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How To Pace Your Sales Presentation

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Read Time: 11 min
This post is part of a series called Presentation Fundamentals.
Deliver Engaging Presentations Like Steve Jobs
Leverage Hands-On Demonstrations Within Your Sales Presentations

The audience is seated, the spotlight is on, and it's show time! 

You have your Powerpoint presentation ready to go. You memorized your script, having recited it over coffee — yet again — at your favorite local restaurant this morning. You have this down and you know the customer needs your product.

By the time the presentation is over, the audience seems indifferent and many of them leave the conference room without even shaking your hand. What happened? 

This was supposed to be a slam dunk and an easy sale. This was supposed to be the home run you could use to take your family on vacation to Hawaii this year. Instead, it looks like another week at Six Flags for you, the wife, and the kids.

The worst part is that you have to get on the plane, go back to the office, and explain to the boss why the sale didn’t happen. The problem is that you have no idea why it didn’t happen. You had all of the material you needed to make your point and you even brought a sample for the audience to play with while you spoke. But they just didn’t seem interested. Why?

Most sales professionals do not realize this, but presentations are actually performance art. When you are up in front of an audience presenting your product, you are putting on a show that needs to impress your audience, while also engaging them to retain the important information you are giving them. Sales presentations are as much art as they are science, and your sales presentation was boring.

It was boring because you dragged it out too much. You were so concerned about getting your facts across that you slowed the presentation down to a crawl. After only a few minutes, your audience was looking at their watches and pining for the exits. You didn’t pace your presentation properly and you lost the sale. 

Let's avoid this scenerio and keep it from happening to you.

Today we examine the psychological triggers and business techniques that make for a successful sales pitch. Learn how to read your audience and pace your sales presentation so that your customers get the information they need and you get the sale. 

Consider the Alpha Audience Member

The first rule of playing to an audience is that you cannot please everyone. A rock band performing to 18,000 people in a hockey arena has to just go out there and do its best to entertain all of those people. But a sales presentation is a much more intimate performance, and that allows you certain luxuries.

There is one member of your audience to pay particular attention to and that is the alpha audience member. This is the person that many of the employees look to when they are not sure how to react to something. The alpha audience member has the full attention of:

  • The newer employees in the room.
  • The subordinates who are trying to work their way up the corporate ladder.
  • The employees who are new to their roles and are unfamiliar with how a sales presentation works.

When you have the attention of the alpha, you have the attention of a large segment of the audience. With a little experience, you can quickly spot the alpha and use his or her physical cues to properly pace your sales presentation.

When your audience is first seated and you begin your presentation, everyone looks like an alpha audience member. But when you get into your presentation, each audience member will start to show their true colors.

The alpha audience member is the one who shows the most sustained interest in what you are saying. She is not asking the people around her what they think and she is not allowing herself to be distracted by things going on around her. 

When someone is being a distraction, the alpha audience member will quiet the distraction with a sound or a simple glance. When you know the cues to look for, the alpha audience member is easy to find. Use her to determine how your presentation is going and alter your presentation based on her reactions. 

Identifying the alpha audience member is an excellent starting point to focus on, but there are cues to look out for from your broader audience as well.

Determine Audience Engagement with Eye Contact

When pacing your sales presentation, eye contact is critically important. 

Too much eye contact will give your audience the creeps and not enough eye contact will cause them to lose interest. When your presentation is paced properly, the right amount of eye contact will just happen naturally.

You can use eye contact to help get a feel for whether or not your presentation is going too fast or too slow. Conventional wisdom says to pick one person in your audience to make eye contact with and present to that person. In this particular instance, conventional wisdom is off target.

You know that your audience is still with you when you look for eye contact and you have several willing participants to choose from. If you scan your audience for eye contact and you have to search to find someone, then you are losing people’s interest. When you make eye contact with random people in the room and the eye contact is strong for a brief second, then you are pacing your presentation properly.

When you make eye contact with random people in the audience and they appear surprised or startled, then you are going too fast. People will want to make eye contact with you when you are going too fast because they are desperate to try and understand what you are talking about. They act surprised when you make eye contact with them because you have interrupted their concentration and forced them to react to your glare. 

If you look to make eye contact and people are looking everywhere but at you, then you are going too slow. People’s eyes will wander all over the room when they are bored, which is what happens when your sales presentation is dragging.

Use eye contact to determine your audience's level of engagement, and adjust your presentation pacing accordingly. Yet, eye contact is not the only body language cue to be aware of in your audience.

Reading Body Language

Body language is interpreted by both you and your audience as you give your sales presentation. The difference is that you are purposely trying to read the signals being sent by your audience, while your audience is subconsciously picking up on your movements, facial expressions, and hand gestures.

When it comes to reading the body language of your audience, you are usually at a disadvantage because your audience is normally seated. But there are still plenty of cues you can read that will let you know if your presentation is too fast, too slow, or just right.

Facial Expressions

Remember that facial expressions are not as important to overall body language as you may think. The late research scientist Dr. Albert Mehrabian developed a theory about human communication, called the 55/38/7 theory, that has been proven to be pretty accurate in the art of the sales presentation. 

He said that all human communication is 55 percent body language, 38 percent verbal presentation of the words being spoken, and only seven percent word context. In other words, what you say is not nearly as important as how you say it.

Audience facial expressions can be the result of your sales presentation, a pending belch from the soda that the audience member is drinking, or a non-verbal reaction to a text message the audience member just got. 

The only involuntary facial expression you need to worry about is the one associated with confusion. When your audience members look confused, then you are going too fast. If you are going too slow, then your audience gets bored and uses signals other than facial expressions that you need to watch for.

Body Movements

If you have audience members leaning back leisurely in their chairs, then you are going too slow. If you have audience members who are leaning forward and have their eyes on you, then you are going too fast. If you have audience members seated comfortably in their chairs and focused on following your presentation, then your presentation is moving along perfectly. It is that simple.

The hard part is when you have some audience members leaned back and others sitting comfortably. When you are getting mixed signals from your audience with their body language, then look to the alpha audience member. If she is leaned back, then you better pick up the pace. 

Hand Gestures

When you are giving a sales presentation, it is almost impossible not to look at the hands of your audience members. Since you are already looking at their hands, you should probably know how to read those hands to determine if you are pacing your presentation correctly.

The most common hand gesture you will get when you are going too fast is the hands put up in confusion. It is the popular “I don’t know” hand gesture of shrugging the shoulders and putting the palms up toward the ceiling. 

When the hands are fiddling with pens and pieces of paper, then you are going too slow. When the audience has pens in their hands and taking notes, then you're right on track.

All of these hand gestures are completely involuntary and great ways to judge how you are pacing your presentation. Business professionals who are following a sales presentation will take notes out of habit. The same can be said for the other hand gestures. They are all natural reactions to your presentation.

Keep an eye on these body movements and gestures. They are automatic real-time feedback from your audience.

To improve your sales presentation skills further, you can supplement this feedback by engaging your audience with a direct questionnaire.

Leverage Audience Feedback

Getting feedback from an audience is a critical way to improve the pace of your sales presentation.

Develop a feedback form that you can hand out when the presentation begins. The form will allow your audience to anonymously rate your performance and give feedback on your presentation skills.

Ask each audience member to turn in their evaluations when the presentation is over. Some will turn in the form and others will not. As long as you get some responses, then you have critical data you need to improve your pitch.

The problem that most sales professionals have is that they do not take the feedback from their clients to heart. You need to tone down your ego and listen to what your clients have to say because they are the ones that ultimately decide your success.

Practice Presenting and Integrate Feedback

A professional associate of mine used to tell me that he would practice his sales presentations in front of his four-year-old daughter. When I asked him why he would do that, he said because she would always tell him when he needed to speed up, or slow down. She had no idea what he was talking about, but she could tell when his pacing was off. Sometimes the honesty of children can be a blessing in the business world. 

You can, and should, practice your presentations in front of a mirror as part of your preparations. When you practice in front of a mirror, you can see the annoying hand gestures and body movements you make that distract from your content. Remember that body language is a two-way street. If you want to give the right message with your body language, then you need to practice.

Once you have your gestures and movements perfected, then you must practice in front of a real audience of some kind. Your audience does not need to understand your content fully. You just need to know if the pace you are presenting at is comfortable for them. If it is comfortable to your practice audience, then it has a good chance at being comfortable when it is show time.

Incorporate the feedback you received from your clients into your sales presentation and rehearse the changes until they are second nature. When it is time to give your sales presentation to your corporate audience, you should know the presentation inside and out. If you know the presentation like the back of your hand, then you can control your tempo.

Knock ‘Em Dead

The most outlandish piece of advice I was ever given about pacing my sales presentation was to take acting classes. I am glad I did, because acting classes gave me a noticeable edge over my competition and allowed me to give confident and effective sales presentations.

Your sales presentation is a performance, and anything you can do to enhance your performance will add to your success. Take acting classes, join the Toastmasters, get involved in your local community theater, do anything you can to enhance your ability to get in front of a corporate audience and knock ‘em dead. 

The best thing about pacing your sales presentations is that you will know when you have it right because you feel it with a paycheck in your hand. 


Graphic Credit: Presentation designed by Alexander Bickov from the Noun Project. Designed by Zbigniew Flakus from the Noun Project.

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