Persuasion - and the Art of Directing Attention During Sales Presentations

Persuasion - and the Art of Directing Attention During Sales Presentations

Most of us believe that we focus on what’s most important. In fact, the reverse is usually true: any information or issue we are made to focus on becomes the most important.

Observe how news seems to come in waves. A particular event (possibly a tragic one) hits the news and then similar events seem to happen across the country. Often, those events were happening and going to happen anyway - but nobody paid them any attention. Opinion polls consistently show that issues in the news assume a higher level of importance: ‘something must be done about…’

So what’s going on? As Robert Cialdini explains in his book Pre-Suasion: ‘we can be brought to the mistaken belief that something is important merely because we have been led by some irrelevant factor to give it our narrowed attention.’ 

Before 2015 most people had no strong views on the EU, it was a fact of life. Once the issue came to dominate the news agenda it grew in importance to the point where people started to define themselves according to their views on EU membership, some even became a bit obsessive.

In a very unscientific way, I’ve recently observed how the degree of strict adherence to social distancing seems to be related to the percentage of news coverage dominated by coronavirus.

For a mundane example, think about what happens if you are having a conversation with somebody and your mobile phone rings. Try as you might to ignore it, it has a grip on your attention. ‘Who is it? Could it be important? Sorry, what was that you were saying?’

Focusing Attention in Presentations

As a presenter, one of your chief tasks is to be persuasive. In the context of the tendering process this means convincing your client that yours is the most advantageous solution.

It’s likely that your proposed approach will have strengths and weaknesses compared to your competitors. While you must always address all of your client’s requirements, you have more influence over the relative importance of those requirements in your client’s mind than you probably realise.

I recommend that you actively research your client’s hierarchy of needs and match your proposal’s strengths against these. Try to positively influence the relative importance of your strengths in their hierarchy and, similarly, aim to persuade them that the relative strengths of your competition shouldn’t rank so highly in their hierarchy of needs. Let’s look briefly at how you might do that.

What Comes First?

A key consideration is the order in which you present information. The thing we hear first is normally assumed to be the most important. Subsequent information tends to get filtered through the ‘reality’ of the first information we receive and accept. Once accepted, this idea can exert the same magnetic force of attention attraction as the ringing mobile.

When planning your presentation it’s impossible to overstate the importance of how, and in what order, you intend to present information and arguments. Think about how you need to frame and manage the flow of information so that it is focused on your strengths and so that people remember those strengths and perceive them as important for a successful outcome.

Other methods of focusing attention include:

  1. Self-relevance - make sure the information you want the audience to focus on is framed in a way that addresses them directly. 
  2. Posing a question that you don’t answer until later in the presentation: ‘X, is a vital outcome for you in this project, how can we make sure that happens? We’ll come to that in a bit…’
  3. Use metaphors and mental images - these help your audience ‘experience’ your presentation in a more active way and become more receptive to the information you want them to focus on.
  4. Aim to ‘know’ the audience you are addressing (very often this information can be gleaned from publicly available data or previous experience of dealing with them). Use this knowledge to your advantage. Align the language you use and the tone of your presentation to match their particular communication style. This technique will make them more receptive to your messages. This is something we do a lot of when preparing teams for behavioural assessments.

There’s plenty more I could include on this topic, but that would be a book rather than an article. For now, I’d just like to encourage you to think a little harder about how you can use presentations as an opportunity to shape and positively influence the discussion and the decision making process.