Steve Jobs once commented, "People who know what they're talking about don't need PowerPoint." Whether that's a slight exaggeration or a big one, it is true that most of our sales pitches and presentations rely heavily on visual aids and collateral. These can be a crutch for those of us who might not know our content inside and out (there's only so much data most of us can memorize). But these can also get in the way of us focusing on the most important part of our pitch: the people we're speaking to.

Whether you're mired in materials, distracted by your deck, or just on a roll without remembering your audience, you the risk of losing your listeners' interest, attention and connection. Once you lose that, you've lost your opportunity to build the relationship, have a positive influence, and ultimately, make a successful sale.

Chances are, you're used to seeing people tapping away on their phones during a pitch (including, in some cases, the presenter himself!) This has become so ubiquitous that we've come to ignore it as a signal that our listeners may be multitasking at best, and totally checked out at worst. And it's not the only sign that we're losing our audience. Some others include:

  • Backing away from the table
  • Fidgeting/tapping fingers
  • No eye contact with you
  • Nodding robotically
  • Blank or confused facial expression
  • Getting up and walking around
  • "Move it along" hand gestures
  • Crossed arms

While we can't know for sure what these behaviors mean (crossed arms could mean that your listener is freezing under the air conditioning vent), we can decide that these signs and signals offer us an opportunity to stop talking, pause, check in with our listeners, and redirect the conversation.

Here's what not to do: blame the listener. Even if the person is clearly answering emails while you're sharing statistics about how your service crushes the competition, saying something like, "You don't seem to be paying attention," is likely to embarrass her, and put her on the defensive.  Embarrassed and defensive prospects are not positively inclined to  buy from us.

So what should you do instead? Here are three strategies:

1. Stop talking, and do a process check.

In my experience, taking a significant pause can sometimes be enough to capture your listener's attention. It's a change from the ongoing sound of your voice -- and if you haven't been pausing a lot, it can capture the ear, and get your audience to look up at you. Adding a check in can help redirect the conversation.

You can say something like, "I'm going to pause here for a moment. How is this going so far from your perspective?" or "Let me stop here before moving forward. How are we doing on timing?" Any question that takes the temperature of the audience should yield you some helpful feedback that will allow you to adjust your approach.

2. Take the heat.

You don't want to blame your listener for not paying attention, but you can blow the whistle on yourself (softly). Say something like, "One thing I know about myself is that I can get so excited about our offering that I can talk about it non stop" or "I just remember my manners -- I've been talking for 20 minutes without giving you a turn." You don't have to beat yourself up, but you can call attention to your contribution to the dynamic, and offer to remedy it.

3. Ask for direct and immediate feedback.

While few of us want to know that we're off track, most of us would rather know that when we still had the opportunity to get back on track. If you notice your listeners may be checking out, check in: "I have a lot I'd like to address, but I want to make sure I'm covering what feels most critical to you and your business. What would you like to hear more about?/What isn't relevant for you?" or "I've covered a lot so far, and I went quickly through parts of it. What feels unclear?" or "What would you like me to skip ahead to? I'm happy to focus on the areas that are most important to you."

Your presentation isn't the most important part of your pitch -- the people you're presenting to are. As cosmetics founder Mary Kay Ash once remarked, "Pretend that every single person you meet has a sign around his or her neck that says, 'Make me feel important.' Not only will you succeed in sales, you will succeed in life."