For stand-up comics, the ultimate challenge is the heckler. In sales, we have hecklers too; and they can make a mess of your presentation if you’re not careful.
I remember a workshop for which I was retained to present in Orlando early in my career as a sales & marketing consultant – a three-hour education session with over 300 attendees, each of which having paid a handsome sum to be in my audience.
Although I, at the time, had a strong background in the material, the night before, as I prepared in my hotel room, I encountered a personal crisis in confidence. Suddenly, the material that I had prepared, and which had already been distributed to the audience in a booklet, seemed meager. I asked my presentation partner whether we had enough meat to send the audience home happy – which created a similar crisis in confidence for him.
The rest of the evening, instead of enjoying Florida, the two of us pored through our presentation deck, examining each slide to determine whether we were presenting enough meat; and in the end decided that we were. But just in case, we tweaked our slides – and added a few vibrant examples to demonstrate the concepts during the presentation.
The next day, we came out strong with our new vibrant examples, some of which were quite animated, and frankly gave us a bit of a circus feel that we didn’t normally have in our presentations. We thought all was going well. An hour and half later, as we prepare the audience for a break, one of our attendees raised her hand, and when we acknowledged her, she stood up and spoke: “I’m a PhD in marketing, and I haven’t seen anything of value so far. When will you get to the meat?”
“Get to the meat?” She used our words – and she voiced an opinion which played directly on our fears that there might not be enough substance in our seminar. Perhaps we even put in too much showmanship, distracting from the content.
I felt the blood rush from my face as I quickly ran through potential responses in my head. Finally, after a few seconds pause, I responded with, “I appreciate your comment, and will be presenting some more advanced material after the break that will build on the concepts we have presented so far.”
We took the scheduled 15 minute recess and I headed straight to the event organizer’s office, and told her about what happened – because I’d much rather give her the bad news myself instead of her hearing a complaint directly from an attendee. This was bad news. I thought I totally blew the presentation. It was my first time presenting for this organization, and I thought my host was going to be facing a bunch of refund requests.
While I was suffering from concern, she looked at me without hesitation, and said, “Tell me what your attendee said about herself again.” I re-explained her credentials and her comments. She then looked at the original promotional material and responded to me with a smile, and told me that it wasn’t my fault; it was the fault of the woman who was complaining.
My host explained that the attendee must not have selected her session properly. There’s nothing in our promotional material that would lead anybody to believe that a PhD in marketing would be our target audience. She was an outlier.
That calmed me down a bit; but I still had to face my audience for the second half of my session – as well as this heckler with PhD credentials. So, I went back to the room, with a bit more confidence that at least I wasn’t getting booted out of this conference. But I was still quaking in my boots about how many other attendees were going to pile on. Could there be others in the audience like her?
Immediately upon arrival into our presentation room, I was greeted by a man, perhaps ten years older than me, who put his arms around my shoulder and said, “I know what that lady said to you before the break. I disagree; and am very happy by what I’ve learned so far this morning.” Another man standing near us shook his head affirmatively and said, “Look; I work at [and he named his Fortune 500 company] as head of marketing, and I can’t wait to head back to the office to share what you taught us this morning so far; and I also can’t wait to hear the rest of your presentation.”
Feeling much better that I had hit the mark, I walked over to the PhD, and relayed the message that my host had given me for her: “I’m sorry that you were not happy with the first half of the session; so I went to the conference coordinator, who told me that if you were unhappy with what you’ve seen, we understand. Your level of expertise as a PhD in marketing is deeper than we had anticipated for attendees of this session. If you don’t want to stay for the second half, she’d be happy to give you a full refund for the session; no questions asked.”
To my surprise, the attendee stood for a second in thought; then said, “No. Now that you put it that way, you delivered good information. I’d be happy to stay for the rest.”
So the room stayed full. The second half of the seminar was interactive – including questions from our resident PhD, and at the end, a number of people asked to exchange business cards with me and my co-presenter so they could follow up with us. A few even became my consulting clients.
Receiving the ratings of the conference presentations was the best surprise of all. Despite having a heckler, my presentation was among the highest rated sessions in the entire five-day conference – and the beginning of a long business relationship with the organizer of the conference.
In sales, you may have people of different levels and with different objectives in a single room; and when that happens, you’re likely to hear some objections that you don’t want to hear. That doesn’t mean you’re not getting the job done. So keep your chin up, keep your focus, and keep selling.