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Making Presentations to a "C Level" Audience

Find out how to present your product or service to the prospects who inhabit your "common" zone.

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In our continuing series on the art of presentations, we'll show you how to deliver presentations that address those individuals in your "common" or "C" zone, the zone that most of your prospects are in. And if you haven't yet read last month's column, do it now. It contains critical insights into the pre-presentation work that must go into every "C" level presentation!

The Presentation: Getting in the Zone

Imagine there's an invisible 18-inch barrier surrounding your body. Actually, you probably don't have to imagine too hard because there almost certainly is an invisible 18- inch barrier around your body. This is your "confidential" zone. Here in the United States, this is the area most people hold as essentially private, a space only to be occupied by one's spouse, one's significant other, one's closest relatives (children for instance), and one's domestic pets (pit-bulls and pythons excluded). Here's a critical point: Barreling thoughtlessly into another's personal zone is generally tantamount to a physical challenge! That's not a great idea if you're trying to make sure this "C level" person feels he or she is in control of the relationship.

There are three other zones you should be aware of. The zone that's between 18 and 32 inches from your body is known as the "individual" zone, the region where most Americans are comfortable with social or business interaction that involves people they know casually. The zone that's next, the one that's between 32 and 44 inches, represents the "sociable" zone for Americans. This is the ideal distance between a prospect sitting at his or her desk and a visitor. There's another region outside these three zones. It's known as the "common" zone, one we'll refer to as the "C" zone, and it's the region in which we Americans are comfortable with (or at least occasionally prepared to accept) announcements of unexpected entrances from others.

Here's another critical point: You must always ask for permission to move from the "common" zone into any one of the other zones, and it's always best to move only one zone at a time. Suppose you have a presentation to give a C-level prospect, and suppose she is the only one who will initially be attending. Just before you enter her office (the common zone), say "May I come in?" or something darn close. You must--I repeat, must--enter the zones one at a time. That means standing until you receive an invitation to sit. It also means asking (for instance), "Is this seat okay?" Do not take up residence in any new zone without gaining permission to do so--and never breach the personal zone.

I've watched many a well-researched presentation collapse because the selling party:

  • took a seat without being invited to do so.
  • treated the prospect's desk as though it were his or her own (by, for instance, placing some object on it without asking permission.)
  • "hemmed in" the C level by breaching the personal space.

Don't let it happen to you!

Here's an example of what I'm talking about. After a period of getting acquainted, you may find it necessary to stand during your meeting/presentation--let's say at a flip chart or dry-erase board. Hand your prospect a marker and say, "Why don't you join me?" If he or she declines, you can hand give them a hand-out with a place for them to take notes. If your invitation is accepted, you have just entered into his or individual zone--with permission--and that's exactly where you want to be.

The Presentation: Nuts and Bolts

Once you've got all the bases covered and your C level prospect has given his or her buy in on what you've discovered, you're ready to deliver your presentation. I am often asked by salespeople if it's really necessary to do a customized presentation for each and every new prospect. My answer is always the same: Either you wing the presentation or you win the presentation. I prefer the latter, and I hope you do, too.

Here's my four-step process to create a winning presentation for any CEO:

(Note: I use the word "slide" in what follows as a generic label for anything that will be shown to your prospect during your presentation. I prefer to use a "PowerPoint" type of display during presentations I make, and so do a lot of other people, including C-level titles.)

Step #1: Take what you have and make it better. The best way to create a tailored presentation for any prospect is to take your slides or transparencies and make a hard copy of this material for your own review. Now, take a colored highlighter and circle the most powerful thirty words that would appeal to this C-level prospect. Then create three slides with no more than ten words per/slide--or one slide with a total of thirty words. It's your choice. (Personally, I prefer the former.) Forget the fancy graphic images or pictures of the company founder in front of corporate headquarters.What you're looking for here are thirty powerful words that create equally powerful thoughts in the mind of this prospect.

Never show a prospect the names of all your other customers. This popular "look how good we are" tactic only serves to inflate your own organization's ego. Instead, show only the logos of your customers that meet the following criteria:

1. Customers that are shared between your organization and this C-level's organization

2. Prospects of your organization and this prospect's organization that are clearly identified as mutual "prospects"

3. Suppliers to your organization that are the same as this prospect's organization

4. Names of individuals who sit on your organization's board who also happen to sit on the board of directors of this C-level prospect's organization

Always show any piece of financial data that aligns extremely closely to this prospect's financial goals. For instance: The prospect's annual report shows that her company is investing 15 percent of each revenue dollar into research and development, and you know that number is going to be increased to 20 percent for the current fiscal year. Your organization is currently investing 20 percent in research and development, up from 10 percent the prior year. Highlight that parallel!

Step #2: Place the last slide first. One of the best tactics you'll ever use during a C-level presentation is to show your last slide first. Let's face it--nothing else really matters!

I know that the folks down in the marketing department would like to think that brand recognition and marketplace reputation is a great way to start the "education" process of your prospect. But remember this simple fact and if you want, share it with the marketers in your organization:

C-level prospects don't give a hoot about who you are until they understand what you can do.

So your first slide should plant the value of doing business with your firm firmly in the prospect's mind: Here's an example.


Time-to-Revenue Reduction by 35% Fixed Expenses Cut by 15%.

120 days Time-to-Completion

6 Months Payback at Current Production Levels

And here's what you might say while the C-level prospect looks at the slide onscreen or in the form of a handout:

"Working with your team, we've uncovered a process to cut your time-to-revenue by 35 percent, while at the same time containing fixed expenses by an additional 15 percent. Our teams have estimated a one-hundred-and-twenty day implementation, with a short six months' payback at your current level of widget production. In the next fifteen minutes, we'll discuss some of the requirements necessary to move forward toward these results."

Note: Don't be surprised if the prospect stops your presentation at this point and says something like:

"What's this going to cost me and who needs to be involved?"

Follow the C level's lead! Answer the question and wait for him or her to tell you what to do next. (When in doubt, repeat this presentation success mantra to yourself:

"C levels love to be in charge of things! C levels love to be in charge of things! C levels love to be in charge of things!")

Step #3: Proceed backwards. With only a few exceptions involving scientists, engineers and inventors, every corporate C-level title I've ever met works backwards. Here's what I mean: These individuals come up with the grand vision, mission or strategic initiative first, and then empower someone else (or a bunch of someone else's) with the task of figuring out the details of the tactical implementation. Mere mortals have a tendency to accept a task or mission as a given, and focus first and foremost on the "how."

Assemble your presentation to match the way C level's think. Start with the result and go backwards--but never go too far! Never dive directly into the deepest complexities of your ideas; if you do, your presentation will conclude instantly. Keep in mind that the C levels you present to will not have (or desire) an understanding of how your stuff works. They simply don't care! Don't try to give them an education about something they just don't care about or have the time to pursue.

Remember the prospect's question from a moment ago? You'll need to prepare a slide that answers it directly. Here's the question once again, and an example of how the principle of "working backwards" should drive your presentation. (Notice that, up to this point, you've focused on the "why" you and this prospect should work together first, not the "how.")

"What's this going to cost me and who needs to be involved?"


9 Person Team

$850,000 Investment

5% possibility of failure

And here's what you'll say as they're looking at this slide:

"If you assign five production engineers, three materials managers and your widget product manager for one-hundred-and-twenty days plus eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars, our suspicion it that you'll be faced with less than a five percent risk factor to achieve the results we just mentioned."

Don't be surprised if the C level stops your presentation and says something like, "How do we reduce the risk of failure?"

Step #4: Stay away from your product. Start with a benefit, just like we did in our first slide. Then answer any questions that may come up, using an advantage just like we did with our second slide. Forget about the features of your product and service altogether! C levels do not want to hear about the features of what you have to offer. As a general but reliable rule, they care only about the results and the minimization of risks. So forget how you product works along with all the parts and pieces that it's made up of. (The only exception here, as I've already suggested, occurs when you're working with a prospect who has an extremely serious technical background and has lots of time. If both are present, then go for it.)

The Presentation: Wrapping It Up

When in doubt, ask, "What do you think we should do next?" At this point, you may well get the response most salespeople would dream of hearing from a target company: "Why don't you tell us what you think should happen next?"

I like to end my presentation with an invitation for his or her team (which includes me) to move forward together--which means a through evaluation of my ideas. Always place a value (a dollar figure answer to the question "How much will this all cost?") on this process, and include a time line with a completion date that your prospect will buy into.

Never ask a C-level prospect, "Do you want me to keep you posted on our progress?" (If you do, you'll get this answer: "No, just work with my team.") Instead, send the C level quick notes of your progress on your own initiative: "Met with the engineering feasibility team. Our study and schedule still on track." (E-mail or short e-presentations are ideal for this kind of update.)

Make sure that whomever you're working with knows the C level's desired schedule of completion. If for some reason, for example, the product manager can't seem to find the time to meet with you and your third request for information and a meeting is met with no response, you can drop a note that might say: "Your desired implementation date may be at risk. Waiting for product manager's response."

Do This Now:

Type, print out, post and memorize the following Commandments for Delivering Presentations to a C-level prospect:

1. I will memorize the names of each of the individuals who will be attending my presentation and use the name when I address the individual.

2. I will always tailor each aspect of my presentation to my audience.

3. I will always address the needs of my audience from the top down. C levels first; all others in descending order of title.

4. I will only use words and phrases that the C level I'm addressing understands.

5. I will always prepare a "Discover Agreement" and use it.

6. I will always rehearse my presentation before I actually give it to my prospect/customer.

7. I will only conduct a presentation if it will move my sale forward.

8. I will always choose the appropriate method of delivery (three-ring binder to electronic presentation) regardless of my personal preference.

9. I will always prompt my audience to make comments and ask questions during my presentation.

10. I will always finish my presentations on or ahead of time. If "overtime" is necessary, it will only take place with the approval of the highest-ranking person in my audience.

Anthony Parinello is the author of the bestselling book Selling to VITO, the Very Important Top Officer. For additional information on his speeches, Sales Success Kits and newest book, CEOs who Sell, call (800) 777-VITO or visit www.sellingtovito.com.

Written By

Tony Parinello has become the nation's foremost expert on executive-level selling. He's also the author of the bestselling book bearing the name of his sales training program,Getting to VITO, the Very Important Top Officer, 10 Steps to VITO's Office,as well as the host of Club VITO, a weekly live internet broadcast.