Professional services clients often hire me to work on proposals after the RFP comes out. They are surprised to hear that I charge them more up front for starting late—even though it means less work for me. Why? My clients merrily write me a bonus for winning a deal; however, I have less of a chance of earning that bonus if we get a late start.
My clients’ win rates double when they practice good interviewing techniques during the discovery period—that is, the time before the RFP comes out or the quiet period begins, if there is one. To help them uncover information that their competitors likely won’t get, I constructed a set of questions for clients to ask during the discovery process. The questions achieve more than merely gathering good information. These questions help build the relationship. Here are 13 very good discovery questions. You will notice that not one question relates to the technical need of the project.
1. Why are you doing this project at this time?
2. Where did the idea come from and who was involved?
3. Who, if anyone, opposes the project?
4. Who is funding the project?
5. What is the funding status?
6. How did you become involved?
7. How do you feel [Note: yes, feel] about the project?
8. Have you done this before?
9. If so, what went well? What would you do differently this time?
10. What led you to us?
11. Do you expect us to bid on the project and in what role?
12. Based on what you’ve heard or experienced, how would you describe our firm?
13. What would get in the way of choosing us to do this work?
Merely using this list a checklist; however, can have unintended consequences. Decision-makers do not like feeling interrogated, which means that you cannot ask these questions in rapid-fire sequence. Each question needs to include follow up questions that drill down further, test for understanding, and allow you to introduce information that will show up in your proposal. And you will win more work.
When working on proposals with clients whose performance scores aren’t on par with their peers, we discuss how the proposal itself cannot typically overcome that problem. Yet it can be overcome by fixing the quality of the service you provide. That said, you still need to win more work in the meantime. Here is a good read on things you can do to mitigate the performance problem…if you have the client’s trust.
Writing With Miles Davis. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/06/writing-with-miles-davis/?smid=pl-share
Can someone please explain to me why engineers don’t go to the movies? Maybe I’m drawing a false conclusion from a repeated, sometimes heated, discussion I keep having with my clients in information technology, mechanical engineering, and civil engineering. The conversation goes like this:
Me: “The presentation seems very data-packed, long, uninspiring, and unlikely to get the audience to do what you need them to do, which is to get behind this project. Instead of beating them over the head with a 30-slide PowerPoint deck, let’s start out with some stories that illustrate how the paying customer will benefit from your project.”
Client: “Stories? Jim, these are engineers we’re talking about. They need to see lots of detail–Gantt charts, data, schematics. They don’t have patience for stories. They have big left brains!”
Me: “I understand that we’ll need to support our proposal with data, but they cannot read the charts–the font is 7 point Arial Narrow. Let’s get their buy-in with the big idea–the benefit to the customer and how that will increase sales. After they’ve had a chance to hear the story, we can then hand out the spreadsheets, schematics, and Gantt charts for them to look at in more detail and as proof that you have done your homework.”
Client: “But Jim, these are engineers, you don’t understand how they think, even though you’ve worked with engineers for over 25 years [Author’s note: okay, I added that bit in italics--I’ve spent my entire career working with engineers of all sorts.] They don’t want stories, they want graphics and data!
After having many of these conversations over the years as I nudge my clients toward more powerful use of PowerPoint, I must finally concede that I am wrong and that engineers, indeed, only respond to data. Which leads me to conclude that engineers do not like movies, books, or television.
So if you are an engineer or know one, do you agree that engineers have Vulcan-like minds that reject stories and the emotions they evoke? [polldaddy poll=6549014]
If it is true, then I guess everything that I’ve learned about persuasion is wrong. Yet going back to my Communications studies in college, the books I’ve read about leadership and marketing, and throughout my 26 years in consulting, I’ve read research and observed that people universally respond to stories. They don’t always respond the way you want them to, but if a story is well-crafted and authentic, they respond to and remember the story, not the spreadsheet.
My real belief on this disagreement is that folks presume that deductive reasoners, like engineers often are, like to be presented with facts that then lead to a conclusion, so presenters believe they must present the facts first. That does not have to be the case. It is often more compelling to open with a story to get attention and engage the audience or reader, then present the supporting specifics, then circle back to the conclusion that you drew from the data.
Remember, the audience came to hear what you expect them to believe or do….not primarily to listen to data. When you need to win people over–even engineers–tell stories to make your point!
In a recent workshop I delivered titled “Power Presentations: How to Sell Your Ideas and Grow Your Influence,” an interesting question came up: How can I cut down the amount of time to prepare for my presentations?
Efficiency is especially important when you must speak on short notice or when you are preparing a sales presentation. Sales presentations and proposals cost money, especially if they involve otherwise billable resources. Cutting proposal costs will increase your margins or allow you to pass savings onto your customers, which will make you more competitive. Here are four Ps to help you save presentation prep time.
1. Plan. Tired advice, right? The reason you hear it so often is because of its universal truth. Let me be more specific. Plan one purpose for your presentation. Regardless of the presentation’s length, the purpose should answer the question “What do I want the audience to do or think as a result of this talk?” If your presentation has more than one purpose, then you are beginning with a lack of clarity that will waste time at every step in the process, including the following:
• time collecting source material
• time drafting content and preparing visuals
• time editing and proofreading
• time learning and rehearsing.
2. Print. By hand, that is. Close your laptop and use paper and a pencil to outline your presentation. Research shows that the physical act of writing helps with clarity and creativity. This technique will help you save time on both the written content and the visuals. I use the backs of paper in my recycling bin. Use Post-its, index cards, or a white board.
3. Punt. That is, give the ball back. Spend less time than allotted or make the presentation interactive, or both. If you’ve been given 30 minutes and can make your point in 20, do it in 20 and sit down—or take questions for 10 minutes. I coach proposal presentation teams to talk for about 30 minutes in a one-hour pitch, leaving half the time for interaction along the way and Q&A near the end.
4. Prune. Prepare fewer slides. Sketching on paper first (see #2 above) will help you pick the best spots for visuals. If you’re using an existing presentation, see my article A Technique to Streamline Your Slides. Also, eliminate or limit the use of animation. If animation doesn’t reinforce or illustrate your point, don’t go there. Here’s a link to a one comedian’s take on PowerPoint abuse–Don McMillan: Life After Death by PowerPoint.
Your time is valuable and scarce. Plan, print, punt, and prune in order to reclaim hours for other work and to lower costs related to preparing presentations. Oh, and you’ll be more likely to sell your idea, close the sale, or delight your audience.
Many articles have popped up lately about the evils of PowerPoint—that slides get in the way of selling your ideas or your services. The authors concede that there is certainly a place for PowerPoint, properly used. I agree on both points. There are dozens of ways PowerPoint can be misused, but in my opinion the primary offenses are these:
- Bullet points that serve as a teleprompter for what you want to say
- Clip art
- Graphs, diagrams and tables that are impossible to read
- Slides that don’t support the ONE thing you want the listener to remember.
You may be thinking “But Jim. I like my slides, so I find it hard to cut out any. How can I get by with fewer slides?” Here is an exercise I use to help my clients figure out what to cut out of presentations to make them more powerful.
Step 1: Before looking at your (likely) slide-laden presentation, sit down and write ONE sentence that represents the ONE thing you want the audience to believe or do once you sit down. It doesn’t mean that you can’t make additional points, but you need ONE that you want them to remember. They probably won’t remember more than one.
Step 2: Pick out the 10 most important slides that support your presentation’s ONE main idea. To help you, eliminate the following slides:
- All slides that don’t support the ONE main idea.
- All slides with bullet point sentences. If you can summarize the main idea with a good quotation or a few keywords, use those instead of phrases.
- Slides with graphs that are unreadable that you can replace with a story that will help people remember the data [Note: don’t completely discard these, you might add these back in later. The book Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds provides great examples of clean, clear graphs.]
- Your Q&A slide with a bunch of question marks on it—instead, add a blank slide and just ask for their questions. By the way, you shouldn’t be waiting for one spot at the end of the presentation to do this anyway—you should be asking them questions along the way in order to engage them.
- Slides with your names, credentials, demographic information – instead create a leave-behind or refer the audience to your written proposal, if there is one.
- Impossible to read process/workflow diagrams—again, make it a handout or leave behind or refer them to written proposal.
- Any slides that you consider appendix information, especially tabular data you created in MS-Excel.
- Slides with clip art in them that you cannot better represent with photographs.
- Transition slides that mark the structure of your presentation—these contain zero content. Handle your transitions with the spoken word.
Step 3: You may already be down to fewer than 10 slides. Congratulations! Now to the hard part. Ask yourself this question “If I could only go in with one slide that best makes my ONE main point, which one would it be?” When you have that slide, ask yourself “Why would I go in with only one slide?” See if you can do without the slides altogether. It’s okay if you can’t, but now you really know which slide represents your one point. Now look at the other slides and make sure they ALL support the ONE main point. If they don’t, discard them. Take the ONE slide and use it twice. Once early in the presentation…they audience should know relatively early on what your one point is going to be. Then again at the end of the presentation and AFTER your blank Q&A slide.
There. You’re done. You have a 10 slide (or fewer) presentation that can support an hour-long talk, will have more visual impact, and will be more memorable. This presentation will sell your ideas or help you Win More Work.
I once heard a speaker who apologized for his speech title in his first sentence by saying “I know the title of that speech may sound trite, but it is true.” I missed the next couple of lines as I sat there thinking “If you knew the title was trite, why didn’t you think of another one?” An unwanted consequence of being trite was that he gave me something else to think about rather than holding my attention.
Whether in a written proposal or at orals, rehashing a bunch of sales clichés will do the same thing—make the reader or listener tune out. The jaded evaluator may roll her eyes, thinking “how fast can I read through this to get to the beef?” Or she may just toss you into the mental junk heap with the other ordinary candidates.
Here are seven examples (I can think of dozens) of clichés that you must avoid:
1. We put our clients first
2. We are flexible and responsive
3. We think outside the box
4. We have over (think of a number between 50 and 5000) collective years of experience
5. We are the leader in our industry
6. Any phrase that contains the words “value added”
7. Our methodology and best practices ensure that [fill in the blank].
Making baseless assertions like these are good ways to blend in rather than stand out. Instead of using weary catchphrases, distinguish yourself by helping the decision-makers envision what it would be like to work with you. Let me give you some examples of phrases that may avoid the trite trap.
- “This project does not require a marvel of engineering and therefore does not demand the smartest engineer in the world. Because this is a highly visible project with many stakeholders, this project instead needs an engineer with strong communication skills, especially one who can deal with the press. The project manager we’re proposing for this job managed the highly visible Flintstone Quarry project and here’s how he managed communication on that job….”
- “This project isn’t really about software. There are a dozen software packages that do essentially the same job. What is different about our solution is that it does not require specialized programming skills—the users can configure and maintain most of the business rules without going to night school. We will train those business users early in the project and involve them in the implementation so they are able to maintain the system on day 1.”
- “Because we work across many industries, we staff our projects with experts in your industry but also bring in best thinking from other industries that face similar problems.”
Finally, let’s take the first item on the earlier list of 7 “trite” phrases from earlier. How can you describe how you put clients first, rather than just assert it? How about “During projects like this one that last over 6 months, we hire an independent market research firm to assess how well we are serving you. We act on that data immediately. This will give you comfort that we do not act solely in our best interest, but rather in our mutual interest.”
It takes more effort to avoid clichés; however, it will make you stand out and you will Win More Work.
“That was totally and utterly forgettable.” – Simon Cowell
Admit it. C’mon, you’re among friends. You have watched American Idol. When American Idol gets to its “short list” of four or five very good contestants, those are words that a contestant dreaded to hear. But Jim, you’re thinking, what about some of the vicious critiques Simon delivered along the way? Like these:
- That was terrible, I mean just awful.
- I think you just booked your plane ticket home.
- If you would be singing like this two thousand years ago,people would have stoned you.
- Shave off your beard and wear a dress. You would bea great female impersonator.
I believe those statements are less hurtful–to the chances of winning, not to the contestant’s ego–than if the contestant really were totally and utterly forgettable. Here’s why. When the competition is tougher in the later stages–in business, we call it a short list–Simon emphasized being unique and having a memorable performance. Because all the competitors are very good, the voter has a difficult time choosing. So they vote for the performer who connects with them the most or stands out in some way.
When it comes to writing and presenting proposals, winning business is a lot like American Idol. When choosing between good alternatives, say engineering firms or software implementers, the decision-maker is looking for any little distinction and to find someone who feels like the best fit—that is, the firm or person who connects with them and that they will be comfortable working with.
Because of that, your betterness doesn’t matter. I call this the “betterness fallacy.” In your written or oral proposal, if you stand there, recite your credentials, and try hard to convince them that you are the best firm for the job, you’ve probably just hurt your chances of winning the business. The decision-maker cannot see your betterness. By making a connection and by being memorable, read unique, is what will win more work.
Here are three easy ways to be memorable and quit selling your betterness:
- Connect by talking about the prospect first, their problem second, and you last
- Make your ideas stand out—in services businesses, it is your ideas that matter most
- Do something unusual in your presentation, for example, start with a story. Or leave the PowerPoint slides at home. Or both.
Quit trying to be better. Connect and be different and win more work.