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Sales Presentations: How to Make Them More Effective Based On How People Learn

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
14 min read

Mentioned in this show:

Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 rule
Cognitive load

For more information on remote selling and a complete list of links mentioned in this podcast, visit this remote selling article on our website.

Sales Presentations: How to Make Them More Effective Based On How People Learn:

Full Transcript

Have you ever given a sales presentation that yielded $14 billion for another company? Probably not, and neither have I, but Nico Harrison has. It was 2013, and Nike’s contract was up with a young basketball star who showed promise but was no superstar or future hall of famer, yet. Nico went to the Oakland Marriott to meet Steph Curry, the Golden State Warriors’ star guard, to talk about reassigning him to Nico’s company, Nike. Nico, Nike.

Nico kicked off the meeting by addressing Stephen as Stefan. Oops. Like any self-respecting sales presentation, Nico immediately opened up PowerPoint. On one of the slides was the name of another superstar basketball player, Kevin Durant. Ostensibly, Nico had copied his presentation and forgot to change all of the names on it. Oops again. This only reinforced the low priority Nike placed on Steph. Steph’s dad is former player Dell Curry. He was at the meeting, too. Nico’s and Nike’s slip-ups were just a reminder of all the respect Steph hadn’t gotten throughout his high school, college, and now pro career. Deal over. Steph ended up signing with Under Armour and, as you may know, went on to win two MVPs and three championships. Under Armour added over $14 billion in market value over the following five years. Oops.

Now, you may not be making such obvious mistakes in your sales presentations, but have you ever taken the time to ask what makes a sales presentation great and what makes it totally forgettable? In this episode of Modern Sales, we’ll dig into the science of learning so you can make your presentation sticky and memorable like Nico’s, but for all the right reasons.

Welcome to Modern Sales, a podcast that’ll help you sell more by understanding how people buy. I’m your host Liston Witherill, founder of Serve Don’t Sell. And I dig through academic research, interview people inside and outside of sales, and nerd out on psychology, economics, and neuroscience to figure out how people make decisions. And I am on a mission to change the way 100 million people sell so that buying B2B services can feel as good as having a new vaccine ready. Maybe not that good, but wouldn’t that be nice?

If you’re listening on Spotify, hit that follow button so you don’t miss a single episode. And if you’re listening on iTunes or Apple Podcasts, please subscribe and leave an honest review as long as it’s five stars. It helps me get the word out for the show so that we can together change the way 100 million people sell. Thank you in advance for your help. Now to the show.

Sales presentations are weird. On the one hand, I think a lot of people over-exaggerate their importance, which is they minimize all of the stuff that happens before the presentation. They think it’s all about the pitch and forget about the importance of everything that comes before in qualification, in discovery, in positioning your business, in making clear your solution and how it solves your client’s problems. All of those things matter, too. But on the other hand, and you knew I’d get to this, most presentations are made without, well, much thought at all.

Liston Witherill:
Ultimately, the goal of the presentation is to help someone understand a complicated thing. So wouldn’t it makes sense to design our presentations so they increase the level of understanding? I mean, I think that makes sense. Someone set out to discover the best way to do that, and what he found was influenced by grade school kids. I’ll tell you how right after this short break.

Welcome back. Sales presentations obviously have a big impact on your sales, but they may not be as effective as they could be. Presentations are typically developed based on a pitch rather than effective transfer of information. So the solution is just to understand how people understand and then design your presentation accordingly. So how do people understand? John Sweller wrestled with this question a lot. He’s an Australian educational psychologist, and he’s concerned with how our brains work and how that should influence instructional design. Most of his research is in the educational field, as the term educational psychologist suggests. What Sweller came up with was a theory that he called cognitive load, which is a fancy way of saying something obvious. There’s only so much information we can take in at any given time.

In one study, he was able to show that it was better to present either written or spoken text, but not both. In another study of grade school students, he showed the opposite. A group presented with visual texts and a diagram rather than spoken text and a diagram understood the graph better. One researcher, opposite results. So what the heck do we make of this? Well, before I get to that, we now must turn to one of the most overused sales tools in the entire Milky Way Galaxy, and that is PowerPoint. It cannot be left out of this discussion.

Now, whether you use PowerPoint, or Google Slides, or some other tool that’s just like it, basically what I’m talking about here is a slide deck. And if you Google around a little bit about the effectiveness of PowerPoint, you’ll find that “Harvard just discovered that PowerPoint is worse than useless.” That’s the headline from an article in Ink Magazine, and to that I say, yeah, but not really. What that study compared was PowerPoint to Prezi, another presentation software, versus no slides at all. They found a marginal difference in information transfer using a zooming user interface, which is the technology that Prezi is built on. Or not really technology, but the key idea. There was a little bit of a difference in information transfer, but it was marginal. And despite the click-baity headlines claims, it was not the new definitive way to consume information.

In the actual findings, like if you actually go read the research that was done, the research report was a little bit more reserved than those click-baity headlines, and the researchers insisted that more research was necessary even though they found a small effect. Now, one of the reasons that it seems that Prezi was more effective than PowerPoint or no presentation at all is that it uses schema. It stacks concepts onto each other, which, yes, is easy to do in Prezi but is not necessarily a requirement of any presentation you make in it. You have to be an adept presenter to use this. In any case, I’ll come back to that.

This brings us to our big point. There are a lot of variables in your presentations, your audience, the actual information you include in it, any knowledge gaps that exist, and of course the specifics of what you present and how you present it. It all factors in. So instead of tweaking your presentations based on these small studies and, dare I say, inconclusive studies, let’s go back to a second to Sweller and cognitive load theory.

Cognitive load theory is based on the fact that we can only hold so much information in our working memory. At some point in grade school, or middle school, or high school, one of your teachers read off 30 different words and tested to see who had the best short-term memory. Some people only remembered one or two. Others remembered half or more of those words. But in general, depending on who you are, it’s three to seven things on average. That’s what fits in our short-term memory. But we can add to that using the modality effect, the idea that auditory and visual items in working memory don’t compete the same way as two of the same items would. So a picture and spoken words don’t reduce memory bandwidth quite as much as two pictures.

Second, a known schema doesn’t reduce our bandwidth as much either. So I talked to you about a guy at Nike blowing a pitch to Steph Curry, and you’ll probably remember the whole bit, but you may be less inclined to remember the specifics of, say, the modality effect. That’s brand new information, whereas Nike, Steph Curry, bad sales presentation, copy and paste with the wrong names, all of that stuff is known to you. Those are just details that fit into a known schema, a known idea, a known model. People screw things up. That’s basically that opening story.

Back to Prezi for a second. That’s why Prezi seems to be slightly more effective, although the effect isn’t quite as much as they would want you to believe. But it is true that if you can stack information together, particularly using information already known to your audience, then they’re more likely to remember. Now, this also brings us to a bigger question about all of these studies, which is how do we define the effectiveness of a presentation? In sales, you would generally say, “I got the sale.” But what if that’s not really the best goal? What if the best goal is to get 100% of the best clients? That’s different. What if the goal is to empower people to make great decisions? What if the goal is to present information so effectively that when you sell in a complex environment, the person who saw that presentation, they can take it back and give it on your behalf exactly like you gave it? That’s different.

So all of this goes back to this key idea of cognitive load theory and the fact that, one, we can use the modality effect to predict how much information people are willing to absorb and deliver it in different ways. That’s important. And two, if we use known schema, stories, and models that people already understand and don’t have to memorize anew, we’re likely to be able to help the person absorb more information.

All right. So now we’re getting somewhere. And here’s what I want you to do with this information. I’ve gotten pretty technical on you here, and now I’m going to make this really, really, really actionable. So the first thing I want you to do is keep it simple. No matter what state your slides are in, I can almost guarantee that they’re too complicated. I mean, I don’t know you obviously, I don’t know what you’re selling, but I can almost certainly guarantee there’s too much going on there.

Guy Kawasaki, the original evangelist … Sidebar really quickly. Man, would that be a good job. And I think I’d be a good evangelist. If you’re listening to this and you need an evangelist at your company, hit me up. Maybe I can do it for you. But in any case, Guy Kawasaki, the original evangelist at Apple, suggested what he dubbed the 10/20/30 rule. And aside from having a very, very memorable name, all of those numbers stand for something. 10 slides, 20 minutes, 30 point font.

It’s worth pointing out that I have absolutely no clue how guy Kawasaki arrived at these magic numbers, but the idea is basically right. Err on the side of telling a powerful story with less rather than more information. I’ve seen decks that are 30 slides. I’ve seen decks that are 200 slides. And several look like full spreadsheets. Some decks are built with the intention to send them to your prospects afterwards, and I’d suggest you have a version for the live meeting and a separate version for the follow-up, whatever you’re going to leave behind. I know it’s more work, but I think you’ll find it to be much, much more effective.

So err on the side of simplicity here, and remember the modality effect. You don’t need to write every word on the slide that you intend to say. That’s what the presenter’s notes are for. Make sure that the slides reinforce the biggest, most important points. I would always challenge you to think about this question: If you could have the other person only remember one thing, what would it be? If they could only remember three things, what would those be? And if they could only remember five things, what would those be? Make sure you’re prioritizing and using repetition in your deck in order to hammer those points home because, hey, let’s face it, interesting, clever, good-looking, and funny as you are, chances are people are only going to remember one, two, or three things.

In his article, Guy Kawasaki says, “10 is the optimal number of slides in a PowerPoint presentation because a normal human being cannot comprehend more than 10 concepts in a meeting.” I have no idea where he got this information, once again, but I do agree with him.

Blaise Pascal, the 17th century mathematician, wrote in a letter, “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” If your deck is long and complicated or even just complicated, fix it. Yes, it’s more work to present succinctly because you have to make a lot of choices about what you won’t include. You have to make a lot of choices about how to say a lot of things in a very small amount of time, which as you know I don’t do on this podcast very often. But you get it. Your sales presentation is different. Don’t judge me here.

The good news is that you only need one winning sales presentation. You don’t need to make it anew. What I suggest, and what I do in my own decks, is I have areas within the deck that I update based on the client I’m presenting to, but the rest of it basically stays the same. So I’m only adjusting one or two slides typically in a sales presentation and the rest of it is static. And those updates, once I’m in the swing of things, once I’m familiar with the deck, once I really understand the clients I’m presenting to, those updates typically take me less than five minutes. So that’s point number one, keep it as simple as possible.

Point number two. This is an action you can take right away as well. Tell a story. In my research for this episode, I noticed that there was a lot of commentary about PowerPoint leading to bad presentations. Unfortunately, no one really gave rational reasons why that was the case, but I believe it’s simply a matter of laziness. PowerPoint’s a crutch. It allows you to do a brain dump. It gives you tools for cool graphics that seem remarkable but maybe totally meaningless. So let’s do the exercise the opposite way.

Imagine if you only had 10 minutes to make your pitch with absolutely no visual aids at all, just your voice, just your imagination, and what you know about your client. You would have to tell a good story. So just do that. If you can make slides that sweeten the story, great. Do that. If not, you don’t need them, but if your story can’t stand up on its own without that deck, you’ve got a problem.

So here’s what I recommend. Get rid of the deck for a second. Open up a blank document. I like to write in Markdown personally, which is a nerdy side note. If you don’t know what that is, you’re missing out. But in any case, I like a plain text editor. That’s a better way to say it. And I open that up. I’m not worried about formatting or anything else, and I just type out in bullets what are the main points that I want to make. Each of those main bullets should be a slide, more or less. Then you make points underneath those. Pretty soon as you continue to write it out, and build it out, and turn it into a narrative, you have your story. That can become your slide deck.

There are specific ways to do this that are more effective than others, and the most common story that we tell in sales is one of transformation, one that starts with our hero, your client, in the middle of a quagmire. There they are stuck in a problem. They can’t fix it. They don’t know how. They don’t know what to do. They didn’t ask for this. But the good news is they could fix it. Life will be so much better when they do, and they start imagining what that would look like. You will show them how. You’re their guide to get them to this promised land of where they want to be, where everything is better, and you’ll tell them why they should believe you. That’s it. You can definitely do that in less than 10 slides.

And I talked about scheme as earlier. This transformation story, it’s a familiar schema, where your client is, what the dream is, how to get there, and how to start. What specific steps do they need to take right now? That schema helps make your information more memorable, even if you fail to announce, “Hey, guess what? I’m about to tell a story. Get ready for this schema.” You don’t have to do that. It’ll just click for them more naturally.

And a side point here, when you tell your story, everything needs a purpose. The colors you choose, the placement of your graphics on the page, their spacing, how close graphics are to each other or different elements on the page are, that conveys meaning. The images that you choose, the words you say, the fonts you use, everything. If you present anything that is not completely purposeful, it’s just going to confuse people. Be intentional about everything you do so it supports point number two, tell a story.

Point number three, engage your audience. This is something else you can do immediately. Now, it’s time to get honest about something. I’m going to give you some tough love. Presentations are boring. It is not a personal comment on you, but generally presentations are boring. My goal is for people to say, “Damn, I really enjoyed that conversation. I don’t normally enjoy sales conversations or sales presentations, but Liston was good.” That’s my goal. Sometimes I hit it, not always. But generally, people enjoy talking to me.

Most presentations are all about how awesome your company is. They’re all about how awesome your product or your service is. They’re all about how awesome your clients are. Here’s the thing though, people don’t really care about that. They care about how awesome they are, not you. They care about the most important topic in the entire world, which is themselves. I am sorry to break it to you, but it’s true.

So what I’d like you to do is start engaging them in the process. Ask them for feedback along the way. When you present your problem review slide, which, yes, you should have a problem review slide whenever you present, and it’s just going to recount whatever they told you in discovery, ask them if you got it right. Ask them if there’s anything they want to add to that slide. Ask them if you understand correctly. Ask them if we need to stop in our tracks right now to iron out any misunderstandings or misinformation because we could not move forward with a viable story until we get this right. I need your help. Do that.

Ask them which aspects of your product or service are most attractive to them? Ask them what they’re thinking, how they’re reacting. Keep them engaged. Make a joke. Reveal a bit about yourself or your personality. Tell them something fun. It is totally okay to have a personality. I believe in you. I believe that you’re a human, and I also believe your clients are, too, so it’s all right. As long as you understand the context and the appropriateness of whatever it is that you’re going to say, you’ll be totally fine. Just keep them engaged. That is point number three, engage your audience.

So here are your key takeaways. If you want to improve your sales presentations, do the opposite of the status quo. Most sales presentations are too long, too boring, and they’re way, way, way too complicated. Simplify them. We can only take on so much information, so target your content at your audience and keep it simple. Tell a transformation story in your presentation with the basic structure of before, after, and how they can do it. Engage your audience in your meeting, whether it’s one person or 10, and ask them to participate.

That’s it for this episode of Modern Sales. Thank you as always for listening. In the next episode, I’ll be talking to Lee Fredricksen of Hinge Marketing about how professional service buyers make buying decisions based on the extensive research he does. And I’m also going to ask him how he thinks about attracting new clients to his own business. It’s a good one. I’ve been a fan of Hinge Marketing for many years, and I am excited to bring it to you.

If you aren’t already subscribed to this podcast, please do so. Just click the subscribe or follow button. You can also get notified of all podcast episodes by visiting Thanks to everyone who makes this podcast possible. Juan Perez is our editor. Mary Ann Nocum is our show assistant. Our theme and ad music is produced by me, it’s true, on my iPad, Liston Witherill. And show music is by Logan Nickelson and Music for Makers and Epidemic Sound. Thanks so much for listening. I’m Liston Witherill of Serve Don’t Sell, and I hope you have a fantastic day.

Modern Sales Podcast