Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Keeping Your Prospect Listening

Anyone who has experience in public speaking can tell you that holding the audience’s interest throughout an entire presentation can be very difficult. Salespeople have an especially challenging public speaking job—they have to keep the prospect’s interest throughout their entire presentation, ensuring that the sales communication loop is completed, or it’s their sale that’s on the line. What makes keeping a prospect’s attention so difficult?

For one thing, the human brain is programmed to check for distractions—to actually seek them out—while it’s listening to you. This involuntary reflex probably dates back to the early days of prehistory when our ancestral prospect’s knuckles dragged the ground. As our proto-prospect walked across the savanna he was in constant danger from predators. He had to check out every sound, movement, or scent that came along, just like the deer that raises its head between every bite of grass.

When you’re making your pitch, your prospects are constantly tuning in and out of your sales presentation to check for other “dangers” lurking about the room. Unlike the deer, though, your prospects have a lot of other things on their minds. These subjects pop into their consciousness every time they momentarily stop listening to you. They may be staring right at your face, apparently hanging on your every word. In their heads though, there’s a monologue going on about what their spouse said last night at the dinner table, what they’re going to have for dinner tonight, how much traffic they can expect to encounter on the commute home, whether their car needs a tune-up, how large the balance on their credit card has become, and on and on. They tune in and out of your presentation while they’re also tuning in and out of that monologue in their head.

Your task is to constantly bring their attention back to your pitch. You have to continually recapture and hold their interest. Your presentation skills can help you do that.

Change is the key to holding interest. The mind attends to stimuli that change. The deer perks its ears up when a twig snaps in the background or the wind sweeps from another direction. Your prospect will tune back into your presentation when something—anything—in your delivery changes.

Work on varying the volume, pitch, and tone of your voice. We’ve all sat through presentations delivered in a monotone and know how deadly boring even the most interesting subject can be if it’s delivered in a consistent, constant drone. To avoid a monotone delivery, vary your volume, pitch, and tone.

Speak louder and softer, emphasizing different points in your presentation with different vocal volumes.

Practice speaking in higher and lower pitches—which convey excitement and intimacy among other emotions.

Work on different tones for different places in your presentation—authoritative, humorous, decisive, inquisitive.

Every time you change one of these factors, you get the prospect’s attention back on your pitch.

You can also vary the rate, intensity, and spacing of your speech. Some people seem to speak at machine-gun rate all the time. They wear their listeners out from trying to keep up. Believe it or not, it’s almost impossible to speak too slowly. The sentence that sounds to you like it’s never going to end will probably sound just fine to the listener.

Remember that the adrenaline pumping through your veins while you’re making a pitch will speed you up unless you make a strong conscious effort to control it. The intensity of your presentation can range from conversational to table-pounding, as long as it’s appropriate to the points you’re trying to emphasize.

And don’t forget to pause. An intentional silence will bring a listener back to you every time. It will also heavily underscore the point that precedes it.

Use your body appropriately. It’s almost impossible to stay enthusiastic and keep a high energy level while you’re slouched in a chair. If you can, stand for some or all of your presentation. Moving about the room, even if it’s just a few feet, will help keep the prospect focused on you and what you’re saying. If you have to sit down while you’re making your pitch (and you do, most of the time), sit on the middle of the seat and don’t let your body touch the back of the chair. Keep your arms away from the armrests so you don’t slouch to one side. The very act of sitting erect will make you more energetic and interesting.

Good posture, whether sitting or standing, gives you better breath control, too. This puts more energy into your voice and helps you speak more clearly.

You should make lots of gestures whether you’re sitting, pacing, or standing still. Gestures re-capture interest and provide strong non-verbal emphasis to important points. To help free your hands for use during the pitch, don’t fold them in your lap or on the desk. And don’t put a pen or other object in your fingers automatically. You’ll have a tendency to “fidget” with it if you’re not using it, so put it back in your pocket when you’re done with it.

Dave Donelson distills the experiences of hundreds of entrepreneurs into practical advice for small business owners and managers in the Dynamic Manager's Guides, a series of how-to books about marketing and advertising, sales techniques, hiring, firing, and motivating personnel, financial management, and business strategy.

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