Do's and Don'ts in Competitive Sales Presentations

SagePresence Coaches InterviewsIn 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.


  1. Marnie O'Byrne on July 23, 2015 at 8:46 am

    You’re one of the few companies that I receive e-mail notifications from that I look forward to clicking open the article to see what treasures of wisdom are inside. I have been in business development for 30 years and two points in particular resonated with me: Sell to Help, and Own your power position as “the alternative”. It’s an easy and old habit to create a laundry list of why one’s company is the best choice. The more powerful and long-term approach is to develop the presentation from a position of service and solution. Finally, like in life, if we compare ourselves to others we will likely fall short. But if we own who we really are, and what we bring to the table – to the world, we cannot be less-than. Thank you once again for a great article packed with points to ponder.

    • Dean Hyers on July 23, 2015 at 8:58 am

      Marnie, talk about making my day! Thanks! And yes, differentiation is everything. Little known fact: I created my speaking career by attending women’s professional networking events (the “only man there status” really made me stand out). That led to speaking opportunities based on differentiation. I pursued places where I was different, and avoided places where I would be similar. Pete often talks about “blue ocean” over “red ocean.” Red ocean is a blood-soaked fight for limited resources, and blue ocean is a limitless place without competition because all the fish in that sea are focused on their own uniqueness. Another version of your point. Thanks!

  2. Anonymous on July 23, 2015 at 8:48 am

    Wonderfully done. Thank you. Al Hammel – President Automation Association

    • Dean Hyers on July 23, 2015 at 8:59 am

      Thank you Al!

  3. […] NEW POST on new business interviewing (Do’s & Don’ts in Competitive Interviewing). […]

  4. Lorelee Wederstrom on July 23, 2015 at 11:31 am

    As always, brilliant and sage advice!

    • Dean Hyers on July 23, 2015 at 12:30 pm

      Well, technically YOU would know, having served on more selection committees than I’ve ever had the opportunity to observe. I appreciate your compliment! That said, please keep me in check. If you catch me speaking counter your experience please chime in and adjust!

  5. Elizabeth Ruske on July 23, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    Dean, loved the article. I forwarded to a client of mine who owns an architecture firm and is constantly “pitching” to committees inside the government. Thanks for the practical and useful tips.

    • Dean Hyers on July 23, 2015 at 5:15 pm

      Thanks, Elizabeth. I’m wondering if we have others who’ve had to pitch government for projects. Who out there can add to this conversation. It doesn’t have to be architectural. Government can be its own microcosm of culture, with its own set of concerns that may impact how it makes decisions.

      Elizabeth, ask your client if he/she is willing to share thoughts with us.

      Anyone else? Can you share any challenges or insights regarding pitching to government committees?

  6. Raatha Ganesh on July 24, 2015 at 1:05 am

    Hi Dean! 🙂

    I hope you are doing well! Its been a while since I chimed in but I have been reading ALL yours/Pete’s posts. It’s one of the very few posts I put time aside in my day to read because of the practicality of the guidance that you guys share! As you may recall, I am very passionate about presentations and continuous improvement, so I felt a strong urge to put aside some time to comment on your post.

    Usually, for presentations, there’s always a laundry list of do’s that leave my mind the minute I finish reading all of them. The 3 that you listed are sticky enough for me to take away with me in my preparation for competitive presentations. The first “do” that you listed (i.e. finding your passion) despite being such an important do is usually misrepresented. I will focus on that point in my comment given that it is one that strongly resonates with me.

    I can’t speak on behalf of presenters everywhere but to avoid the inauthentic expression of passion, my go to is to my statement of intent. Seeing as I am operating within a sales environment, the knee jerk reaction to a statement of intent might be to “seal the deal” or “be better than the competition” or “to win the account”. But, none of that inspires me or are statements that I am passionate about which goes against everything that it should be about. My statement of intent is to leave my clients in a better state than when I found them through the knowledge I have imparted. By staying true to my statement of intent and preparing for my presentations in line with it, I have found myself working that much harder to keep the spotlight focused on the recipient of the information I am sharing. When you share something to leave someone better than when you found them, it becomes a dialogue as opposed to a monologue. Through your presentation, you are telling someone, “I get it. And, I am excited to show you why I do.” It takes a lot more work than pitching something that you hope someone will catch. But, by seeking to take on someone else’s idea and making it a vision and showing them the path by lighting it up step by step makes the process for you and your audience a lot more enthralling, intense and fascinating.

    Thank you so much for sharing such great and practical insights Dean. I can promise you that I have been using them in both my personal and professional life and it has made them both that much more fulfilling!

    Warmest regards,


    • Dean on August 12, 2015 at 5:41 pm

      I’ve been a little late in replying, Raatha. Sorry. We’ve been a little over-booked. You raise a good point about “what to do’s stick and which don’t.” If ANYBODY has any ideas about how to make things stick, I be people would love to hear them.

      And, I like your simple idea of “intent to leave my clients better off then how I found them.” That’s so SIMPLE!!!!! Love it.

      Always happy to share, and fun to learn things as well.

  7. Mike Ososki on July 26, 2015 at 9:33 pm

    Grrreat as usual 🙂

    • Dean Hyers on August 12, 2015 at 5:43 pm

      Thank you Mike. Your kind words are appreciated. If you say, “as usual,” then maybe you’ve read us enough to suggest a topic for us to cover. What can we do to further your interests? There’s a window up top on this page to suggest a topic. Let us know what we can cover for you.

  8. Lisa Olson on July 28, 2015 at 7:57 pm

    Thanks for a great article. I believe the information in this post can be used for any sales presentation. When you can get beyond the “normal” and find out how you can help the client, that is when the authenticity comes through and resonates with anyone that is buying. I enjoy sharing your posts on and on social media!

    • Pete Machalek on August 5, 2015 at 5:04 pm

      That’s great to hear, Lisa. Thank you for sharing!

    • Dean Hyers on August 12, 2015 at 5:45 pm

      Cool, Lisa! Thanks. And since we’re talking sales, what questions about the selling presentation or the BD conversation, or anything related can we troubleshoot for you? Any nuance of selling that’s getting in your way? (ANYBODY?)

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