There is a simple way to dramatically increase the odds that your next presentation will go well: pre-sell it. Before you actually get to the presentation, you should meet with all the key people who will be there. If you do this, you will walk into the room with confidence and the meeting will probably be a success.
One of the more challenging presentations I’ve delivered in my career was a recommendation to restage the Kraft BBQ sauce business. When I took over, Kraft BBQ was in terrible shape. The brand was spending all its money on deep price discounting, selling BBQ sauce at a price of 2 for 99 cents or 3 for 99 cents at key holidays such as Memorial Day and July 4. There was no advertising, and the product quality was poor, a victim of a relentless drive to cut manufacturing costs. It was a clearly unsustainable path.
Working with my team, I developed a plan to shift the direction and start rebuilding Kraft BBQ, with less discounting, more advertising and better product quality. The problem was this plan would create a financial mess; the cuts in discounting would be quickly felt, while the improved quality and restored advertising would work very slowly. Profits would fall sharply as the business turned.
Selling this idea wasn’t going to be easy. We scheduled a meeting with the division executive team to review the proposal. Before the meeting, I went and met with the key people: the head of finance, the head of sales, the head of market research and others. I went through a draft of the presentation and got their reaction. Some people were on board, some were concerned. I uncovered the issues and then took steps to address them. The head of sales, for example, was worried about the sales force incentive program. I fixed that and got his support.
By the time we got to the presentation, I knew where things stood. Everyone understood the situation and supported the plan. The head of finance was still worried about the size of the profit drop, so that would be a point of discussion. Everyone else, however, was on board.
Not surprisingly, the meeting went well and the recommendation was approved (and the next year profits fell in a spectacular fashion, only to rebound the following year).
Pre-selling has three big benefits. First, it can improve your analysis. The people you are meeting with might know about a relevant issue. Second, it helps you understand where you stand. Do people support this plan? Is it controversial? What are the issues? Third, it sends a positive signal: you care about this person and you value their input. Building this sort of relationship creates significant value.
There are a few important things to remember when you pre-sell a presentation. First, you should schedule the meeting well in advance. If you meet a week or two before the meeting, you have time to address questions and concerns. If you meet the day before the gathering, however, there is little time to take action. Meeting a day before might be worse than not meeting at all; it looks like you are just asking for support, not asking for real input. This won’t go over as well.
Second, you should always take a draft version of the presentation. Ideally, you should stamp or print “DRAFT” or “ROUGH DRAFT” on the front. This makes it clear that the presentation isn’t finished, and input can have an impact. Taking the final version is much less effective; it sends the message that the recommendation is done and you just want support.
Third, you should seek out opportunities to improve the presentation and argument. Is there a flaw in the argument? Do the numbers seem right? Does the formatting work? You want to find something, because this turns the presentation from your recommendation to a shared production. It is now our recommendation.
Just be sure to follow-up! If you forget to put the changes into place, it looks like you didn’t value the input. If someone points out that the alignment isn’t correct, you should be sure to fix it. The alignment probably isn’t very important, but fixing it sends the right signal: I heard your point and I acted on it. Ignoring the input sends a different signal: that input didn’t matter or I don’t care about you. These messages are not positive.
If you pre-sell, you will present with confidence because you know it will go well. And then, magically, it will.