Ask any salesperson worth his or her salt and they’ll tell you that a sales presentation is first and foremost a performance. This isn’t any revelation, yet so many salespeople seem to forget that humans have been working on performances for our entire history. We know what works in a good performance on stage, and yet, why do people give such dull pitches in the office? Let’s examine the elements of a great performance and how it can translate to a great sales presentation.

Focus on your opener and closer.

Most standups begin their career with a “tight five,” a well-rehearsed five minute set that they have honed over time. The most important parts of that set is the opener and the closer because of the Law of Primacy and Recency.

Primacy to Recency scale

Because people respond to new stimulation and the most recent stimulation, what you start with and what you end with is what they will actually remember. Not to mention that attention spans are shorter these days (thanks internet!) so you’ll find that hardly any audiences remember a comedian’s middle jokes, but they’ll frequently remember how he/she opened and closed.

This is an important principle to bake into your sales presentation. To take advantage of how your audience retains your performance, don’t waste your opening with long introductions and small talk and other pleasantries. Instead, front-load your presentation with your strongest material, knowing that this will be one of the few pieces of information they will actually retain 20 minutes after you’ve left.

Put a slide like this up top, not in the middle.

Likewise, close strong. While a comedian might “leave them wanting more,” an effective way to close a sales presentation is to “leave them with a challenge.” For example, let’s say you ended with:

“Here’s the bottom line: we are confident that our solution can bring you X value, and we challenge you to find a company that can do that at a lower price.”

Ending with a bold challenge like this will sear your value prop into their brains and let it simmer there as the first thing they remember when they think of your company.

For performers, putting their strongest pieces first and last is something they’ve been doing since spoken word storytelling. Make sure you are doing the same.

Don’t lecture. Tell a story.

Speaking of storytelling, there’s a reason this artform has endured from Biblical times to today with The Moth (and others). It’s engaging. Literally, storytelling is engaging, as in good storytellers takes the audience along with them on an emotional journey. It’s not just a list of things. Rather, it’s about someone (because people only relate to other people, not things) with a character arc.

According to Nick Morgan, president of Public Words (via Harvard Business Review):

“Facts and figures and all the rational things we think are important in the business world actually don’t stick in our minds at all.”

This is why sales presentations get dull in the middle. It’s filled with lists and facts and statistics that offer insights, but not a compelling story. Instead of filling slides 3 through 8 with pie charts, after your strong opener, follow up with a story that your audience can easily empathize with. How do you make sure that happens? Simple: choose a story that speaks directly to their problem.

Ideally, you’ll have worked with a previous client that had a similar problem to the potential clients you’re presenting to. Tell that story, focus it around the real people who worked at that business, their struggles, and how they figured out a solution (with your services). Take your audience on that emotional journey, down and back up. And at the end, talk about how elated you felt as well, having helped that previous client. Again, emotions stick in the brain, not facts and figures. If you don’t believe that, here’s a televangelist about to get his 4th private plane.

Utilize crowd work.

“You. Where’re you from and what do you do?”

There’s a reason why standups work the crowd. Not only does it get them more engaged with audience participation, it visceral connects the audience to the comic’s material. It’s sort of a slight-of-hand magic trick when they do this. Unless they’re a fully improvisational comic, good standups will have a set of jokes and stories in mind when they’re doing crowdwork. After having done dozens if not hundreds or thousands of shows, they’ll have ready quips for common audience responses like “I’m a lawyer” or “I’m from Detroit.”

But let’s stress that element that makes this successful: they know what’s coming, and they can expertly relate it to their prepared material.

Likewise, when you’re giving a sales presentation, you’ve done research on your potential client. You know their problem areas. So now when you do “crowd work” in the meeting room, you’re not simply asking “any questions?” Rather, you have leading questions where a) you already know what they’re going to say, and b) you already know what you’re going to say back.

So, instead of “you following me so far?” ask a pointed question like “what is the number one thing your biggest competitor does better than you at SEO?” If you’ve done your homework, you’ll know what they’ll say already (and if you don’t, then don’t ask that question), and their audience participation leads right into your next set of prepared material.

Like you planned it all along.

We have thousands of examples of excellent performances throughout history, and yet we forget that during a sales presentation, we are actually performing as well. Borrow and steal from the greats (Steve Jobs said it’s ok) and hone your performance so you can keep your audience engaged, interested, and willing to close that deal.

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