Humility is probably the business world's least appreciated emotion. Over the years, thousands of pundits and gurus have insisted that the key to success (especially in sales) is to be assertive, aggressive, and enthusiastic.

Nevertheless, it's more difficult to make a sale, or convince somebody else that you understand their position, without a huge dollop of personal humility. To illustrate this point, I'll use the example of a sales presentation.

As I've communicated numerous times in this blog, the best sales presentations tend to have the following structure.

1. The Opener

Rather than talk about yourself and your company (or tell a lame joke), begin your presentation with an eye-opening fact or insight that captures the audience's attention. I wrote about this in "15 Seconds to a Better Presentation."

2. The Summary

Provide a research-based summary of the customer's business, strategy, challenges, and opportunities. Couch this summary in the language that's used inside the customer's firm. Don't forget to feature the customer's logo.

3. The Context

Provide a brief (as in very brief) summary of your company and its offerings. This should never be a spray-and-pray feature dump. Instead, highlight the one or two elements in your offerings that will be relevant in Step 4.

4. The Business Case

Explain how your two firms can work together to solve the customer's problems or achieve the customer's goals. Emphasize both the financial gain that would result from a purchase and the financial loss if a purchase is not made.

Suppose you approach the entire presentation with total confidence and conviction. When you get to the second segment (The Summary), chances are you'll come off like a know-it-all who's telling the customer how to run his or her own business.

If the customer nit-picks at errors, you'll end up looking foolish. And what if your summary contains significant errors that undercut the business case you're about to present? Then you're really screwed.

What you need to avoid this is humility, according to Mark Shonka and Dan Kosch, co-authors of the excellent book Beyond Selling Value.

They recommend that when you summarize the customer's situation, use "wiggle words" like "perhaps" and "approximately" so that it's clear you did research, but that you're aware the customer knows far more about the company than you could ever know.

Then, after you're done presenting the summary, you check in with the customer to confirm whether you've successfully approximated the situation from the customer's viewpoint. (E.g. "Have I summarized the situation correctly?")

If you presented the summary with humility, the customer is usually pleased that you've taken the time to research and understand the real issues. And because you used "wriggle words," any corrections that come from the customer need merely be noted.

Chances are that the new information won't require a change in the rest of the presentation. If, however, it turns out you've got something seriously wrong, you've surfaced the problem before you present the wrong business case.

In this case, the humility you've expressed provides you with an easy way to "save face" and move the presentation to a more interactive discussion of the real issues. By contrast, if you'd gone all gangbusters, you'd just look like fool trying to change gears.

If (as is usually the case) you proceed to the rest of the presentation, you can (and should) express aggressive confidence in your company and business case. Your confidence will "ring true" because you've shown appropriate humility at the right time.

In short, showing your humility makes you more credible and more believable, and therefore more likely to make the sale!

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