This story has been around. It has appeared on web sites, in blogs and on social networks around the world. But it can’t hurt to repeat it.
The story goes that during the space race between the US and the USSR, the astronauts had to deal with writing in space. And regular ink pens and ballpoints didn’t work in zero gravity. When the flyers experimented with ink pens, they found that variations in pressure spread the ink through space in droplet form. And the absence of gravity prevented ink flow to the tip of the ballpoint pen.
Confronted by this problem, the Americans and the Russians had different approaches. NASA spent millions of dollars on research, trying to find alternative writing instruments. Finally, after years of effort, the US space agency managed to create a pen that could write in space. A superpen! The envy of even the proudest Montblanc!
The Russian astronauts, on the other hand, arrived at a different solution: they just took five-cent pencils with them.
And that was that.
The power of the right goal
A lot of people laugh when they hear this story. But everybody can take some lessons from it. The most obvious? The simple solution is probably the best.
But we can draw another important conclusion from the US experience that is essential to any communication, and especially to the building of a presentation: what the astronauts actually needed to do was to write in space. So they didn’t really need the most technologically advanced pen in the world if a pencil could do the trick.
See? We’re talking here about true goals. The Russians were clear about this and, most important, they were focused on it.
So now the question is, do you know exactly what your goal is when you’re preparing a presentation? Because, bottom-line, this has to be the single most important starting point. Many executives just don’t have a clear objective in mind . . . and then they complain that the audience didn’t buy what they were selling. But think about it: if you don’t know exactly what you want, how will your audience? Because when it comes to presentation, you have to deliver what the audience wants.
When asked about their presentation objective, some executives are quick to answer: “I know exactly what my goal is. I want to present my project to management in the best possible light!” Or, “I want to sell my service.”
But is presenting a project to management a true goal? Let me make this simple: no, it is not!
Presenting is what you the speaker will do. The question is, what do you want management to do, think, or feel when you’re done? Greenlight the assembling of a team? Finance the idea exactly the way you need? Act immediately instead of tabling the idea for later?
And selling a service isn’t necessarily the objective of a first presentation, either. You might be asking: “But isn’t the purpose of a sales pitch to sell?” Well, will you actually be selling at a first sales meeting or will be there be other meetings with other parties until you can formalize a business proposal and conclude the sale?
In cases like this, your goal at the end of a cycle of meetings and presentations is to actually sell something. But surely in the first presentation the goal should be something else: for example, to nail down a second meeting.
In the case of a series of presentations, at each stage of a negotiation there needs to be a different objective! So you’ll need to create a different presentation for each step! In this way, you’re on the best path to reaching the ultimate objective.
Here’s an example
Suppose you’re the CEO of a multinational IT company. You go to an event where you meet the president of one of the world’s largest banks and you schedule a meeting so you can introduce your company. You do this because you are aware that your main competitor has the current IT business relationship with this bank.
Of course in this case you want to sell your company. But at the first meeting with this CEO, your main goal needs to be to show that your company is fully capable of meeting and supporting all the bank’s IT needs. So you want to be selling not only your capability. In this case, your primary goal needs to be to win the CEO’s trust. In this first meeting, whether you know it or not, you’re selling confidence, right? And so the first presentation won’t be going into IT details and using jargon. All you should want here is that at the end of the meeting the CEO ask for a second, more detailed meeting!
It is here, in the second meeting, that your goal can be to impress the bank’s senior IT people with your innovative solutions, technological power, etc. And here also you can use a vocabulary more suited to your audience. (If needed, the cycle can continue: more meetings, more refined goals, more focus as you drill down.).
We hope this example makes clear that the purpose of a presentation needs to change according to the audience listening to it. So don’t make the mistake of creating a single presentation on a particular subject to show to your internal team, current customers, prospects, investors, and so forth. It just won’t work. Not only because these audiences have different interests, but mostly because your goal will be changing as the audience does.
So how to figure out what you’re really selling?
Here we have to suggest that you be careful when you set out to define the goal of a presentation. Yes, in most cases you expect/hope/wish your audience will want to do something. But for them to do something, you’re going to have to understand who they are, what their needs might be, and what problems they might need solved.
So just ask yourself: “What do I want my audience to feel and / or think and / or do at the end of my presentation?”
You might be surprised by the answer. And you’ll probably find that maybe all you really need is a simple five-cent pencil.