Presentations: The Curtain Rises

Some sales reps can hold a room full of new acquaintances spellbound with funny stories for hours at a time, and because of that they believe they’re great presenters. But most are not. Leading sales teams in formal presentations worth millions of dollars is far different than charming a crowd of new friends.

And the most critical moment in a presentation is always the beginning. This is the “curtain rises” moment when customers first get face-to-face with the sales team and the show is about to begin.

That moment shapes the performance to follow, and ultimately the presentation’s final outcome. Blow it, and it’s a tough uphill climb to win the sale, not impossible but very difficult.

And beginnings should seem relaxed and comfortable, they should be planned as key steps to follow (unlike a script, which has exact words the actors speak, a plan is a general outline to follow).

IT’S SHOWTIME : Beginning for the Finish

Here’s a plan for beginning a formal sales presentation, including a few twists to keep customers alert and engaged. If they’re paying attention, you’re in the best position to succeed with your sales pitch.

Informal Introductions First

Start with warm and friendly

Most customers will behave like humans when first meeting you and your sales team in the presentation. The informal introductions are just that, small talk upon entering the room.

It’s the typical “Hello, wasn’t that rainstorm crazy?” or “Hi, I’m Chris with XYZ and why is traffic so bad this time of day?”

Informal intros can take up to the first five minutes of presentation meetings, or occur the minutes waiting for the official start time.

Nothing special to do here, but be social humans.

Second Introduction: Get formal

Lift the curtain so everyone knows the show has started

The second set of introductions, the formal ones, indicates it’s time to get down to business. Typically, your customer will begin the formal start, stating why everyone’s here and then handing it over to you and your sales team.

Your goal at this step is to make sure there are no undercover decision makers in the room. Not that they’d be invisible, but you may not be aware of their authority and influence over your presentation and sale— don’t want an unknown decision maker (CFO?) lurking quietly in the back.

Here’s how to do it:

1) You (lead actor) start by introducing yourself, your title, your company — followed by this critical part — what your purpose is in the presentation, i.e. “Hi, I’m Chris Arlen, VP of Sales for XYZ, and I’ll be herding all you cats through our presentation today, making sure we finish within our allotted time.”

2) Then every member of your team does the same in round robin fashion; giving their names, titles and purpose for being in the presentation, i.e. your engineer says he’s there to answer technical engineering questions, etc. (for more about who should be on your team, see “Presentations: Roles & Rehearsals”).

3) Now ask all customers to do the same: to tell you their names, titles and their roles (i.e. their purpose for being in the room) — by your team leading by example, the hope is your customers will mirror that behavior and explain their roles.


When you know the roles of customers in the room, you can later engage them on their areas of interest. Proactively throughout the presentation, ask if you’ve answered their unspoken questions regarding the financials, implementation, productivity, etc.

Ground Rules for the Show

Let them know what’s expected

After the formal introductions, tell customers this isn’t the type of presentation where they sleep and you drone on through 73 slides of a PowerPoint deck. Introduce ground rules for a productive use of everyone’s time.

Here’s how:

1) Confirm the time allotted for the meeting, i.e. ask if everyone knows the meeting will last 1-hour, or whatever duration it’s scheduled — you don’t want a customer awkwardly leaving in the middle of your presentation because they didn’t know it was scheduled for 90-minutes — the remaining customers may think you upset that person so badly they left.

2) Tell customers you will need them to ask for the information they want to hear — otherwise you and your team could talk for 127 days about your offer

3) Tell customers to ask questions along the way, don’t hold them for the end of the presentation (although you will also answer any questions remaining at that time) — let them know you’d like a conversation, not a monologue, or their time has been wasted

Challenge them with your First Line

Push against expectations: get participation

Customers have been trained to sit in sales presentations and go to sleep. Bad sales presentations have done that. Your goal is to challenge that expectation and force them to engage in a conversation, asking about what matters to them.

Here’s how:

1) You, as lead actor, briefly state your understanding of your customer’s problems they want fixed and the goals they want achieved (no more than 90 seconds worth so you’ll need to be hyper concise)

2) Then navigate to the single-slide overview of your proposed solution in your presentation deck, and speak to the very highest of points of your solution (make this 60 seconds or less) — don’t expect customers to have read, or remembered your proposal

3) Now, the fun part — turn the tables on them at this point, up until now you’ve been doing all the talking — now ask your customers want they want to talk about first….

4) Then wait in silence until one of them answers — don’t let your team fill the silence, or you lose — the silence will typically be filled by a customer blurting out they want to know more about your Quality Assurance, or reporting, or hiring process, whatever — social silence is a powerful lever to get customers to change their expectation of sitting back and not engaging

5) Once you’ve gotten a customer to give you direction — go there, respond as you and your team have rehearsed — and then ask what next they’d like to know about — you’ve just trained them to participate in a meaningful sales conversation

6) Very rarely, if after 60 seconds, customers haven’t responded but just sat there in complete and total silence, follow your prepared and rehearsed path to the topic you believe they’re most interested in — when finished, return to your overview slide and ask again what area they’d like to discuss — customers will have gotten the idea by now, and in almost every instance will play along

Customer Required Agendas

There will be presentations where customers set an agenda in advance for the topics they want you to discuss. Recognize you can be fully compliant by following their request to the letter, and still lose the sale with a static presentation.

Additionally, the agenda may have been written by Procurement or someone other than the true decision makers or powerful influencers. That set agenda may not be what they actually want to talk about. Don’t be a compliant loser.

If you’re comfortable with these ambiguities, consider the agenda as more of a guideline than requirement, and that customers have questions or concerns, and they’re seeking to understand your solution better.

Here’s how to dance to this tune:

1) Complete the Informal and Formal Introductions, and Ground Rules…

2) Then acknowledge to your customers you can follow their required agenda BUT in the interest of respecting their time, you can navigate to what’s most important to them

3) Based on their response you’ll either work the CHALLENGE THEM WITH YOUR FIRST LINE, or follow their agenda — at a minimum you’ll have offered an alternative


  • Informal introductions first — start with warm and friendly
  • Second introduction: get formal — lift the curtain so everyone knows the show has started
  • Ground rules for the show — let them know what’s expected
  • Challenge them with your first line — push against expectations: get participation
  • Customer required agendas — more guideline than requirement, offer an alternative
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