Sales is all about winning the hearts and minds of our audiences. For a sales presentation to be persuasive the audience has to ‘lean in’, not lean back. Unfortunately, PowerPoint – the ‘go to’ sales presentation tool – only encourages the latter.

Why rely on PowerPoint?

So why are so many sales teams so heavily reliant on using PowerPoint, Keynote or Google Slides to create their sales pitches?

As someone who can recall presentations being done with overhead projectors and carefully placed acetate sheets or slide carousels that invariably jammed, PowerPoint and the like, offers many benefits. But there is one overriding drawback – passivity.

Recall any PowerPoint presentation you’ve seen and I’m sure you’ll remember that the audience was seated and in passive mode – definitely not the highly engaged attentive audience we desire and need.

And that’s not the worst news. There is an additional challenge for presenters communicating with digitally savvy audiences. In 2015 Microsoft conducted a piece of research in Canada that showed the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 – around the time the mobile revolution began – to eight seconds. That’s a 33% drop in 15 years – what hope for those of us armed with a hefty slide deck of information?!

What’s the alternative?

I was totally inspired by a post I came across in Harvard Business Review. The author, Michael Brennan, CEO of a creative organisation, explained that the business operated under a particular constraint –  no one was to use PowerPoint. No exceptions. Ever!

There are few companies I know who would be so bold and brave. Yet if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Why? Because constraints are a key ingredient in the creative process. Not convinced? Interviewed in 1972, Charles Eames, the renowned furniture designer, said: “Design depends largely on constraints”. His work is iconic and his furniture still highly desirable. For several years, the artist Picasso limited himself to painting in shades of green and blue, his ‘Blue Period’, and then moved on to his ‘Rose Period’ – decisions that didn’t limit his creativity.

And it was these constraints that led Brennan and his partners to create deeply immersive, engaging and persuasive presentations that completely wowed their audiences – without the use of of a single PowerPoint slide.

Bringing a story to life is the key ingredient to a persuasive sales presentation

In his article Brennan describes what happened when they had to present to a major client. Commissioned by the Michigan government to review its public benefits system, Brennan’s organisation was to then propose a new approach to deliver benefits more humanely and efficiently. They knew that major changes would be a hard sell. They knew that they had to create a truly persuasive presentation to bring human stories to life and convey their insights. Duct tape, fishing line, photography, rope – these were just some of the ‘tools’ they employed to deliver a powerful message to their audience. Constraints drove them to think beyond the normal parameters of a presentation.

Engaging your audience…

Brennan’s presentation was comparable to an art installation that demanded audience participation and provided a totally immersive experience – from re-creating a benefits office to asking the audience to fill out the lengthy claims form, they brought to life the experience of claimants. Large format photography created impact, a journey map became a walking storyboard, papier-maché hearts hung from the ceiling represented the case load of each claims assessor. Brennan and his team created an emotive narrative that PowerPoint could never achieve. Feedback was positive and led to a pilot scheme for a vastly improved benefits system.

Isn’t that amazing? It makes me feel that PowerPoint has made us lazy thinkers. Our imaginations are the most powerful tool we possess – give it a freer rein and we can all create memorable presentations.

PowerPoint slides will never go away, indeed they do have their place in presentations. But they don’t have to be the primary way we plan and deliver a sales presentation. So the next time you have an important sales presentation to plan, need to win that big pitch or hope to provoke a reaction from your audience, consider ditching your slides and think creatively about how you might physically walk your audience through your ideas. Now that would be a persuasive presentation I’d like to hear!




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