Don’t Forget “For Instance”

Recently I was asked to help two executives get ready to sell their company, so we needed to perfect the sales pitch.

Within a week they would be putting their company on the chopping block.  It was time to get busy.

After a long drive and a wakeful night in a hotel,  I arrived at their offices at 7:00 am.

To start, I interviewed them on camera for two reasons: to get them acclimated to speaking under pressure, and to diagnose any distracting speech and/or body mannerisms that might undermine the credibility of the sales pitch.

There were a few standard issues–talking too fast, lack of expression, poor posture, lack of eye contact.

But both men were personable, warm, and genuine. They were very proud of the business that they had built, and rightly so. It had grown to be the largest player in the industry.

They had already developed a presentation, and I wasn’t going to start picking that apart.  It was a standard deck that potential buyers would be accustomed to.

So, after addressing some of the non-verbal issues, I asked them to deliver the presentation.  Again, to put them under performance-like pressure, I asked them to stay in character no matter what happened, and then, once again, I turned the camera on.

The CEO started the sales pitch with a personal introduction, and his second-in-command did the same. 

The CEO then opened the pitch book and began to articulate what was on the first page. I did not have a pitch book in front of me for two reasons. (1.) They had not printed one out for me.  And (2.) I didn’t want one.  

I was more interested in the overall impression they created, and how capable they were of creating a vivid, memorable portrait of their history, accomplishments and future goals.

The CEO covered a couple of pages and then his colleague did a couple.  They went back and forth twice–it was only an 8 page document–so it was over in about 20 minutes.

I congratulated them on their detailed description of their infrastructure and some of the language they used–proud, excited–words that emotionalized the slides. I particularly liked one section where they pointed out that they had “out-Amazoned Amazon” in terms of the speed at which they deliver goods to their customers.

But I had to confess that I was concerned.  They had developed a presentation that was packed with information, but it was a presentation that made no claims.

The opening consisted of an admittedly impressive blizzard of numbers and data–revenue goals exceeded, CAGR of 9%, EBITDA outstanding, and numerous acquisitions that were accomplished seamlessly.  

I suggested that before they got into the details, they establish the key messages or claims they wanted to make about the company, and then go about proving those claims with the information that was packed into the deck.

The presentation also lacked vivid descriptions of the business. The bullet points were mostly high-level financial terms and other quantitative values.  I pressed them to come up with for instances to humanize the company and make it memorable.

Business value is determined in cold currency, but taking the risk to buy a company requires a leap of faith that is not entirely rational. You kind of have to fall in love with the company if you’re going to buy it.

For instance, they had antique miniature Volkswagen buses in glass cases in the lobby.  When I asked about them, they said that clients gave them the buses because of their reliable service. In fact, they had won prizes every year for their reliability, yet they had failed to mention this during our rehearsal.

The mini VW buses are a small thing to them–they see them every morning and take them for granted.  But the gift of the buses was no small thing to their clients.  The buses had not only financial value, but they represented emotional value as well.

In most sales pitches, we make claims and then try to prove those claims with evidence.  My clients had forgotten to make any claims…they had simply jumped into the evidence.  

But high-level messages at the opening of a sales pitch is a good way to start–and end–a presentation. So I asked them to come up with the three most important things a buyer should know about the company.  

They said:

  1. We have an unmatched foundational infrastructure.
  2. We have a tremendous  opportunity for M&A activity.
  3. Our management team is effective, energized and ready for the next big thing.

Great.  They had their claims.  Now what about the proofs, the evidence?  

In the sale of a business, proofs are generally facts, numbers, and statistics, designed to please the quantitative mind.  CAGR, EBITDA, revenue minus expenses.  They had the quantitative stuff down cold.  

But what about the power of emotional appeal? It’s often said that we make decisions with our emotions, and justify those decisions with reason.

Emotion counts, and so I expressed another concern–there were no colorful, human, vivid examples of everyday life in the business.  It was all on the high-level, abstract, financial engineering level.

They were missing their own personal stories, and the stories of their employees–the funny, weird and heroic stories that happen in a business.   

They needed examples, humble for instances, that could trigger emotion, that could paint a vivid picture in the mind of a potential buyer, a picture that could make the difference between yes and no.

Facts and figures are necessary, but not sufficient. We need both reason and emotion to sell ourselves and our companies.  

At this moment, I don’t know whether they’ve succeeded at selling their company or not.  But they will have a better chance of selling it if they do their homework, and insert into their presentation some startling, surprising, story-like for instances.

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