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Sales presentations FAQs

Ten FAQs on sales presentations.

  1. How do I plan a presentation? 
  2. Should my presentation be a scripted 'pitch', or more like a conversation?
  3. What notes should I use?
  4. Should I use visual aids?
  5. How can I get my audience interested?
  6. How do I overcome nerves?
  7. What usually goes wrong?
  8. Should I take questions during the presentation, or at the end?
  9. What do I do if I don't know the answer to a question?
  10. How do I finish a presentation?

With thanks to Andrew Brown of Structured Training, who advised on these FAQs.

1. How do I plan a presentation?

Start by deciding what you want to achieve. For example, you may aim to make a sale as a result of the presentation, or simply to establish some interest as the basis for further discussions.

Check who your audience will be and what their needs and expectations are. For example, if you will be presenting to the managing director, your presentation might emphasise the broader business benefits you can offer.

Check also how long you will have for the presentation. If in doubt, aim for a shorter rather than longer presentation, and allow time for questions.

You are then ready to structure the presentation:

  • Think of a headline for the presentation. Ask yourself what one thought you would like the audience to take away from the presentation.
  • Establish a handful of key points that back up this headline, based around the benefits (not features) you can offer the customer.
  • Put together a logical argument linking these key points.
  • Prepare an initial overview which introduces the key points.
  • Prepare a closing summary which reinforces the key points.
  • Make sure that you have any facts and figures you need to support your argument, even if they aren't included in the presentation.

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2. Should my presentation be a scripted 'pitch', or more like a conversation?

In part, it depends on what you are trying to communicate, who your audience is and how many of them there will be. You may find that your customers prefer a relatively casual approach. A long presentation can be unwelcome unless the customer has specifically asked you to address them in this way.

A formal presentation can be the most effective way of introducing a significant amount of information to several people. It also allows you to control the initial phase of a meeting. But it's usually a good idea to allow plenty of time for questions and answers, and any general discussion.

If you are delivering a presentation, it's a good idea to work from a plan that sets out your main points (see 1). But don't simply read a script: your audience will be bored.

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3. What notes should I use?

Use outline notes that list all the key points you want to make, in the right order. Include any facts or figures which you want to be able to quote accurately, but don't use a lengthy script.

Write (or type) the notes on one or more cards. Make sure they are clearly legible, and numbered in order. If you will be using any visual aids, mark on the cards when you need to introduce each aid.

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4. Should I use visual aids?

Used well, visual aids can help to reinforce your message and engage your audience. They are particularly effective for giving meaning to figures which can be shown on graphs or diagrams. They can also be a useful reminder of the key points you have covered.

But visual aids are often misused. You may need practice to avoid some of the common errors.

  • Reading through a list of bullet points, while projecting the same list as a visual aid, adds nothing to your presentation.
  • It's usually best to provide any handouts after your presentation. Otherwise people look at the handout instead of listening to what you are saying.
  • Take down or turn off any visual aid when it is no longer needed, to avoid distracting the audience.
  • Make sure any visual aid can be seen by everyone and is easy to understand.
  • Talk to the audience, not to the visual aid.
  • Use a minimal amount of clip art.

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5. How can I get my audience interested?

You may have a chance to talk to people before you make your presentation. If so, use it to find common ground and to show that you understand their business.

A simple technique is to start the presentation by introducing yourself, and asking everyone else to introduce themselves as well. This not only involves them, but ensures that you know their names if you want to use them later.

You may also want to involve them directly, by asking them what they hope to gain from your presentation and whether they have any particular concerns.

Speak clearly and with energy, and stand confidently. The audience will usually pick up on your interest and enthusiasm. Continually scan the audience so that you maintain eye contact with everyone there.

Watch out for any signs of boredom. If people are drifting off, change your tempo, cut longwinded parts of your presentation, or ask them questions by name to bring them back in.

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6. How do I overcome nerves?

The best cure for nerves is practice. Focus on how you appear rather than how you feel. Simply practicing a presentation before you deliver it will help reduce your nerves. Practising by yourself helps; better still, work with an audience of friends or colleagues. Over time, the more presentations you have successfully delivered the more confident you will become.

Try to create a positive mental attitude. Remember that people have chosen to listen to your presentation, so they must be interested. Use your nerves as a source of energy to give life to the presentation.

There are also techniques for reducing nerves and avoiding seeming nervous.

  • Take several deep breaths before you start, holding each one and then exhaling slowly.
  • Make a conscious effort to speak slowly - people naturally speak quickly when they are nervous.
  • Make sure you have a glass of water to sip in case your mouth gets dry.
  • Avoid holding pieces of paper which magnify any shaking - use notes on cards instead.

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7. What usually goes wrong?

The most common mistake is planning the presentation badly in the first place. Many people base their presentations on what they want to say, rather than thinking about what the audience want to hear. The audience feels that you are just selling to them or lecturing them, and isn't interested.

Another common weakness is poor delivery. Nervous presenters who read from a script will not hold anyone's attention. Instead, you need to practice in advance and work from notes.

Finally, all too often there are practical disasters. For example, computers which are supposed to project slides are notorious for going wrong just as you start to speak. It's essential to have a backup plan if any of your equipment fails or your visual aids go missing.

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8. Should I take questions during the presentation, or at the end?

If someone has an objection to what you are saying, it's usually best if they can say so — and you can deal with it — straight away. Otherwise they may stop listening to what you are saying.

However, you don't want to interrupt the flow of your presentation. If a question needs a long answer, it's best to give a brief response and say that you will go into more detail later. And if someone is persistently interrupting, you may want to say that you will deal with all their questions later.

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9. What do I do if I don't know the answer to a question?

Admit it. Promise to find out later and get back to them, and do so.

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10. How do I finish a presentation?

Finish your main presentation with a summary, re-emphasising the main points you have made. Then take any questions they may have. Have a few questions ready to ask yourself if no one else has any.

Ask the audience for feedback on the presentation. Use their comments as an opportunity to deal with any objections they raise. Establish what the next step will be and ask what dates would suit them. Be ready to negotiate, or close the sale, if you see an opportunity.

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