The Rules for Selling with a PowerPoint Deck

When I told one of my team members the title for this article, her answer was, “That’s a simple one for you to write. You’ll just say, ‘Don’t, don’t and don’t.’”

Yes, it’s true, a PowerPoint deck is one of the best tools available if you want to kill a sale, so I encourage people to avoid them whenever possible.

However, there are times that you’re going to use a PowerPoint when you need to persuade people. Maybe your company requires it or, more nobly, maybe the information you need to share with your customer lays out well on slides. Since PowerPoint will occasionally be in the sales mix, let’s talk about how to use it.

First Rule of PowerPoint: It’s Not a Presentation

One of the best sales lessons anyone can ever learn is to “turn every presentation into a conversation.” So the first thing you need to do is stop thinking of your PowerPoint file as a presentation, and think of it as the background for a conversation.

PowerPoint is your backup band. It’s not the star. The main show is the conversation you are having with your customer(s), and the PowerPoint is just a tool to support that conversation.

(Oh, and another thing that goes with this rule: Don’t ever read your slides to your customer.)

Second Rule of PowerPoint: Ration Your Words

It’s common knowledge that you shouldn’t put too many words on a PowerPoint slide, but it’s also important to understand the reason why. The more you write on the slide, the less people will understand.

This may seem ironic, but words often get in the way of communication, especially when there are too many of them. When a PowerPoint slide suffers from a glut of words, the customer has to devote too much attention to reading and processing, which distracts them from the conversation.

When I have to use PowerPoint, I look at the few words on the slide as a hook upon which my customer and I can drape ideas. The purpose of this hook is to give my customer a clear frame of reference to help them understand and organize the information we are discussing.

Third Rule of PowerPoint: Don’t Railroad Your Customer

If you were an actor doing an improv scene, one sure way to piss off your scene partner is to force a plot direction on them, instead of letting the plot emerge from the interactions between you. This is called “railroading” your scene partner, for an obvious reason: It’s like laying down railroad tracks and forcing the other person to go down the path the tracks create.

I’m sure you’ve all been railroaded in conversations with friends or co-workers, where they force a conversational agenda on you, with no regard for any preference you may have. No fun, eh?

It’s tempting to use PowerPoint as a set of railroad tracks. Long before your meeting with your customer starts, you construct your PowerPoint deck, which seems to prescribe the order of the conversation. The deck implies a linear narrative, and it’s easy to fall into the path of that narrative. Isn’t it tempting to read the bullet points on slide 1, and then go on to slide 2, read those bullet points and then go on to slide 3? But what if your customer isn’t ready, willing or able to discuss the information in that order?

Avoid the tracks. As we said above, this is a conversation, not a presentation, and in a conversation both parties have a choice about where the conversation goes. Be willing to change the order of the conversation away from the linear order of your PowerPoint. What if the customer asks you about a topic that is five slides away in your deck? If the deck is printed, flip to that topic, and if you are presenting on your computer, immediately hit the escape key and go directly there.

An even better option might be to close the printed deck or turn off your computer screen (“B” if you are in PowerPoint slide show mode), and just talk about the topic with your customer. They just asked a question; maybe you shouldn’t let PowerPoint get in the way of your answer.

Use These Rules When Persuading Groups

I’m often asked for tips for persuading groups of people, especially when the group is expecting a presentation. I recognize it’s harder with a group, but my answer is to follow these three rules. You need the conversational feedback and conversational engagement to stay connected to the group, and that’s impossible if you, personally, are in slide show mode. Instead, think of yourself as the moderator of a discussion panel. Make eye contact with each person and ask for everyone’s input. As much as possible, don’t let one individual dominate the conversation.

Yes, PowerPoint can kill a sale, but if you follow these rules, you can use PowerPoint as a powerful tool to support your customer conversations. Here’s a technique to help you follow these rules: On the way to the meeting with your customer, imagine them engaged in an animated, enthusiastic conversation with you. As you visualize the two of you talking, notice how you are personally connected, focused on each other. And, in the background of that visualization, somewhat blurry, you see your PowerPoint presentation, off to the side, waiting to be called back into service, in its subservient, supportive role.

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