Blowing things at the last mile: Failures in prepping for the shortlist presentation

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man with hoopOne of the most amazing (and easy-to-cure) failures in marketing and business development can be discovered when you view the way some consultants/businesses handle the short-list interview. If you’ve gotten this far, generally you’ve made the first cut: The written response complies with the guidelines and, especially if the competition is fierce, you’ve made enough of a positive impression that you really have an exceptional proposal. (In some cases, of course, less-than-perfect RFP responses can also reach the shortlist, of which the most disturbing example could be a wired proposal, deliberately under-marketed, for which your organization happened to discover was in place — and answered — even though the owner has decided ahead-of-time who will get the work.)

Nevertheless, assuming you’ve made it to the short-list stage on a genuine competition, you still have a numbers game challenge, depending on the number and strength of your competitors. And, unless you happen to be the company with the “wired” proposal, your only chance of winning the competition is to deliver a blow-away presentation, that stands far above the competition and truly gives you the edge. (And you shouldn’t assume if you have things wired that you can be sloppy — because someone out there may just follow this advice, and blow you out of the water — so prepare, and prepare well.)

Frankly, if you’ve gotten this far, you really shouldn’t have bothered unless you are now ready to pull together the resources to make a brilliant presentation. In most cases, this will require research, coaching, preparation, and practice. And here you may find some surprising and even counter-intuitive approaches will enhance your success probabilities.

Consider, for example, Mel Lester’s recent blog posting where he advocates Five counter-intuitive steps to win the short-list interview.  I think he is onto something here — and encourage you to read his blog if you are preparing for the shortlist interview.

Here’s his first point, and I think the most important one:

Seek authenticity over polish. Clients typically ask you to spend the bulk of the time making a presentation. Odd, isn’t it, that they give so much weight to something that most technical professionals are not that good at. Is the secret to winning the shortlist interview really about proving yourselves to be the more competent presenters? I think not.

Feedback from clients indicates that soft factors such as trust, personal chemistry, commitment to the client, and genuine interest in the project drive the final decision. Your competence was assessed during the proposal stage; now the focus shifts to making the client feel comfortable about the prospect of working with your firm on this project.

Public speaking, ironically, makes most technical professionals look uncomfortable. Focusing on helping them flawlessly deliver the presentation should hardly be the primary objective. More often than not, the net effect of that approach is a competent but detached presentation, often with the essence of phoniness. When the goal is to engage your audience and persuade them, I’ll take a speaker who comes across as authentic over one who is merely polished.

So I push the shortlist interview team to find their comfort zone, where they are best able to present themselves as people you’d like to do business with. How? I few suggestions:

  • Make your presentation personal and interactive. I’ll say more about this below.
  • Limit formal speaking parts. Don’t make the mistake of concluding that every member of your interview team has to stand up and speak to PowerPoint slides. Even if they are all accomplished speakers (highly unlikely), that makes for a disjointed presentation.
  • Interview team members instead. Many technical professionals are much more impressive in an informal exchange than a formal speaking part. Ask them questions and have them share their insights instead of making them presenters.
  • Don’t just talk; do something. Write something on the flipchart or white board, spread out a site plan on the table and speak to it, hand out a checklist that outlines critical steps of your approach. Actions are more engaging than words alone.
  • Practice until it looks natural. That’s my goal rather than trying to turn technical professionals into compelling presenters. What client doesn’t want to work with real people instead of the coached-up (or unprepared) ones they often see at this stage?

Yes, the process of developing the ability to make things natural requires plenty of practice and thought, because you must have things scripted well enough that you can comfortably avoid the script (and seem like you are reading from rote.)

There are other points. Lester, of course, will provide coaching/consulting services. He isn’t the only one who can do this work. Just don’t skimp on it. If you want to win, you need to put the best effort into your final steps.

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