"The Navigator" News Blog

How to Fix a Bad Sales Presentation

We’ve all been there.  I don’t care how good you are as a salesperson, a manager, or a speaker – you’ve been in the middle of a sales presentation and realized that it was going sideways.  In titling this article, “How to fix a sales presentation,” I don’t mean that I’m going to tell you how to CREATE a great sales presentation.  I already have videos and articles on that topic.

No, I’m going to tell you how to do something more challenging – how to fix a sales presentation while it’s going bad.  It requires some heavy mental lifting on your part.  It also requires an uncomfortable level of transparency on my part, because I have to tell you about my biggest failure as a professional speaker.  It’s a story that I don’t enjoy telling, and one that still bothers me, nine years later.  But to tell you how to fix a bad presentation, I have to tell you about my worst one and how I didn’t fix it.  So, if you’d like to watch me kick my own ass in words, click below.

It was the spring of 2014, and my national speaking career was still very much in the growth stage.  I was on a little mini-tour.  On Sunday, I was to give a keynote to office furniture dealers in Palm Springs, CA.  Then I drove to Las Vegas on Monday to speak on at a different conference on Wednesday (an extra day in Vegas is always a good thing for me).  Then, back to Long Beach to speak at yet another conference on Friday and Saturday.  Four different programs in seven days, at three different conventions, in three different cities, all of which promised a lot of fun.

It’s that first speech that I want to tell you about.  I was delivering a morning keynote.  At the time, keynotes were not my specialty (I’ve since come up with a couple of really good ones), but I was pumped up.  However, ten minutes into the speech, I noticed that it wasn’t landing.  There wasn’t any note-taking.  The laugh lines weren’t generating laughter.  And worse, the hundred faces staring back at me were blank.  I knew it was going bad.

Still, I pushed through.  I gave my speech as planned.  After all, it was the topic that the head of the association and I had landed on.  My speech couldn’t possibly have been the problem.  Maybe it was just too early in the morning.  When I called for questions after 50 minutes, there was one or two – I can’t remember which.  In a good speech, I typically have more questions than I have time to answer.  And when I ended, there was the politest of applause, and then everyone filed out.  NOBODY came up to talk to me afterwards.  That’s when I knew that I had well and truly laid an egg.

When the post-conference evaluations were sent to me, I was embarrassed.  The scores were low and nearly every comment was about how the topic wasn’t what they were expecting to hear.  I got no business from attendees (unusual), and to this day, that association won’t consider bringing me back.  That bridge is burned.  Understand – my speech wasn’t offensive, I used no profanity or off-color humor, nothing like that.  I just missed the mark by a long shot.

I’ve thought about it a lot since then.  If I had it to do over, I’d have done it much differently.  You see, what really bothers me is that I knew that I was missing the mark, and I did nothing about it.  I wasn’t being lazy – I just didn’t know what to do.  Afterwards, I decided that I’d never finish a speech that was going wrong without doing something different.  Here’s what I’d have done, if I had it to do over.

I’d have stopped my speech.  I’d have said something like, “You know, based on your expressions, I’m not talking about what you want me to talk about.  Let me ask YOU a question.  What can I do, from this stage, to make the rest of our hour together time well spent for you?”  It’s not like I didn’t have other material; at the time, I probably had ten other good speeches, and I’m good at winging it and making up material on the spot.  I have a feeling that if I’d asked, they’d have given me an idea that I could have used, and I could have shifted gears and done something they’d have appreciated and enjoyed for the last 45 minutes of my time.  Would it have been unorthodox?  Heck, yes.  But the key is that, at that point, my risk was zero. I was already bombing, and my choice was to either keep bombing or to try something.  If that other something hadn’t worked, either, so what?  I’d at least have gone down swinging, and I might have saved the speech and the relationship with the association.  Instead, I ruined both.

Maybe you’ve had that experience during a sales presentation – it’s going flat and you don’t know why.  If that happens to you (and if you sell enough, it either will happen or has happened), here’s how to fix a bad sales presentation.

  1. The first rule of finding yourself in a hole is:  Stop digging.  Stop the presentation when you realize it’s going bad.  If the presentation is falling flat, always remember that the risk of changing it up is zero – so your fear of doing so should be zero as well.
  2. The person in the room who knows what they want is right across from you – the customer.  Ask why your presentation is going wrong.  Put the burden on yourself – “You know, Mr. Customer, I feel like this presentation isn’t hitting the mark.  What have I missed?  Did I misinterpret your needs?”  In my case, the problem was that I hadn’t talked to any of the dealers who were attending the conference beforehand, so I didn’t know what it was that they were looking for.  I’d asked the wrong questions of the wrong people.  Most of the time, when a sales presentation goes wrong, it’s not the presentation itself – it’s the needs discovery beforehand.  At this point, if you have to go back and ask the right questions of the right people, DO IT.  Pressing on could cost you the customer.
  3. Change it up. This step requires a high degree of confidence and mental agility.  But we salespeople have that, don’t we?  Once you understand the real needs of the right people, NOW you can move forward.  Don’t be afraid to create a presentation on the spot.  By “presentation,” I don’t mean a slide deck (unless you just happen to have some visuals on hand that can help); I mean your VERBAL presentation that will address their needs.

When your risk is zero, the potential reward is high.  High reward with low risk is what we all want.  That presentation still bugs me, but I’ve never made that mistake again.  Ever since, I’ve been more careful about pre-conference preparation.  I’ve never given that particular speech again; in fact, I don’t even list it anymore. And only once since have I ever had that “This is going flat” feeling.  That was two years later, and I did exactly what I suggested above.  The last 30 minutes of that program were very well received, and I still speak for that association.

That’s how to fix a bad sales presentation.  Be mentally agile, able to perceive that “moment,” and mentally agile enough to change gears, and you won’t have to have that feeling that I have as I write about my biggest failure as a speaker.