Thinking of making a sales presentation? Don’t!

The Presentation Trap: Why Making Presentations Can Cost You the Sale

In many conversations with sales professionals, I am often surprised that most get caught in the presentation trap. They spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for a razzle-dazzle presentation and often lose sight of the issues at hand.

The irony is that most of this effort is lost on customers. Presentations that are too early in complex decisions are largely a waste of time.

The advice I share with sales professionals wishing to avoid the Presentation Trap is "Don't present".

Conventional salespeople hate to hear this because the presentation is usually the key weapon in their sales’ arsenal. It is their security blanket, their comfort zone, and they loathe giving it up.

1. A presentation is, in essence, a lecture. The salesperson is the talking teacher and the customer is the listening student.

The big problem with teaching by telling is that little information is remembered. People retain only about 30 percent of what they hear. The use of visual aids (e.g., a PowerPoint slide show) boosts retention rates to 40 percent, but the generally accepted rule of thumb among learning experts is that more than half of even the most sophisticated presentation can be lost.

2. A typical sales presentation rarely devotes more than 10 to 20 percent of its focus on the customer and their current situation. Generally, 80 to 90 percent of a typical sales presentation is devoted to describing the seller, its solutions, and the rosy future if you buy.

3. Your competitors are following the same strategy and are busy presenting, as well. Unless you have no competition, your customers will surely hear their story, too

Look at this from the customer's perspective. Based on what we said about the customer's area of comprehension, it is highly likely that much of the information that customers hear falls outside their area of comprehension. Further, what they do hear sounds very much the same.

To help you avoid falling victim to the Presentation Trap, ask yourself these five critical questions:

1. What percentage of your sales presentation/proposal is devoted to describing your company and your solution?

2. What percentage of your sales presentation/proposal is devoted to describing your customer's business, their problems and objectives?

3. How well do your customers understand their own problems?

4. How much of your presentation is focused on persuading and convincing?

5. How well can your customers connect your solutions to their business situation?

How do customers then respond to competing conventional presentations? From my experience, customers respond to presentations in several key ways. First, they concentrate their efforts on the information that falls inside their area of comprehension. Second, customers may also respond by not responding. They listen politely as you "educate" them, thank you for your time, and promise to get back in touch when they are ready to make a decision.

Finally, some customers may actively respond. They may ask you to justify the information you have presented or challenge the viability of your solution. This is the response that every conventional salesperson is expecting. The customer objects and the sales professional goes to work overcoming those objections. When this happens it is apparent that there has been a disconnect along the way and back-pedalling is often the only way out.

The advice I share with sales professionals wishing to avoid the Presentation Trap is "Don't present".

Instead, use a diagnostic approach – simply stated, conduct a thorough diagnosis to uncover problems and expand the customer's awareness of their situation. Once the problem is clearly understood and the customer perceives all the ramifications of that problem, the salesperson is justified in making recommendations, and a presentation will not be necessary.

When you guide your customers through this process, you will be establishing a high level of credibility and find yourself jointly developing optimal solutions, which will ultimately benefit both you and your customers.

By Jeff Thull, CEO of Prime Resource Group

Jeff Thull is a leading-edge strategist and valued advisor for executive teams of major companies worldwide. He is President and CEO of Prime Resource Group.

He is the author of the best-selling books Mastering the Complex Sale, The Prime Solution and Exceptional Selling: How the Best Connect and Win in High Stakes Sales. Jeff Thull is also a columnist with and his articles are published in hundreds of business and trade publications.

For more information contact: Prime Resource Group,

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Published On: 7th Sep 2007

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  1. Presentation itself is very helpful . The problem is how people use it.

    Joanne 11 Sep at 9:58 am
  2. I’m about to do my first sales presentation in a few weeks, and I’ve never done one before. My sales are usually phone based…
    My goal is to get leads from the presentation and close them later on the phone…if people buy right then and there, that’s great.
    The key, I think, is to leave them something that they will remember you by….

    Bakin 17 Sep at 10:09 pm
  3. While you make what seem to be very good points – certainly your thesis seems logical enough – I’m struck as always by the fact that virtually nothing in the sales/presentation end of the world has any kind of hard evidence to back it up.

    You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting 15 people who have brilliant, even revolutionary sounding ideas for what to do – or what not to do – during presentations, during the sales cycle, etc. However as someone whose education was in the hard sciences, I still believe that shouldn’t place much value in novel ideas or opinions unless they are backed up by some kind of impartial research. Does anyone do this (I certainly haven’t seen it).

    Instead we typically get “experienced” consultants telling us about their “20 years in the field” and all of their successes. Unfortunately, they can’t know if they succeeded because of or in spite of their approach, or if it just wasn’t a significant factor. While those experienced, successful experts will vigorously defend their opinion, it’s simply a form of “argument from authority” which, if you’re wondering, is listed under “logical fallacies” in your logic textbook.

    So Jeff, you have some interesting ideas – do you have any kind of evidence or research to back it up? What you say seems reasonable, but I’d want a bit more than that before I adopt your approach.

    Barry 15 Oct at 4:43 pm
  4. Let me reinforce that presentations can be a very productive tool in the communication process. There are three very critical criteria for effective presentations and those are Content, Audience and Timing. As salespeople, we tend to frequently miss in one or more of those criteria and thus create more damage than success.

    Barry –

    I won’t take personal credit for the ideas we report. They have come from our research, observing top performing sales professionals, recognizing patterns of behavior and then searching for academic studies from various disciplines that would explain the repeated successes of the sales professionals we observed.

    One of the reasons too much presentation can be harmful is that it places the sales person in the role of “lecturing professor” a position of superiority over the customer. Research on interpersonal relationships, specifically trust building has significant data to support why that is harmful. In short, many of the techniques we have been taught to do in selling, are at odds with what other, more formal disiplines have found leads to success. I would agree that there are many sales consultants that provide far too much anecdotal content, but rest assured, we at Prime Resource Group have done our due diligence and what we are reporting is statistically significant as a contributor to success.

    A note to Bakin – You want to leave them remembering that you asked them questions they never thought to ask themselves. You want them to remember that you understand their situation better than anyone else they have spoken with and therefore they are left with the impression that you are the most equipped person to address their problem. We call it “exceptional credibility,” and you will achieve that via a conversation, not a presentation.

    Jeff 16 Oct at 8:26 pm
  5. Thank you for the insight. Even though our web sales are moving along nicely, we are still tailoring our sales information towards our direct contact clients. It has been a great task trying to educate our customers on what is possible with our products and services. This information has streamlined our sales efforts and brought things into a more narrow focus. Thanks

    Brad Hartmaier 16 Feb at 11:57 pm