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The most common mistake that sales professionals make

Have you ever wondered why your PowerPoint presentations or product demos fail to hold the attention of your prospects, and why they quickly tune out? Do you ever feel like your marketing collateral is going straight into the trash bin? If you've ever given a presentation and received no questions during or after it, have you considered why this might be happening?

As usual with human interactions the reasons could be multiple and complex but there is one important culprit that you should evaluate before jumping to buy more sales enablement tools or pay for sales courses.

I’ve already mentioned in other articles the importance of learning fundamentals concepts for sales, marketing and product related activities (When we do marketing the audience does learning). I explained that the exposure of a potential customer to marketing messages and sales pitches, initiates a learning process in their brain because the learning process is nature’s hard-wired mechanism that helps humans (and not only) to make behavioral choices. This is why sales and marketing efforts that consider the audience learning process have a greater chance of success.

In this article I will shortly address another concept essential to the learning process that is constantly ignored by sales and marketing, especially when delivering sales presentations and demos.

Cognitive load

Simply put, cognitive load theory states that when acquiring new knowledge, novel information is processed in the working memory, which has a limited capacity, and a new cognitive schema is constructed in the long-term memory. If the short-term memory is flooded with new information, then the construction of a new cognitive schema is made more difficult or impossible, and as a result the brain will focus the attention on something else that it can handle. The popular belief is that if people do not understand something they will ask questions or search for information. It is not true. Most of the time they just move to something simpler. They will tune out, waiting for the presentation to finish and move on with their lives.

Cognitive load negatively influences the audience engagement (emotional, cognitive, and behavioral).

From my experience, listening to and evaluating more than 2000 presentations and demos, I can say that 95% of them abused the audience’s cognitive load. They deliver way too much information per time unit. It is probably the most common mistake made by sales reps and the one with the biggest negative impact.

And it is not the sales rep’s fault.

Over time, a misconception has emerged that providing salespeople with a comprehensive slide deck containing all of the information deemed important by product marketing, along with training on how to present it, will increase their productivity and require less training. However, this notion is unfounded. In fact, this approach results in sales representatives who are ill-equipped to engage in meaningful discussions with potential customers. If you think that is not the case in your organization, here is a little experiment I tried many times that anybody responsible for sales training can replicate.

Sales representatives are asked to prepare a slide deck for a 30-minute customer presentation (or a product demo for sales engineers) and given all pertinent customer information. Then, during a role-play scenario, the sales reps are informed that they only have 10 minutes to present. The result is always the same. Despite this time constraint, most sales reps attempt to present all prepared slides, resulting in a hurried and ineffective presentation.

Solving the cognitive load problem is not an easy task and requires expertise.

But here is a rule of thumb that if you follow, you’ll do much better.

In any customer conversation and in any marketing collateral always have a maximum of 3 points/idea/concepts. If you have 37 product features that are relevant, then create a hierarchy with a maximum of 3 categories on each level.

The easiest way to manage the cognitive load of your audience is to follow this rule.

As usual in my articles, the concepts presented have been simplified. For a more in-depth understanding refer to literature on learning theories, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. A very interesting read that presents also the biases and the judgment errors we make because of the way our brain manages the cognitive load is Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow. For an analysis of your sales presentations and marketing collaterals from a learning perspective and for training programs that prepare the sales reps to simplify and adapt, you can contact us.

Written by: Radu Mesa

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