-threatening like “thanks for inviting us in to show you our new learning platform. Can you share a little bit about why you formed this committee and what business issues are driving this initiative?” Nope. Nothing. More presenting. Slide of an org. chart of his company. Slide of the logos of their blue-chip clients. Slides of his company’s performance improvement process beautifully flow-charted. It was a sight to behold.

No one cares how smart you are or how great you think your company/solution is.

22 minutes in, Mr. President is visibly frustrated. He says, “Frank, I’d like to see the demo please.”  Frank speeds through a few final slides and turns it over to Mark. Sensing it was too far gone to redirect and engage the committee, Mark responds to the president’s request and executes a beautiful abbreviated demo of the platform and some custom content. After 10 minutes, the president thanks us and excuses himself. Mark finishes up showing the committee the rest of the system and the room goes silent. All heads turn to me. I’m not sure why, maybe because I hadn’t said a word. I gathered my thoughts, glaring at Frank as if he was an enemy of the State. I turned to the committee members, thanked them and asked, “was what we shared today on target with what you’re looking for from a web-based learning management system?”  I could feel myself cringing as the words came out – incredulous that my little company flushed two grand on this disaster and that I allowed us to present to a dream client not knowing the answer to my question. They said “no,” thanked us and left the room.


  1. Never again! No matter how tenured or entrenched your selling partners, under no circumstance shall you defer to their sales process. YOU are still responsible.
  2. Presentation is a bad word. Be suspicious when you hear it or you’re asked to make one. Ask all the questions that come to mind. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not.
  3. By sales law, a first meeting cannot be a presentation.
  4. Even meetings billed as presentations can and should be a dialogue. How much different would my story be if we started out at the white board, told them we were excited to showoff our system, but would like to ask a few simple questions to make sure we did an effective demo that touched on what mattered most…
  • Why did you invite us here today?
  • Why were you selected to sit on this committee and which business issues are you most interested in solving?
  • What does success look like a year after installing a new system?  three years?
  • What would you like to come away with from our time today?

Previous posts from “It’s Not About You” series:

The Initial Sales Call &  Telling The Sales Story

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