CIS4398: Independent Study
Summer 2002
Emerging Issues in Information Technology

Make Every Presentation A Theatrical Performance

by William Freeman

Next time you are about to make a presentation, take a deep breath and imagine yourself walking on stage - about to give the performance of your life. Every business presentation is a form of theatrical performance. A theatre play succeeds or fails depending on how well it engages with the audience and how well the actors perform on the night. Audience members will like a show if the story appeals to them and if the actors perform it effectively. It's exactly the same with a business presentation.

There are things about how a theatrical company plans to succeed that we can apply to the business world; the structure of the story and how it is produced are both very important. These factors can determine success or failure, before any actor has spoken a word. Equally the actors must be sufficiently rehearsed so that they can do justice to the story and its production. If you want a good format for your next sales presentation, think of the 'Inspector Colombo' series. Most people will know of this TV detective developed by the actor Peter Falk, who portrays him brilliantly. The Colombo stories are built around a similar structure and plot formula. At the beginning, we see a crime being committed (usually a murder) and the thing that makes compulsive viewing is then watching and waiting to see how Colombo manages to nail the criminal.

This is an excellent format for a sales presentation. The outcome can be revealed at the beginning, leaving no mystery about what you want to happen; with this approach, you make your 'proposition' up-front. The rest of your sales presentation puts across the arguments and details needed to justify your proposition. Business people don't attend sales presentations just to be entertained and intrigued, they want to get some value from their investment of time. Next time you give a sales presentation work out the costs in terms of salary and overheads and you'll probably find you are putting on the most expensive show in town. So you must give attendees the value they deserve. They will be interested in your 'story' (otherwise why would they give up time to listen to it?) and they will want you to help them reach a conclusion. Your aim is to make their conclusions match your recommendations.

Here's a simple four-point 'Colombo' style structure for a sales presentation. This format could apply to any presentation with the objective of persuading the audience to take a course of action.

1. The problem or situation requiring a solution

2. The nature of your solution (proposition)

3. The justification for your proposition

4. The recommended next steps

Once the story has taken shape, you must practise your 'performance' (note the 's' spelling, in this instance the word 'practise' is a verb not a noun). Actors rehearse their lines, moves and gestures to bring their story to life. And that rehearsal (or 'practise') is very important. Most people would agree that the Royal Shakespeare Company gives a more memorable performance of 'Hamlet' than the local amateur dramatic society, despite the fact that both groups are using the same story and the same words (most of the time). That's partly due to the ability, the training and the experience of the performers, but it's also due to the time they take to practise (there's that 's' word again), or 'rehearse' if we use correct theatrical parlance.

Every performance starts its life in a rehearsal room but some final rehearsals are done on the stage where the play is to be performed. You might not get that luxury with your presentation but you must be comfortable with the performance environment and the media that you intend to use. Whenever you can, insist on seeing the location beforehand. A theatrical company takes about two weeks (full time) to rehearse a three hour play. And that doesn't include time spent creating the text, the author has done that. Those figures give a ratio of about thirty to one for rehearsal time versus performance time. Admittedly a lot of theatrical complexity comes from the number of actors involved (and probably some of their moods and tantrums) and the fact that they have to learn a script word-for-word. But play these numbers how you like, the point is still valid. Once you have built your compelling story there is no substitute for practise, practise and even more practise.

Regard every presentation as a performance you are making to a critical audience who has paid for its seats and you'll start to reap some rewards. You won't win any Hollywood Oscars but you will win more business. Break a leg!

William Freeman offers sales and marketing consultancy to large and small businesses. You can contact him on 020 8941 9156, or by email at