It’s not what we say, it’s what they feel

We know all about presentations in marketing and advertising. Even if we aren’t too hot at French, and haven’t learned to code, we are all pretty fluent in PowerPoint. Yes, I know everyone says they hate PowerPoint, but we use it all the time, and how else can you do credentials or show the new strategy?
At AAI I have nearly 28 years’ experience of watching agencies present their credentials and pitch for new business. What insights and understanding has it given me? The main problem, as I see it, is that agencies (and it’s true of virtually everyone who presents to sell in business) only tend to concentrate on one aspect of the presentation – the input bit. All efforts are directed at the impactful opening, assembling the meat in the middle, crafting the segues, and finishing on a high note. So what is there to go wrong?
Even if the whole 58 MB has been meticulously prepared and punctuated with standout video and motion graphics, it is sadly not want you put into the presentation that matters. It’s what the audience takes out of it. This is another of those input/output/outcome challenges – like advertising or mass entertainment. We can say something telling, and say it brilliantly, but the success (or otherwise) of the presentation depends squarely on the guys across the table.
It’s like food. You can chuck in all the fancy ingredients, and follow the preparation and cooking instructions to the letter, but either the dish has appetite appeal, or it doesn’t. And the chef is not the final arbiter of that. The customer is.
At Harvard University these days, the hottest ticket is Michael Puett, Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. How so? His lectures are sold out, and attended by students of many other disciplines, because Puett is spreading the teachings of Confucius and other Chinese philosophers from 2500 years ago about how even our smallest gestures and habits can mould our destiny, and influence others. Better still, he shows his students how they can change their behaviours (facial expressions, mannerisms, actions and words) to be more likable and therefore more successful. He advocates trying new things and new ways, as opposed to the traditional advice to ‘stick with what you’re good at’. He’s a big enthusiast for smiling, and not defaulting to looking serious or severe. He urges people to be far more self aware about those of our habits, expressions, and phrases that irritate or grate on even our nearest and dearest. In the West, we are taught to be clever, skilled, and full of rationality and knowledge. Puett promises to change his students’ lives by persuading them to concentrate instead on what they might think are the secondary and trivial signals they send.
Take these insights from distant millennia into the world of pitch and present, and what is the learning? For a start it gives new ammunition to the emotional intelligence movement. Beldoch and Goleman and their followers have been criticised by some of their fellow psychologists, but the early Chinese behavioural gurus provide convincing evidence for EI and EQ.
More specifically Puett’s teaching suggests that just as we know the importance of personality profiling (our own, our colleagues and those we seek to influence or sell to), we should also submit to merciless appraisal of how we come across in action. Pitch doctors need to get up close and personal. Team mates should agree to be both frank and less sensitive with each other. Winning behaviour needs to be encouraged. Annoying habits have to be acknowledged and, if possible, cured.
It’s not just what the audience feel about the presentation. It’s very much about what they feel about the team and individuals who are delivering it. We’ve always known about chemistry and gut feel. Professor Puett is telling us why we should take them very seriously indeed.

This is David Wethey’s May blog for the Marketing Society. To see more go to