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Traditional Sales Presentations Don't Work: Three Science-Backed Reasons Why

· presenting,marketing,behavioral science

Doing things the way they've always been done.

Much of the sales profession is made up of steps, processes and tools that exist in the same form since the dawn of modern sales.

Presentations have become the biggest culprit. Structured in the same way. Sellers presenting in the same structure. Marketers tasked with "building the pitch deck" using what they've always known to be the way.

In my research, I've found three concepts that scream why the traditional approach runs counter to the way the human brain engages, remains engaged, reaches a conclusion and is driven to action.

1) The Serial Position Effect

The name "Serial Position Effect"1 may not ring a bell, but I'm guessing, regardless of your age, you've heard about it in concept.

This effect describes the phenomenon by which, when we're given a list of facts, data, objects, numbers, etc., the first item and the last item will be the most remembered (between 60-90%, depending on the study). The items in the middle? Most likely to be immediately forgotten (20% at the high end).

Studies have analyzed and proven this effect as far back as the 1940's.

Give it a try yourself. Find a partner, and list seven facts in order. Then, ask the individual to recite the seven back to you. It's likely they'll remember the last one first, then the first one. The middle ones? Potentially gone forever.

Taking notes doesn't a matter of fact, a recent study in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 2 determined that writing those facts actually speeds the time by which those data points leave your brain.

It's called the "offloading effect", similar to taking a file and saving it to an external drive; your brain essentially offloads them to paper, and unless you go back and re-read your notes, once those notes are gone, so are the data points. I'm guessing your audience isn't taking notes when you're presenting a slide of your awards or your office location map, right? 😬

In a typical presentation, which begins with a series of facts including your mission statement, the awards you've won, the recognition you've received from analysts, your locations, your products and your customer "NASCAR" slide, you can be sure your audience won't remember it - and if they do, they'll only remember the first and last items.

2) Confirmation Bias

The year was 1620...401 years ago. English philosopher Francis Bacon, credited for the development of the "Scientific Method", obviously wasn't talking about PowerPoint slides. But his wisdom sure applies to the way we sell.

“Once a human intellect has adopted an opinion, either as something it likes or as something generally accepted, it draws everything else in to confirm and support it, even if there are more and stronger instances against it than there are in its favor.”3

In other words, when we're selling into a consensus buying environment, where individuals may either be leaning towards us...or away from us, the use of logic will actually drive your buyers deeper into their prevailing opinions.

Confirmation full effect in the human brain, and the typical presentation is a case study in its impact.

For example, your NASCAR slide is an exercise in polarization.

Imagine an audience of 10 people, 5 who are for you, and 5 who are against you.

In looking at the slide you're so proud of, containing the marquee clients you count on as customers, those individuals will delve deeper into their corners.

The 5 who are for you? "Wow, that's impressive. If this vendor is good enough for them, they're good enough for us!"

The 5 who are against you? "Wow, we're gonna be a small fish in a big pond. And those companies are across so many industries...I don't see any like us. Are we going to get lost? Do they even know our business?"

The same slide you're so proud of, used against you by those who are leaning against you.

Your "credibility" slides have just made it harder for your audience of buyers to build consensus.

3) Text On Slides and the Dual Coding Theory

Simply put, the human brain is incapable of both listening with comprehension and reading with comprehension at the same time. 

So let's start there...

When you have text on your slides, the audience's brain is forced to make a choice. Either (a) read and not listen, (b) listen and not read, or the most likely scenario, (c) try to do both...and fail.

Imagine the slide above - where someone is speaking as you're trying to process the content. Do you tune out the speaker and read? Do you just not bother reading? Or, are you just annoyed, pull out your phone, and think about your next responsibility?

And, given that our brains prefer "easy", the likely outcome of word filled slides is option (d), disengagement from the entire presentation, and a mind drifting away like a water-soaked log down a stream.

So then, why do images work along side your spoken words? There's a concept theorized back almost 50 years ago called the Dual Coding Theory4. In it, Allan Paivio theorized that our brains process information in different centers. Images are processed in the visual center of our brain, and the spoken word is processed in the auditory center. The two processing centers, processing your spoken word with an image to support it, effectively solidifies that concept in the brain.

However, the mind-blowing concept is that, when we read, we are also processing that reading in our auditory center.

Did you catch that? When you read, your brain processes that information in the auditory center of your brain.

Yes, the same center as your spoken word.

And guess what! It's not possible for the brain. It has to choose, which means your message isn't resonating.

These concepts and theories have been confirmed in the period since:

We cannot read and listen with comprehension at the same time. So, in other words, when we have text on a slide, the message you're trying to convey is not achieving your desired outcome. And even worse, it's likely causing your audience to disengage altogether in your presentation.

A counterintuitive choreography...

You've probably heard it a million times: stories sell.

The science proves it. Stories and emotion bind us together. When watching a movie with others, our brains are almost identical in our processing of the content.5 In a consensus selling environment, that's what you want - consensus buyers all processing information in unison.

One of the programs I teach and provide consulting around is called "The Presentation Choreography". In it, I teach a simple process by which you can tell a story where the customer is the hero, not you. While I have a chapter about it in the book and have written about it, here's the relatable concept:

When you're working with a prospect or customer, your goal is likely similar to that of a reality makeover TV show, right?

The customer has an issue...otherwise, they wouldn't be investing their time in listening to you, right? You didn't Zoom-bomb them, or burst into a conference room during a meeting.

So let's think about these shows; how they're structured and choreographed:

In it, the show's stars don't start each show with a mission statement, a listing of awards, a collection of success stories, or even a plan of action. Instead, the shows start with aligning and disarming. Aligning - why are we here. Disarming - we're human beings. Then, the stars help the participants see their issues as being broader than even they imagined, and the potential reward being brighter than they even thought possible. Once illuminated, the star shares the plan - how they intend to help the participant achieve that goal or reward.

They don't lead with their solution. They lead to their solution.

And, it's not only highly compelling to the participants, but it makes for a great story - every episode.

Every episode ends with celebrations, giant smiles, hugs, tears of joy, and lifelong relationships.

Isn't that your goal?

If you've got to use slides, images that directly support your verbal message are fantastic aids in longer term recollection.

However, you don't need slides to be an expert. You don't need slides to build credibility. You build credibility through your focus on the customer, and your confidence and expertise in your ability to diagnose, prescribe, and achieve the customer's desire outcome.

1FEIGENBAUM, E., & SIMON, H. (1962). A THEORY OF THE SERIAL POSITION EFFECT. British Journal of Psychology, 53(3),

2Kelly, M., & Risko, E. (2019). Offloading memory: Serial position effects. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 26(4), 1347-1353.

4Imagery and Verbal Processes. Allan Paivio. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1971


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