"Can you come by and tell us more about your company?" Words you've wanted and dreaded to hear: an invitation to make a presentation to an important potential client, customer, or funder. While you're grateful for the opportunity, let's be honest, you're terrified you're going to blow it.

Important presentations are intimidating. Whether it's an informal lunch appointment or a stand-up-in-front-of-a-room-full-of-blue-suited-businesspeople meeting, you know you've got a lot riding on what you say and how you say it.

I vividly remember the most important meeting of my first year in business. I had sent out a mailing to a list of potential clients. A really big prospect had responded, inviting me to lunch. I arrived early, something I rarely do, and sat in my car, reviewing my notes that I had written on three by five cards. I checked my hair and make-up. Then I looked at my watch. Then I looked at my cards, my hair, make-up, cards, watch, hair, etc. etc.

I'm happy to say I got the contract. In fact, that client supported my business my entire first year in business. Since then, I've made hundreds of presentations, and I've learned a few critical skills:

  • Create rapport. Usually the most important thing your prospect is sizing up is YOU. While you're busily focused on the substance of your presentation, they're figuring out whether you're the kind of person they can work with and trust. So relax a little and create a personal connection.
  • Get to your important points right away. Even if you don't prepare a formal presentation, don't let the discussion wander. Be very clear about your key points and get to them. You don't want to leave the meeting kicking yourself for having forgotten to mention the one thing you know could get you the job.
  • Be prepared. You not only have to be prepared about what you're going to say, you need to research your audience. Knowledge is power!
  • Prepare a PowerPoint presentation. Especially for formal presentations, I recommend preparing a PowerPoint computer slide presentation. A PowerPoint presentation keeps you in control, enabling you to make certain you hit on all your key points. Preparing a PowerPoint presentation is a good discipline for figuring out what you want to say even if you don't end up using the show itself.
  • Practice. Not only should you practice your presentation a number of times before you ever do one "live," but you should schedule your least likely prospects first. Use those presentations as "practice" to learn to sharpen your message and skills.
  • Don't assume they've read anything. No matter what you've sent to people ahead of time, they probably won't have read it or had it sink in. I've sent potential clients copies of my books, and some have still been surprised when I mention I'm an author!
  • Have answers prepared. Before you go, anticipate as many possible questions and have clear concise answers ready. That way, you won't be flustered. "I'm glad you asked that," you can reply, and then launch into your prepared response.
  • Know what questions you won't answer. Some things shouldn't be discussed in a first meeting or in a large group, and you should have an answer ready to deflect those questions. For instance, it may not yet be appropriate to discuss fees or terms. Have an appropriate response prepared: "It's a bit premature to discuss fees, since I don't have a complete grasp of the project yet."
  • Set a follow-up. Don't leave a meeting without a clear statement of what will happen next. It's okay to say, "So, what's the next step?" Don't expect them to suggest the next step; they may be looking to you for leadership. You may need to decide on a deadline ahead of time to give the process a sense of closure.

I won't lie to you, it's going to be nerve wracking any time you're trying to make a sale or raise some money. But with a bit of preparation, you can be a little less flustered and a whole lot better prepared for that unexpected question about your competitor. Good luck!

Rhonda Abrams writes a widely-read column on entrepreneurship and small business. Abrams is also the author of the well-regarded business plan guide The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies. She has started and built three companies, including her publishing company, Running 'R' Media, and her newest enterprise, RhondaWorks, which plans to offer a comprehensive online business planning center. Visit Abrams at www.RhondaOnline.com.

Copyright © Rhonda Abrams, 2001