Send in the Clowns: How Not to Win Business and Persuade Clients

Let the Heads of Ford, GM and Chrysler Be Your Negative Example

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Tom Martin Tom Martin
As I showered this morning I couldn't get the classic Barbra Streisand song "Send in the Clowns" out of my head. Don't ask. The funny thing was the next image that popped into my head was the heads of Ford, GM and Chrysler sitting in front of Congress being asked about flying private planes to Washington so they could sit there, hat in hand, asking for money from U.S. taxpayers. Talk about a terrible presentation strategy. But what a great case study for what not to do when trying to persuade others.

First, know the room. Understand your audience and what their hot buttons will be. Also, understand what is going on in their world. We'd all like to think that new-business prospects and our current clients approach decisions about our work with Spock-like logic, but the truth is they don't. Each consumes our recommendations, ideas and suggestions through his own personal filter. Failure to understand that filter's implications usually results in a failed presentation. Had the heads of GM, Ford and Chrysler considered filters, they would have understood that each of these lawmakers had to consider the current economic and political climate and consumer reaction to the banking bailout plan as well as media coverage of the proceedings to determine how to respond.

Second, persuasion is 95% theater and 5% content. I think the percentage actually goes up if you're talking about politics. Regardless, how you say it is unfortunately far more important that what you say. Sad but simple fact of life.

For example, if you're presenting to a new-business prospect say in the fast-food category, don't bring in soda from a competitor when the prospect asks for a drink. And if you're pitching an airline, don't fly there on the competition. Don't laugh -- real stories. If the client/prospect wears jeans and t-shirts to work, don't show up in a suit with French cuffs. Script your presentation, even if it is for a client of 20 years. Make sure that every verbal and non-verbal cue you send reinforces what you are trying to sell. Don't let a stupid non-verbal cue sink a great idea.

Third, think about the "asshole questions" before you walk into the room. This is an important lesson a former boss of mine taught me. Before every pitch and major client presentation, we'd sit around and try to think up the question someone would ask if he hated our guts and wanted to ensure nobody bought what we were selling. Had our friends in Detroit spent even a minute on this they might have at least had an answer for the private-jet thing. Again, as noted above, 95% of persuasion is theater. If a client/prospect asks you a question and you look like a deer in headlights, they assume you've not thought through the issue thoroughly. That tends to call your entire presentation into question because they wonder what else you've not thought through.

Fourth and lastly, don't try to bullshit people. If you're pitching a new idea to a client or pitching a new piece of business and they ask you a direct question -- one in which the answer really isn't in your favor -- don't get all Clinton on them and talk around the question or spin it. Just answer the darn thing. I once had a client, upon being asked post -pitch, "Why did you vote for us?" explain, "Because you were the only agency that provided direct answers to direct questions. It was quite refreshing."

I feel bad for Wagoner and Mulally (CEOs of GM and Ford). If they were better at planning their persuasion tactics, maybe they wouldn't be asked to take multi-million dollar pay cuts just to keep their jobs. Hopefully by practicing what I preach, none of you will find yourself in the same boat. Best of luck to all of you as you pitch business and ideas this holiday season.

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Tom Martin is president of Zehnder Communications, with offices in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. He can be reached at
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