Pay the Price of Admission, the Power of Customer Focus in Presentations.



by Spencer Humm, NLPt PHDc 

“What’s the number one change teams can make to their oral presentation that will help them win?” This is a question I’ve been asked repeatedly over my 25 years as an orals coach. After coaching more than 200 teams during that time, I’m very clear on the answer. “Pay the price of admission.” You wouldn’t try to tell a movie theater usher, “I’ll pay after I see the movie.” and we’re not allowed to wait to pay for our plane ticket until after we’ve arrived at our destination. The world just doesn’t work like that.  I like to think of customer-focus as the price we must pay first to influence a customer.  

French Pirates 

Many presentations suffer from what I call “French Pirate Syndrome.” After the cover slide, they jump right into messaging such as: 

  • We have a team… 
  • Our corporate experience… 
  • We have niche expertise… 
  • Our unique technical approach… 

“We, we, our, our…” or to translate into French Pirate, “Oui, oui, arrr, arrr…” 

Some presentations come right out of the gate so strongly with this messaging that it gets praised by peer reviewers as “confident” and “being direct.” That’s not surprising because, after all, you are talking about the reviewers’ favorite topic, your company. The truth is that your company is not your customer’s favorite topic. They cherish their own organization, its mission, challenges, and goals as highly as you do your own. What seems relevant and persuasive will always be different for each community and one of our major goals at an oral presentation is to be persuasive. 

Being Persuasive  

Let me ask you a question… When you want to edit a Microsoft Word document what’s the first step you take? Of course, you open the document! You can’t edit anything until it’s open. This puts the content into the computer’s RAM memory and places it under the familiar toolbar with all the options to change the content. You wouldn’t try to edit the document until you opened the file. Imagine a feckless writer seated at their laptop, banging at the keyboard, cranking out all their great ideas without having opened the file. That would be absurd. I want my teams to understand that in that same sense, our customer is not ready to be influenced until you have them thinking about the topic on which you want to influence them. You want them picturing their challenges, feeling a little bit of the frustration around those obstacles, and picturing the success they want to achieve. You want them dreaming a crystal-clear picture of the results they are striving for and even seeing themselves in that picture. This does two things. It “paces” their motivations and understanding and it creates “Rapport.” 

Pacing and Leading 

Your customer’s brain is very much like that laptop that edits the Word document. When you talk about the things that are important to your customer, they reach into their neurology for all the memories and imagined futures that they have associated with their future program. They activate the neural networks around those ideas in their brain. Their brain literally lights up with charges as electricity jumps across their synapses. All those networked connections were there before you started talking to them, but they were dark. Like right now, I’ll bet you’re not thinking about your high school graduation. But if I just mention that you were probably wearing a cap and gown, and that you can recall who was there and maybe who the speaker was, you begin to picture these things. Now those neural connections are lighting up. In cognitive psychology we call that “associating them into the memory.” We also call this “pacing.” Think of “pacing” like the pace car on a racetrack. It pulls out onto the track and drives at the same speed, and in the same direction as all the race cars. Once it’s out there, all the other cars will match its speed as it goes faster and slower. We call that “leading.”  

Now that you’re thinking about your graduation, I can invite you to imagine that you were all dressed as superheroes. You take those same images right out of your memories and alter them, adding cool capes, boots, and masks. You can now picture something that wasn’t there before. I’ve helped you think of something familiar in a completely new way. Pacing and leading is the essence of persuasion. The key is that you have to “pace” before you “lead.”  


The other thing that happens when we accurately describe someone else’s model of the world around a topic is that we gain “rapport.” The law of rapport is “People like people whom they are like.” When someone describes a topic in a way that matches our understanding of that subject, we feel that we are like that person. We trust that person and maybe even begin to like them. We are more easily persuaded by them once rapport takes hold. To achieve deep rapport, we must give an accurate description of what the topic is, including what’s important to our customer about the topic, the positive and negative impacts around it (the proverbial carrots and sticks), things from the past that we know are objectively true and even the way our customer thinks about the future (as accurately as we can articulate that future.) In this way, we build likeability and credibility. 

Additionally, if we even demonstrate a little bit of deeper insight around the topic that our customer may not have previously considered, we’re even building some “authority.” All this paves the way to influence the customer. You can imagine that when I described your graduation, I knew details of the names and personalities of your friends in attendance. That would prove, even before I begin to persuade you to consider a super-hero dress code for future graduations, that I’m someone you should listen to and believe. 

How to Mess This Up – Task Switching 

The most common mistake I see teams make is not taking the full moment to “pace” the customer’s point of view before throwing in a suggestion that they should hire us. This interrupts the process of rapport because it requires the audience to use a whole different part of their brain. They must be skeptical and diligent. They must use the critical part of their brain and say, “Wait just a second. I’ll make my own decision on whether I’ll hire you.” This is called “task switching” and it’s the kryptonite of strategic influence. We want to spend the time, get ourselves out of the picture, for just a few moments, perhaps on just one slide out of the whole deck, to pay the price of admission and first earn the right to persuade them. 

You can imagine you are drawing back the string on a bow. If you pull the bowstring back an inch and let the arrow go, it will fly a whole two feet and drop ineffectively to the ground. But, if you take the time to pull the string back a fully, all the way to your cheek and only then loose the arrow, it will fly many yards to its target. 

The Big Idea – Customer Focus Comes First 

You want to take the time, up front, before anything else, to talk about your customer’s needs. Discuss their challenges and goals, uninterrupted by any mention of your solution, establish that rapport, credibility, and authority before moving on to discuss your value. This is the “price of admission” and it must always be paid first. 


Spencer Humm is an orals coach with Shipley Associates, keynote speaker and internationally bestselling author on business communication.