SE Presentation Skills

Fortunately for us today there are a myriad of resources for us as Sales Engineers to improve our presentations and presentation/public speaking ability. Rather than go into a lot of specific tips, I think it is far more valuable to cover a roadmap of resources that I and other SEs I know have used to improve over time.

Learning to Speak Publically
I am fairly soft spoken by nature. I generally prefer to listen and reflect internally versus verbalizing my thoughts. It took me many years of practice before I considered myself well versed. Early in my career I’m pretty sure I wasn’t considered a bad speaker, but I did have to rely heavily on preparation and mastery of content. After studying presentation methodology more throughout the years I learned that it is far more important to master the style and non-verbal aspects of speaking—something I sorely needed to address (and still continually work on today).

I know several people that swear by Toastmasters. In fact, if you’ve had experience with them, drop me an email and I’ll post the responses. My personal route has been through professional presentation skills training. Mandel Communications has a course specifically tailored for sales and sales engineers. I have also attended various courses hosted by communications consultants. The experience of being video taped and judged by your peers is a very difficult one, but in the long run these are by far the most valuable. Trust me, it’s way better to fail (ok, learn =) in front of your peers than your customers. When you have detailed notes from your peers and manager and can study yourself repeatedly, that’s when the real insight happens.

Mastering Speaking Aides
In today’s environment, for us that means PowerPoint and whiteboard. When I first started delivering PowerPoint presentations I did what a lot of people do because I didn’t know any better. I would take the stock 65 slide deck provided by marketing and then go torture my subjects for an hour by going through the endless arrangements of text coupled with cute bits of clip art. If you were one of these people, first, let me apologize.

As I gained experience and comfort with tailoring messages to my customers, my slides got inherently better. I would spend hours crafting what I thought were superior decks. I now know I was still making a great deal of mistakes. I continued down that path until I realized that I was the focus of the talk, not my slides. I consider that one of the major turning points in how I chose to communicate with my customers.

I arrived at a point where I no longer wanted to use PowerPoint. I felt like that was the quickest way to get people disinterested. I don’t blame people either just given how I used to use them. My preference was the whiteboard—to make it interactive.

Today, I no longer deliver many customer presentations—mine are made mainly to internal audiences. I have come full circle and use PowerPoint if I need to, though in far different ways. There are a few resources I can point you to that I try to model. SE or not, if you’re in the position of making presentations in your job, you owe it to yourself to check these out. In somewhat specific order:

Presentation Skills Training
Check out the Mandel training or use Google as your guide to find a local expert. This is expensive but in my mind well worth the price. You can move forward with this while working on your slideware education. ToastMasters may also work well for you and it’s free.

Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson
This book is an excellent resource for learning how to properly convey information so that an audience can remember the contents. It focuses heavily on incorporating stories into your presentations and also has a script and PowerPoint template that can start using immediately.

Presentation Zen
Once you’ve mastered presentation strategy I recommend you read the Presentation Zen book and blog. The author, Garr Reynolds, does an excellent job of breaking down slide construction and teaches you how to maximize effectiveness at the slide level. Combining his slide style within Cliff’s framework provides a very effective foundation from which to build your presentations.

For mastery, it’s a matter of practice and exposing yourself to other presentation styles. TED and YouTube are excellent sources of presentations (though with YouTube you need to already know what you’re looking for). The great thing about reviewing these presentations is that you can learn about other topics while reviewing presentation styles. Though you can really begin this step at any time, you get the most out of it after you’ve been through the other resources. You’ll no doubt recognize good presentations when you see them, though it will be much harder at an early stage to discern why they are good. When you’re ready, I highly recommend Steve Jobs for his excellent use of slideware, Seth Godin for his anecdotal storytelling style, Randy Pausch for emotional connection with the audience and unexpected twists, and Larry Lessig for level of preparation and timing

For the tactically minded, impatient, or ADD afflicted among us, here is Darrin’s top twelve list for delivering technical presentations to customers:

12. Be interesting and do the unexpected
11. Keep slide text to 15-20 words or less.
10. Try and stick to 10-12 slides max.
9. Always use pictures instead of text where possible.
8. Don’t be too serious.
7. Use either professionally done or purposefully shoddy images. Stay away from average and anything 90’s.
6. 20 minutes or less. Anything longer and it’s training.
5. Use anything canned or corporate at your own peril.
4. Leave at least as much time open at the end of the meeting as you spent talking (for Q/A and wrap up).
3. Minimize Q/A during your presentation, otherwise it’s a discussion.
2. Leave the audience wanting more. Never data dump.
1. Present stories, not data.

SE managers can do a lot to help their folks in this department. Minimally you should be funding skill development in this area and also doing ridealongs several times a year in order to provide objective feedback. Investment here can have a huge return over time given how many (and how important) presentations are to the success of the account team.


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