Presentations: Roles & Rehearsals

“I’m a professional; I’ve made hundreds of sales presentations. I don’t need to rehearse.” And after the presentation, “who’d have known they were going to ask that?” Or worse: “You just sat there while I embarrassed all of us and you said nothing? What’s wrong with you?”

Rehearsing for a sales presentation seems obvious but it’s the frequent victim of poor time management. It’s often skipped all together or done halfheartedly in a rush.

Strange things happen when you don’t rehearse and prepare for the expected, or as importantly, prepare for the unexpected.  Consider this strange but true story.

A large corporation was bidding out a multi-million dollar service contract. The firm had whittled down 15 suppliers to the final four who would make presentations.

Nothing unusual so far, but here’s where things got strange. The customer gave each supplier 10 minutes for their presentation, which is an indecent amount of time for a supplier to present for such a large dollar contract.

To make matters worse, the customer’s 10-minute clock started when a supplier arrived in the lobby. One supplier was down to six-and-a-half minutes by the time they reached the conference room.

Several of these presentation survivors recalled it as the most frustrating experience in their careers as they stumbled and stepped all over themselves as they tried to force two hours of sales pitch into less than ten minutes.

Hopefully you won’t come across many customers demanding 10-minute drills. However, things happen and your scheduled time can shrink to half, or even less. If you’ve not prepared for the usual and unusual demands of presentations, you’re more likely to melt down rather than rise above the turmoil.


Please tell me you’re not saying the same thing, presentation after presentation.

If you are, skip the presentation, make a video and email a link to customers so they can view it online from the comfort of their office.

I know how hard it is to lock yourself and your team away to rehearse but you’re not making the same pitch each time.

Your customers, their personal dynamics and business situations, differ from presentation to presentation.

Additionally, your weaknesses vary according to your competitors and each customer context.

So rehearse, but don’t make it a “have to”, make it count. Here’s how to get the most out of your rehearsal time.


Who Does the Talking & When

Just imagine you’re one your firm’s presentation team and a customer asks a question. Simultaneously you, your subject matter expert (SME) and your boss all begin answering, your voices falling over each other as customers whiplash their heads side-to-side to figure out who to listen to.

Recognizing what you’ve done, your entire team stops talking, leaving a gaping silence while everyone, customers too, look around at who’ll pick up the dropped presentation thread.

Into the void you and your boss step, talking again exactly at the same time. And again your customers look from… you get the drift.

Hopefully, if you’re the only presenter you won’t get into an argument with yourself but if there’s more than one of you, you’ll want to avoid this conversational hockey.

The preparation to avoid a puck in the mouth is to rehearse with everyone on your team in assigned roles.

Don’t assume everyone knows what you’ll be doing, or that Jane is included because of her expertise in Amazonian tree frogs. Explicitly point out each member’s presentation role at the first rehearsal.

Every presentation has three performance roles:

  • Lead actor
  • Supporting cast
  • Top dog

All these roles must be performed, by yourself if you’re the sole presenter, or by others on your presentation team.

Lead Actor

The lead actor role is that of sales facilitator. There is only one lead actor, and it’s typically performed by the most experienced salesperson in the presentation. The lead actor:

* Makes the formal introductions and begins the presentation
* Orchestrates contributions of the presentation team members
* Pays attention to, and addresses the non-verbal customer communications
* Steers the presentation away from contentious rocks towards a smooth, engaging customer flow
* Manages the presentation within the allotted time (time keeper)
* Before the presentation, coordinates and manages rehearsals

Supporting Cast

The supporting cast are your subject matter experts (SMEs). If you’re the only presenter, congratulations, you’re your own SME. But with presentation teams, only operational experts are there for specific topics only.

They talk only when indicated. This means rehearsal (see below) as well as making sure they understand when they talk and when they don’t.

Top Dog

Many times you’ll want one of the top executives from your firm in the presentation.

Your executive is there to signal your firm’s commitment of resources and to show your customer they have personal access to the top of your firm.

Ideally, the exec you bring should be higher up the food chain than the highest level customer exec in your presentation.

With the benefits of bringing one of your high-ranking execs there is a major pitfall to avoid; the Unleashed syndrome.

I learned this the hard way at the beginning of a presentation for a $22 million dollar contract.  I was leading an eight-member sales team that included our division President and though I’d rehearsed our team thoroughly I hadn’t coached our President sufficiently, meaning I hadn’t told him explicitly when he should stop talking.

At the start of the presentation our President took off on a 25 minute company history and when he handed back the presentation I was looking at a sea of brain-dead decision makers. In the silence broken by snores, I saw several over-caffeinated decision makers filling out their lunch orders. Thank you Mr. President.

The top dog challenge can be intimidating but don’t let your exec lead the presentation, or talk too much.

Rehearsal is the only place where to address this. Your lead actor must be the facilitator and must determine how long your top dog speaks and on what topics.

Your top dog is there for a very specific purpose; to demonstrate to the customer that your firm:

* Considers that customer very important
* Will commit all the necessary resources
* Is available for the customer to voice their concerns


Follow the Yellow Brick Road from Research to Presentation

The narrative for your presentation has already been written, not the words to be spoken but the topics you must cover.

It came from the customer and business intelligence you acquired during the sales process and sits in your research notes and sales proposal.

That narrative now becomes the outline of your presentation slideshow and rehearsal script for your presentation.

At the beginning of rehearsals you and your team will review those insights. If you submitted a persuasive proposal (one that persuades, not just informs), this is your rehearsal script.

If no proposal, use your sales notes. You’re specifically looking to review:

  • The problems your customer is trying to fix
  • The improvements they want made
  • How your proposed solution will fix their problems and implement their improvements
  • The financial and business impacts you’ll contribute
  • Proof that you can deliver on your promise

As you rehearse each section of your presentation refer back to the customer’s problems and desired improvements.

Challenge yourself and your team to tie back everything they present to how it will either fix your customer’s problems or implement their improvements.

If there’s been a significant time lapse between the start of your sales process and you’re scheduled presentation, do a quick refresh of your customer knowledge. Check through online searches or make a few quick calls to your inside sources and find out if anything newsworthy has occurred with your customer since then and include that intelligence in your review.


Fielding Bad Hops

If you’re the professional you profess to be, make your rehearsal time about working on how you’ll field the tough questions in advance, the hardballs.

You know those questions. They’re the ones about your offer’s weaknesses or how your firm fell down in the past and your customer has gotten wind of that old dinosaur.

Use your rehearsal to prepare for these “tough questions.”  You won’t get called on the carpet during every presentation but the one time you do, and you’re prepared, you’ll be grateful you rehearsed.

The “Cut-Off” Signal

Sometimes we can get carried away by our own eloquence. It requires discipline to know when to stop talking about a particular topic. However, if you’re presenting in a team, they can help you know when to hand off the conversational baton.

The lead actor monitors their team’s responses and before customers’ eye lids begin to droop, conducts the presentation gracefully towards the next topic or question.

Rehearsal is where the lead actor introduces their team to the visual or verbal sign for the speaker to quickly wrap up and hand back the stage to the lead actor. The sign should be subtle, supportive, and avoid sounding or appearing like “Hey, you’ve blabbed on long enough. Can’t you see everyone’s asleep? It’s time to let one of us speak.”

Whatever the sign is, the team will be aware of its existence and hopefully won’t ignore it bullheadedly.

Attack Competitors’ Weaknesses

But rehearsing is not only a defensive strategy. Make it offensive. Use your rehearsal to focus on and punch up your offer’s strengths that point to your competitors’ weaknesses.

You’ll never say negatives about your competitors but by focusing on selected strengths of yours that are important to your customers, you’ll indirectly have raised the issue in your customers’ minds. Now they’re only thinking about that issue, and it’s too bad you’re competitors fall down there.

Preempt Customers’ Alternatives

Customers often have alternative choices where they can do it themselves, or not do anything at all. Use your rehearsal to prepare yourself to address those customer alternatives.

You’ll be able to point out the downsides to what customers may formerly have considered legitimate alternatives. Remember, rehearsal gives you that opportunity to practice bringing up those downsides.


What to do

Rehearsing for a 10-minute scenario will force you to define your presentation into short but sweet specifics. You’ll have practiced getting to the point so if the dreaded scenario ever does occur, you won’t flop around on deck like a tuna that’s just been landed.

The first step is to recognize context: Why would a customer spring 10-minute presentations on bidders? It’s because they have either:

  • Already made up their minds and are just going through the motions, or are
  • Having to deal with something unexpected; fire alarm, illness, or a thoughtless presenter going over their allotted time, or are
  • Really ignorant and/or inexperienced

That means customers may be distracted, tired, bored, or all three, so plan accordingly.

This preparation makes your normal presentations better anyway, so make it part of every preparation.

Limit Speaking Parts

With very little time, too many speakers distract the audience and increase the stepping-on-toes factor. If you have only 10 minutes, have no more than one to three speakers at the most.

The majority of this shortened presentation will be done by your lead actor as normal. But you can still include very brief supporting contributions from your Top Dog and possibly one SME.

Rehearse these supporting speakers for a 10-minute scenario until they can cover their respective points within 1-1/2 to 2 minutes maximum.

Create a Powerful Opening

Although I’d like to throw something at the customer when starting off a 10-minute presentation, it’s better to take another route. Ask your customer a challenging question at the start and wait for them to answer. That’ll get their attention.

If you do this you’ll often hear only silence as they’re waiting for you to answer your own question. Don’t give in. Use that uncomfortable silence to leverage an answer from one of the customers. Once one of the customers in the room speaks, then they’re all listening.

For rehearsal, this means figuring out what question you should ask and then rehearsing it. If you’ll use a slideshow deck, create one slide hidden at the back just for this purpose.

For the question, try a “What if…” and then describe a painful customer outcome that would occur if they did nothing to prevent it. This critical challenge to their business sets the stage and leads you to ….

Only Must-Have Takeaways

With limited time you can only talk about important stuff and not everything in your offer. There will be one to three unique aspects of your proposed solution that will have the greatest impact. These aspects solve your customer’s problems and help them achieve their goals as a result of buying your offer.

These aspects are unique differentiators, the ones that are different and better than your competitors. No point in discussing something you’re only as good as another competitor.

After you’ve spoken about these few must-have takeaways, finish up by briefly listing the positive outcomes your customer will achieve by implementing your solution.

This is the feel good stuff. Make sure they hear this immediately after your solution. You want customers to realize if they choose you, these good things will happen.

Concluding Questions at the End

Stop about several minutes before the end of your allotted time. Put customers on the spot and ask them for their questions.

If they have them; Congratulations, they were listening. Answer them and you’re done for the day.

If they have none, ask them if their number one challenge is important to solve (it will be important if you’ve done your homework).

Then ask if their number one goal will result from solving that challenge (it will).

Now connect the dots describing your solution in one sentence that solves the challenge and delivers the goal.

Only do this for number one. You’re wrapping up the presentation here. This will be the last thing you say, other than Thank You, and you want to leave on a compelling note. So leave.


The serious preparation for sales showtime is the assigning of roles and rehearsal. Without knowing who does what and when, you’re shooting in the dark and wasting opportunities.

With the audition logistics known you’re ready to begin the Roles and Rehearsals by doing the following:

Assign Performance Roles: Explicitly point out each member’s presentation role at the first rehearsal as either: lead actor, supporting cast or the top dog.

The Rehearsal Script: Review your sales proposal or research notes. This is your rehearsal script, in a bullet list outline the:

  • Problems your customer wants fixed
  • Improvements they want made
  • Your solution components and how they achieve the above
  • Customers financial and business impacts you’ll contribute
  • Proofs showing you deliver on your promise

Rehearsal is for Hardballs:

  • Identify the top three to five “tough” questions you could be asked and REHEARSE responses
  • Explicitly show your team members the “cut-off” sign that means STOP TALKING NOW
  • Identify where you’re offer is strong and your competitors are weak and FOCUS YOUR PRESENTATION there
  • Identify your customer’s alternatives, such as no decisions, and REHEARSE your motivating responses
  • 10-Minute Scenario Prep: REHEARSE for a 10-minute scenario at the end of your normal rehearsal

You only have to be in one presentation where your dignity, professionalism and sales chance lay broken on the floor like a raw egg before you commit to always rehearse beforehand.

Because rehearsal is the best and only way to avoid that mind numbing, tongue swallowing fear that many suffer before going on stage in a sales presentation. When you’re prepared you not only sleep better the night before, you can take pride in, and enjoy your chance to show how you can help customers succeed.

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