In the spirit of continuous improvement as a presentation coach, I attend events where I can observe teams competing for projects via "sales interviews" – presentation showdowns where a selection committee watches several teams make their case before awarding the project to the team they consider the best fit.
In this case, it was the State Designer Selection Board, the State of Minnesota's way of selecting architecture firms for projects managed by state agencies.
There I observed four back-to-back interviews (presentations plus Q&A), as well as the board's deliberation on the candidates.
The project is a remodel of a state-owned historic landmark requiring significant updating in order to serve the needs of its modern patrons while preserving the integrity of a historic architect's work.
The project requires expertise, sensitivity, creativity, teamwork and synergy with interdisciplinary teams, along with boldness, new ideas, and a design that could serve the next 50 to 100 years.
In a moment, I'll share my takeaways in a "Do's and Don'ts" format. But first, an acknowledgement on both sides of this equation:
It's hard to select the best team from a series of 20 minute presentations and 20 minutes of Q&A.
And no matter who you are, stepping into that high-stakes arena humbles you with the pressure of performance.
1) Do Find Your Passion – Passion comes in many forms, and the winners found several varieties:
– Joy, over the splendor of the historic project
– Intensity, over the historic significance of the project
– Focus, around the implications of "one shot to do it right"
– Fascination, around the gifts, challenges, and secrets the building offers
– Compassion, regarding the care of something fragile, and the sensitivity required to serve multiple stakeholders who care about, use, and rely on this structure
The effective presenters found their passion and it shined over anything else, leaving a lasting, vivid impression of love and respect.
Passionate body language can speak for you, saying what can't be said with words as much as it can by the way your words are spoken. The secret is to feel.
2) Do "Cast" Your Team for Variety – I was surprised by how much impact the diverse team had over the homogeneous one. This is in a way obvious, and often out of your control based on who is on your team, but the impact was even bigger than I would have expected.
The teams that commanded audience attention the most looked like a cast for a TV pilot. There were men and women, different ages and ethnicities, and above all, different personalities. It was not oneness but interplay that made the cast of characters fascinating.
I noticed that I could assign archetypes to the members of the teams I liked the most: nerd, fearless leader, rocket-scientist, scholar, artist, movie star, etc.
Assemble your team like you're casting a TV show. Look for variety, avoid replication, and represent different audience types. If you're stuck with homogeny, cast on personality and encourage those personalities to shine.
3) Do Present to Help – The teams who carried the day were there to see the project succeed. They cared about the stakeholders and worried about this delicate piece of history that was hanging in the balance as the needs it serves change in a way never anticipated by its original designers.
The teams fretting about getting the job didn't stand a chance. They did not realize that the "Main Character" of the presentation was not themselves, but the people they were there to try to help.
But wait! All the teams cared about the project, and all the teams worried about getting the job, right?
Clearly, what was most important was where they placed their attention and what they chose to talk about. Talking about "why the selection committee should choose us" was hazardous. Showing the committee why they should be picked was brilliant, and the way they did that was to talk about what the committee needed, not about why they themselves were so great.
Make "why our team" self-evident by focusing your attention and dialogue on their needs, challenges, and goals, and let them see you working their problems instead of talking yourselves up.
I want to be shorter here, partially because I have so much respect for all the teams and the human hardship of competitive selling, and because it's so easy to sit back and criticize. I don't want to be that guy.
But I did observe some useful don'ts:
1) Don't Be Unrehearsed – There is value in improvisation, and magic in the moment, but competitive selling inherently means "comparison." Since you will be compared, be prepared. It was clear who rehearsed, and who didn't.
2) Don't Invite "Apples to Apples" Comparability. This is true for any team, but it's especially true for the underdog. You probably know if you're the center of the target, the shoe-in relationship, or an outlier coming in from left field. I've helped many underdogs unseat the shoe-in (more here), but it's only doable if you own your position as the alternative. If you don't come in as "a challenger," you can't win because you'll fall short in the direct comparison. Go in bold and different, and show them an answer they hadn't considered – from the other side of the wall.
3) Don't be random. Details mean nothing unless they're part of a clear point. What's the story you're trying to tell? Do you know the flow of your information? What is the cause-effect relationship of what you're talking about? Have you tied problem to solution, and described a goal outcome? The clearest messages show up in a Problem/Solution/Outcome sequence – the same as Beginning/Middle/End. If you don't spell it out, your audience has to figure it out, and you may not like the story they create with your random details.
It's my strong hope that these do's and don'ts will help you understand what selection committees need from your team, so that you can better prepare to win that project by being there not to get the job but to help your prospect succeed. Find passion. Share the idiosyncrasies of your real personalities. Be their guide. Rehearse. Show them something different. Know the story and tell it.
What do you think of all this? What tips or secrets do you know about winning under the spotlight? Share your thoughts or questions and if you think you might need some help, check out our presentation preparation services so that you can shine in your next make-or-break moment.