Replacing Presentations With Conversations
David re-reads the 2nd chapter of Blair’s first book, leading to a discussion about how sales people have to choose between either presenting to clients or being present to them.
DAVID C. BAKER: Blair, we are going to talk today about replacing presentations with conversations.
BLAIR ENNS: The second proclamation.
DAVID: Yeah, it's actually the second chapter in your book, which I'm holding right now in my grimy little hands. The book, it's black with red, looks like foil to make it look expensive, so you could charge an extra couple bucks for it probably. It says Win Without Pitching Manifesto, and the second chapter is about replacing presentations with conversations, but I think if you would let me, I'd like to make a public confession before we get into this.
DAVID: Your book actually sells better than mine, and I want you to know that that pisses me off.
BLAIR: I read a great quote the other day, maybe it was Gore Vidal who said, "Every time a friend succeeds, a little part of me dies."
DAVID: I don't know if this was the third or fourth printing, but since we published the book, we got these three skids of your books. Not only do I hate the fact that your book has sold better than my last book, but I have to haul these skids of your book like for punishment, to remind me constantly that they're selling.
BLAIR: That's what you get for moonlighting as my publisher.
DAVID: Yeah, instead of focusing on what I should be doing, yeah.
BLAIR: The fourth printing should arrive any day now, it's larger than all the other ones. Can I just keep bragging here? I'm surprised it's been, well I think it's somewhere around seven years, and sales just keep going up, I can't explain it.
DAVID: I'm more surprised than anybody, because I've read it and I know you. The idea is replacing presentations with conversations, and actually I read through chapter two again, it was actually fun to read that part of the book again. You talk a lot about avoiding the big reveal, and the first thing I could think of was several episodes of Mad Men where they have the single pitch board on an easel in the conference room and it's covered, and when they say "big reveal", they mean big reveal, they lift this thing up and there's this tension in the room. You talk about the fact that we're addicted to that. I'm not sure that people would admit that they're addicted to that, can you talk more about that first, to start us off?
BLAIR: Some people might listen to that and think, "Well, I'm not addicted to that," but I think you and I probably have different definitions of creativity. You might have kind of a broader look at what it means to be creative, and I take my cues from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote the book Flow, and he studies happiness and creativity. He says creativity is the ability to see, the ability to bring kind of a new perspective to a problem. It's not the ability to write or draw, he refers to that as "personal creativity".
BLAIR: Creative people who can look at things differently, they just see things differently, that's kind of to me the hallmark of creativity, one of the things that goes hand in hand with being creative is the ability to think on your feet, so these two things, for reasons I don't fully understand, they're tied to each other. When somebody has this really strong ability to kind of bring a fresh perspective to a problem, they also have a really strong ability to go with the flow and deal with whatever kind of objections are thrown at them. If your strength is standing in front of a room, saying something, hearing an objection, and then having to react to it, and then kind of sell in the situation or recover from a situation, then you are going to look for as many situations like that that you can create.
BLAIR: I'll give you a great example of a friend and a client from many years ago, creative director at a small design firm, and he was presenting a new identity to a consulting firm. He does the big reveal, and it's very quiet, and then he's a little bit nervous because it's so quiet, and he says, "What do you think?" One of them says, "Well interesting, I notice you've changed our name from XYZ Consulting to XYZ Consultants." It was just a mistake, an error on his part, and he responded immediately. He said, "Exactly, because consulting, that's what you do, consultants, that's who you are." They bought it, so they changed the name because he just responded in the moment.
BLAIR: Creative people love being in that situation of presenting, having to deal with an objection, and then coming through it, because the euphoria is profound, it's huge. If that's who you are, if that's your strength, commanding a room, having to dance, having to respond to objections, et cetera, not knowing what's going to happen next, then you will create as many situations as possible where you get to do that, and the whole time you will tell yourself and tell others and tell me and tell you, "No no no, that's the way this business works, or that's the best way to communicate this information to the client," and it's not. It's all about you and your personal need to present as a creative person.
DAVID: You would say that that's pretty widespread in the creative field, because most of the creative field has been walking down that path for many years, there's something about that personality. I think of it as diving into an empty pool and inventing water on the way down, that's how I think of it. When I think about public speaking, to me that's sort of what's happened, or when I'm doing consulting where I know that within a few hours, we're going to have to have some at least provisional answer, and we don't yet, and that's terrifying but also thrilling. There's something about the creative feel of creative entrepreneurs that's bringing that. Now, would this equally apply to presentations in a new business setting as it would to presentations as the work is unfolding?
BLAIR: There are different types of presentations, and there are different times in the relationship in which we feel like it's appropriate to present. If we start with the idea that we are addicted to the presentation and the presentation does not need to exist, if you come around to my way of thinking on that, then you will look at the presenting that you do in a new business situation, and you'll realize that this is not necessary, I'm doing this for me. You really first have to come to grips and be honest with yourself about your own need to present. What I recommend is, reform yourself when it comes to your existing clients.
BLAIR: Yeah, first. Replace the big reveal with a series of little reveals, and then once you get your head around that, then you will be able to think about your need to present in a new business situation a little bit differently. There are all kinds of creative people outside of the creative professions, so most entrepreneurs I think fit this description of a creative person, because I think you have to be somewhat creative to be ... I test for this in the tests that we do for all of the people who enter the Win Without Pitching program, so I can get an objective measure of how creative in that sense, or how much they crave standing up in front of the room and being forced to dance.
BLAIR: There's a rudimentary question that's, and I'll ask the audience right now, and I've asked this in many seminars or workshops I've led. Usually I do it after break, I come back into the room and I say, "Hey," and I'm clearly kind of roleplaying or playing a scenario, I say, "Hey, in the hallway, I just ran into the chairman of the board of your most highly coveted client. Think of the company that you've always wanted to work for. They're having a board meeting in the meeting room right next to ours, and I told them that I was spending the day with you, and they said, 'Oh great, can you send somebody in to do a 15-minute presentation on their firm? Because we're looking to hire a firm like theirs.'"
BLAIR: Then I say to the audience, "You have 10 seconds to get over there and present. You have no time to prepare," you get up out of your chair and start walking, and then I say, "Okay, stop. What's your reaction? Everybody just measure what your reaction to that is, I've just told you you have no time to prepare, you have to go to a 15 minute presentation, you have to be there in 10 seconds, what's your reaction?" You look at the audience, and you can see the range of responses in their faces. Some people are grinning, these are the people, they would say, "I'll think of what I'm going to say on the way over there," and they love the stress of that moment because they have this great ability to respond, to think on their feet.
BLAIR: These are the people, as you say, who love to dive off the diving board and invent water on the way down. Then you've got the kind of low autonomy people that are very systematic and process-oriented, and these people are horrified, they need vision and clarity of what's going to happen next. They need to know what their steps are, they need to be prepared, it's their worst fears to come off unprepared. They haven't even considered what they might say or the objections that they might encounter, and they need to be able to think through all of those things.
BLAIR: If you're in that first category, then I can all but promise you that you have built your business around that strength of yours, and you have driven your cost of sale way up, and probably your closing ratios down. Now obviously, there's some places where it's served you well, but for the most part when it comes to getting new clients, I'll bet you it's hurt you more than it's helped you.
DAVID: Do you remember years ago, when some creative firms, especially designers, would take a portfolio book, and there were pages that you'd flip? I remember reading this study, I don't remember where it was, how the pacing was so different if you controlled it as, say, the principal of the firm making this presentation, or let the client control the pace, how much faster the pace was. They were not interested in the presentation, they were much more interested in getting to their issue. I think that plays into what you're talking about, but the question specifically that's coming to my mind right now is, like so you talk a lot about how the expert needs to direct the relationship, how is the expert directing the relationship if they're not talking that much, if the client is doing most of the talking? In other words, if we're letting the client fulfill their needs here, how are we not relinquishing this need to direct the relationship?
BLAIR: Well, I think you know the answer, because if you're not talking, what's left?
DAVID: Listening, or asking questions.
BLAIR: Yeah, if you map out the role of the two parties, buyer and seller, over the length of the sale, you will see that when it's done properly, a proper consultative sale, early in the relationship, the salesperson is talking about 25% of the time, and they're using their 25% to ask questions, and the client is taking 75% of the time, and they're using that time to give their responses. Then at the end of the sale, the close, it's reversed, the client is speaking 25% of the time, and they're asking you, the seller, the questions, and you're taking 75% of the time to respond to their questions. Nowhere in there are you standing at a PowerPoint deck in presentation mode, you're either asking questions or you're responding to the clients' questions.
BLAIR: It's interesting, that portfolio book and the amount of time. I had a really interesting conversation just a week or two ago with a principal that I know well, and we were talking about capabilities presentations, and I was saying, "No, the capabilities presentation does not need to exist." We were getting into a very constructive, respectful argument or a discussion where we're each advancing our views on the subject, about capabilities presentations, he was saying, "No, it's valid, you have all this information you want to communicate about your firm." I said to him, "How long does it take you to get through your capabilities presentation?", and he kind of looked a little bit sheepish, and I said, "Is it more than five minutes?", and he kind of looked at his feet, and I said, "Is it more than 30 minutes?" He said, "Well, it's about an hour."
DAVID: I'm already bored just listening to that.
BLAIR: Yeah, just by answering that question, I think he got the realization that, "Okay, this is all about me," but in fairness, this person is more kind of on the low autonomy process-oriented type person who's more comfortable, and it takes more training, more practice, and never comes completely easy to him to kind of stand up and be responsive.
DAVID: Right, so we're going to have different perspectives on this based on who we are as people.
DAVID: One of the things that you say, and as I read through this I made a note of this phrase because it really intrigued me, you said, "We cannot be transparent if we are withholding information for the presentation." First, I'm not sure I completely understand. My mind first went to, are you talking about like putting the price at the end of the presentation? I don't think you're talking about that necessarily, but what do you mean and why do you say this specifically?
BLAIR: I'm talking about in your relationships with existing clients. The big buzzwords of the last, I don't know, decade or so, authenticity is one, we need to do a whole podcast on authenticity.
DAVID: God, I'm so tired of that word.
BLAIR: My least favorite word on the planet.
DAVID: "Storytelling" is close second for me.
BLAIR: People talk about authenticity, transparency, and collaboration, these are three of the big buzzwords of our time. Let's just put authenticity aside, and talk about transparency and collaboration. Firms are out there saying, "We work transparently and collaboratively with our clients." Okay, well if that's really true, transparent means the client has a window into what you're doing, what you're thinking, where the project is at any time, you're not withholding.
DAVID: Like and they know that you haven't even started it, and you've had it for three weeks and it's due in three days, that's transparency.
BLAIR: Yeah, and they know it, that's transparency. Collaboration is where you're working with your client, rather than going away and coming back and presenting, so transparency and collaboration. You think about it, the presentation can only exist in the absence of both, right? The need for presentation is only there if you are withholding information from the client.
DAVID: Yeah, if you're delivering new information that you previously had and chose not to give them, you're saving it for the presentation, so that's what you're talking about.
BLAIR: Yeah. When I was still a consultant, I had been writing about this and talking about this for years, and then one day I realized, "Oh my God, I still do this." When I'm doing a business development audit, I withhold all of the learning until the end, and then I unveil my genius findings that makes me feel great.
DAVID: I'm just going to let that pass, okay?
BLAIR: Yeah, but it's like, "I'm going to rock this person's world by letting them know the really insightful things that I've discovered about their business," and my reaction is I want them to go, "Oh my God Blair, you're so smart, I never thought of that before, this changes everything!" That's the reaction I'm looking for, and all of us who go into presentation mode, we need to admit that that's the reaction we're looking for and it's really all about us, because what if I'm wrong? What if I got the name of the company wrong, like my friend, the creative director? There's a renamed company out there because of a slip like that.
BLAIR: I realized I was admonishing my clients for doing this, and I realized I still do it too. What did I start to do? As I'm learning key things, I would share them with the client. I would never get rid of the final reveal, the final share, I knew I was being transparent and collaborative when in that final phone call, when I was delivering my findings and recommendations. I would begin by saying, "Okay, I've already shared with you most of what I'm going to share with you here today, we're just going to put a nice little bow around it." I'm just letting them know, "There is no big reveal, because I've already shared with you."
BLAIR: If I would get a hypothesis, I would reach out to my client and say, "You know, I think I'm seeing this pattern," et cetera. That doesn't come naturally, but I felt like I needed to take my own medicine, and I realized that when I was doing this, I was far less likely to make a big mistake or miss something vital altogether. Like how often does that happen in a presentation where you think you've killed it, and the client goes, "Wow, that's great, what about Singapore?", "What do you mean Singapore?", you've forgotten something significant.
DAVID: This is an early test along the way, so if you get your hand slapped it's not a big slap. It's not getting hit with a baseball bat, it's like, "Silly man, no, that won't work." I hear people objecting though, because I know that a lot of my clients and your clients are listening to this and saying, "Listen, I have the answer early in the process, and I just withhold it because it makes it seem to easy if I just blurt it out." I'm going to say, "Okay, I really know the answer, but we'll get back to you in about a week or 10 days, and then we'll embellish and clean up and prep the answer and give it to you," because they feel like they're not going to be able to charge the fees they want to if it looks that easy to them. What are you going to say to somebody that's, I guarantee you some people are going to think that when they hear what we just talked about.
BLAIR: I completely sympathize, I mean I operated the same way for many years as a consultant. I know you, I'm not going to give away your secret, but when you've modeled out how it works, when you've seen all the patterns, you know the information that you need. When you have true specialized expertise, it's really just small pieces of information that you need. That's the difference between an expert and a generalist, a generalist needs to collect all of this information and then sift through it all, and try to find some sort of relationship and pattern. The specialist comes along and says, "I've done this 1,000 times before. Give me these four things," and then you can deliver, like in your case, it might be 20, 30, $50,000 worth of value probably really quickly, like probably in minutes, but you let things unfold and you reserve the right to, "Well, maybe I'm missing something."
BLAIR: I think that's valid, "Maybe I'm missing something, let me just let some ideas kind of gestate, let me think about things a little bit differently," but I see the pattern, I have the hypothesis right away, it's pretty clear to me. I sympathize with that, and I think there's some sort of middle ground here where I think that's valid. I think that some clients, not the best clients, but some clients have a real hard time with the fact that it took you 10 minutes to come up with a solution, and I've just paid you $50,000.
DAVID: Yeah, and I think I do ask for more information than I need sometimes to make the process to look more thorough, so that it looks like a better value proposition for the client. That's an immediate sort of recognition on my part. I think just as the recommendations I'm making to my clients are shorter and more on point than they used to be, we should not be giving clients more homework than we need to either. Let's just ask for the things that we really need, they should only be allowed to answer questions, they should not be allowed to talk unless they're answering a specific question.
DAVID: We can't be transparent if we're withholding information for the presentation. Another thought that popped up as I was reading through chapter two again is that when you are presenting, you are not listening, you're not being present. In other words, you can't effectively multitask here. Do you want to talk more about that?
BLAIR: Yeah. I think I've said this on other podcasts, you can present to somebody or you can be present to them, and you can't do both. You're either transmitting or you're receiving, and another kind of sub-point under this is when you're presenting, you're kind of in violation of some of the principles of value pricing, value pricing where you're getting paid to deliver value. You're not on inputs like time and materials, not on outputs like delivering X or Y logo, et cetera, a campaign, but on the value that create for the client. Ideally, that's the place where we all want to get to or get closer to, where we're commanding fees or remuneration for the value we're creating for the clients.
BLAIR: For you to value price, you need to have a really meaningful value conversation, and there's steps to a value conversation. One of the keys to a value conversation is, you need to be focused on uncovering a desired future state of the client, it's this duality of zen mind, beginner mind, like the blank slate of a beginner and the mind of the expert. You need to be expert enough to know the questions to ask, but you need to be beginner enough to kind of move off of the solutions, as Mahan Khalsa would say, and just quit thinking about what you're going to sell to this person.
BLAIR: The ideal state of somebody who's selling creative services or marketing services or any consultative services, the ideal state of that salesperson is you are present to the client, you're intently focused on understanding them, learning about their situation, learning about their desired future state, and you are letting go for the moment of how you are going to help them get there. I think in a large enough sale and a long enough sale, you want to uncover the information, and ideally go away, and then start thinking about solutions. That's not always possible, but you want to have this line in the conversation where first it's all about you, Mr. Client, and then I'll start thinking about solutions. When you're presenting, it's not how focused are you on the client, you're up there with a PowerPoint presentation talking about you.
DAVID: Or inane things about them that an intern could've gotten with a Google search.
BLAIR: Yeah. Here's the section of the deck, "strategy', or, "Here's everything we know about your business that we Googled last night."
DAVID: "And that you already know and don't need to hear again."
BLAIR: Yeah, "I'm just showing you that I have great search skills." As you can see, I have an opinion on this, it drives me crazy. People are listening to this and thinking, some people are just never coming back. I believe this so strongly, and I believe most of the creative profession gets this entirely wrong. I get, I don't know how often anymore, it's not once a month anymore, but for awhile there was once a month, inquiries saying, "Do you do presentation skills training?" My reply is, "No, I deprogram people of their own need to present."
BLAIR: Now, they always go away after, "Okay, thanks, I'm going to go get some presentation skills training." If you are focused on presentation skills training, your mind is in the wrong place, it's all about you. There are some things you can do, some courses, there's a woman out there by the name of Anese Cavanaugh, she has this methodology called IEP: intentional energetic presence. It's basically how to show up, how to show up at work, how to show up physically and emotionally in a meeting, how to deal with situations.
DAVID: How to be authentic.
BLAIR: I don't know about that.
DAVID: See how I slipped that in?
BLAIR: You should do IEP training instead of presentation skills training. Presentation skills training is the wrong thing to do. Now, there's a time and a place for the presentation, internal presentations, even the odd client presentation when you're collaborating with your direct client and they need you to present to a larger audience. All of that is valid, public speaking, you want some presentation skills around that, all of that is valid. Looking for presentation skills training to improve your new business development results-
DAVID: Like your close rate.
BLAIR: It's exactly the wrong thing to do.
DAVID: I'm just pausing here just to let that sink in for people.
BLAIR: Good, yeah, I'm going to have a cigarette now.
DAVID: You're saying, don't look for training to do presentations better, don't do presentations at all, but there's obviously room for training about how to listen, how to ask better questions. You're not dismissing that sort of training.
BLAIR: No, not at all. In fact, I think that's what IEP is about, that's what some of the things that we talk, you know the ideas, I forget where this comes from, I've stolen it from somebody who has a book on leadership, the idea of what I call the physiology of leadership. Leadership as a social science, that's a great model for selling. You can study anybody's model of leadership, and you'll become a better salesperson, but I refer to the physiology of leadership as two things: calm presence. You're calm, you're not anxious, and you're present. That should be your demeanor every time you're selling, and there's all kinds of different ways and different methods and models that you can use to improve your calm presence in a situation.
BLAIR: You and I have done seminars on IP development where we've used constraint-driven exercises, and we use constraint-driven exercises in the Win Without Pitching program, I use them in speeches and workshops, I've become a huge fan of constraint-driven exercises. Just think of this as a constraint-driven exercise, I'm talking to our audience here.
DAVID: We can't present naturally normally.
BLAIR: Yeah, what would you do if you were not able to present, how would you go about trying to win this business if you were not able to give a presentation or use a PowerPoint deck of any kind, what would you do? Well, the short answer is you would have a conversation, right?
BLAIR: Then there's all kinds of things that you need to sort out about, "Well, what questions do I ask? What framework do I use for the questions?", but you will find most of the time that the need for presentation, it's really on your end and it's not really reciprocated by the client. Now, there are some caveats. If you work in packaged goods, CPG or FMCG as it's known in Europe, and you're dealing with brand managers who deal with creative firms all day long, they kind of want to see the dog and pony show sometimes, so you might have to make the odd exception.
BLAIR: Now, I remember a client of mine many years ago, a very strategic firm, but not the best creative in one of the largest markets in America, and they were competing against the hottest creative shop in that market. When we set up the final meeting, so it was down to the two of them, I had them put all of the creative stuff that they wanted to present on a table over in the corner of the room. When they were facilitating the conversation, they made the point that, "The quality of our creative is good, you know that or else we wouldn't be this far. You've already seen it, if you want to see more of it, it's on the table over there, let's get to why we're really here," and so they move onto the more kind of valuable part of the conversation.
BLAIR: Of the three people on the client side, there was the president, there was the COO, and there was the brand guy. The brand guy got a little fidgety at this, and at the end of the conversation, the president and CEO of the client business, they didn't need to see the creative again, but at the end of the conversation the brand guy got up and said, "I'm sorry, I just need to have a look through this," and he flipped through some stuff. He came back and he sat down, and he had this sense of relief, "Okay, good, I'm good," and they won the business, they beat the hottest creative shop.
BLAIR: If they had stood up and gone into presentation mode to try and match this other firm at their own game, instead they facilitated a conversation. The point I'm trying to make is, the senior people at the client side, they don't want to sit through a presentation.
BLAIR: You know, we all have websites, right?
DAVID: Especially nowadays, you could see maybe that would've made sense 15, 20 years ago, but not so much today, it's boring to people.
BLAIR: I'm fond of saying, "Sometimes it's better to be different than it is to be better." If you are going into a competitive situation against three or four other firms, and everybody else is doing the dog and pony show, you have an advantage if you treat the situation differently. If you try to break down the walls and facilitate a conversation, and if you can go first and do that and set the tone, then things will feel really different, first or last I'm a fan of.
DAVID: Really not trying to sell things, but I'll do this for you. I really do think if you folks, listeners, if you haven't read The Win Without Pitching Manifesto, I would recommend it, it's $25 list, and there's also an electronic version of it. I think it's one of those books that just has a really long life, because it's perennial, there's some core very human points in the book that you can just read and reread, and it's a great book. It's the second-best book that I know of at the moment, but it's a good book.
BLAIR: It's success is due entirely to its publisher.
DAVID: Yes, that's right.
BLAIR: Thank you very much.
DAVID: Thank you Blair.
BLAIR: Thanks, David.