The RFP presentation: Prepare well, simplify, and focus on the clients

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Prepare your presentations with serious rehearsals
You can link to Erica Olson’s book at this image. (I may earn a small Amazon commission if you purchase the book through the link.)

Matt Handal, quoting?Erica Olson, author of Speak Simple – The Art of Simplifying Technical Presentations, provides some useful resources for anyone who makes the short-list in an RFP decision-making experience — the formal presentation to the selection board.

Olson outlines some of the blunders architects, engineers and contractors make at this crucial stage, and suggests solutions based on three tracks.

Lack of preparation

My general rule of thumb in regards to practice is a 10:1 ratio. For every hour of presentation, you want to spend 10 hours in practice.

Although I find this to be true, I acknowledge that every person is different and therefore this advice is subject to variations. A presenter will need more practice for new or freshly altered presentations and less practice for presentations that are recycled or routine with minimal updates. Two dress rehearsals are recommended with props or other demonstrations to make the transition smoothly to using it and putting it away.

I say 50% of your preparation is practice. But for a one-hour presentation I?m not asking you to stand in the conference room and repeat it 10 times. I do ask you to read through your bullet points and walk away to check your email, take a walk, use the bathroom. The time you spend in mindless activity, you should be running through your presentation and every run through should be different, better.

Allowing complexity and jargon to overwhelm the presentation

When I was working at the zoo, it was a librarian who told me ?If you have any chance of improving your presentation, you need to talk to the old people?.

It took me a while for that advice to sink in and make sense, but it came to me as I sat trying to explain how digital cameras work to my 80-year-old grandfather. Her advice was about the mechanics of presenting: speaking slowly, loudly, and articulating the words you are trying to get across.

I found a second element. It was simplifying the explanation for another person who doesn?t have the same knowledge you have (hence the title of the book ?Speak Simple?). As a presenter, it is easy to forget the years it took to build your expertise and to gain the vocabulary you currently have. Your audience doesn?t have that same education. Therefore, your listeners, in any situation, are dependent on how well you explain your knowledge in ways they understand.

Simplifying is not the same as ?dumbing it down?, being able to simply explain your business proves you are the expert. It is far more difficult to simplify than to talk in code.

Failure to speak?to the clients’ needs

The most common mistake I see when conducting presentations or conversations with prospects and clients is the inability to be audience-centric. In general, people want to know how you can help them. They do not wish to hear your ego or your company?s credibility for this conversation. A prospect would not have begun the conversation if you were not viewed as credible already.

During client presentations, the selection committee wishes to hear how you can give them the end result and what they would be looking for while ?interviewing? other companies. By educating the listener, you are positioning yourself as the expert without outwardly boasting like many companies do.

Focus on your audience?s needs, not your own. If the goal of your presentation is to win a project, then you?re focused on you, not your audience.

I’d encourage you to read Handal’s complete post — and then dig deeper into the topic — if you are serious about winning in the final hurdle. Remember, generally if you get to the presentation stage, you’ve done a lot right on the technical front. Now it is time to have your team hone speaking and relationship-building skills.

Have you had presentation experiences where things went well, or went off track? ?Please share them here as a comment or through an email to

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