Use Sales Linguistics to Structure Winning Presentations | HBR Blog Network

There’s an exciting new area of study called “sales linguistics” that provides key strategies on how to structure language-based interactions that turn skeptics into believers. The goal of sales linguistics is to understand how salespeople and their prospective customers use and interpret language during the meetings and presentations.

From a sales linguistic perspective, every interaction has three stages, and each stage requires different linguistic strategies. The opening stage comprises the few minutes at the beginning of the talk, the main stage is the longest period of interaction where the main messages are delivered, and the closing stage is the time at the end of the speech. For example, if you were making a 30 minute presentation, the opening stage would be about seven minutes, the main stage would be seventeen minutes, and the closing stage six minutes.

Your personal demeanor should vary at each stage, moving from approachability (not overfriendliness or too formal) in the opening to confidence when talking in the main stage. At the close, you want to establish “situational dominance.” Most people mistakenly equate this term negatively to the use of brute force to overwhelm someone. Conversely, situational dominance is when the listener chooses to accept and internalize your words so they follow your advice.

The goal of the first stage is to establish a behavior interruption. Put yourself in the position of the listener for a moment. You’ve sat through thousands of different presentations, and you probably have a lot of other things on your mind. Therefore, the first step should be to perform a behavior interruption to break the listener’s mode of thinking and stand out from previous memories.

The behavior interruption starts the process of building rapport, engages interest, and provokes open-mindedness. It successfully sets the stage for the remainder of the speech. But what exactly is a behavior interruption? Let me explain with the following analogy. An Apple iPod can store thousands of songs. We have several iPods in my household, and I frequently listen to my daughter’s to check out the latest hits. As I thumb through her playlists, each song has just a few seconds to capture my attention. If the introduction isn’t interesting, different, or exciting, I immediately move on to the next song.

Do not equate a behavior interruption to simply telling a joke or funny story at the beginning of your presentation. A behavior interruption is pre-meditated language structure. For example, I worked at a company whose core technology was originally developed by the California Institute of Technology and funded by a grant from NASA. Explaining the origins of the company during presentations — not with one simple slide with a few bullet points, but using highlights of the project and its successful results set against the black backdrop of the space shuttle in outer space — was a great behavior interruption.

You should consider this fact when structuring the main section of your presentation. The average person will hear only seven and a half minutes of a one-hour presentation and remember only half of the words he or she hears. In essence, we don’t listen and our conscious mind rejects far more words than we actually hear. However, the subconscious mind acts as a reservoir for this overflow of information.

One sales linguistic persuasion technique that can be used to present information is the metaphor. Metaphors are stories, parables, and analogies that communicate ideas by using examples that people can relate to and identify with. Metaphors enable complex concepts and theories to be explained in an understandable, interesting, and persuasive manner. Using metaphors is a nonthreatening way to present your point of view, facts, and directions you would like your audience to follow.

The power of metaphors lies in their individual interpretation. While the conscious mind is listening to the content of the surface-level story, the subconscious mind is deciphering its own message. For example, every cigarette package contains a factual warning from the surgeon general that smoking causes cancer. However, I highly doubt these warnings are actually preventing people from smoking. Rather, I believe the personal stories you see on television told by previous smokers about their tremendous health problems are far more influential.

The language structures to be employed during the closing section should include commands and presenting foreground and background suggestions. A command is an instructional statement that creates a binary type of yes or no response from the recipient. It is typically associated with a hard close and “take it or leave it” mentality. Foreground suggestions (medium close) are explicit, but they deflect the source of the request from the demander. Background suggestions (soft close) lead recipients to believe they are acting of their free will when in fact they have been directed to follow a message.

Let’s pretend I am a passenger in your car and I feel you are driving too fast. A command would be “Slow down!” A foreground suggestion would be “You know the speed limit is 45 mph and police ticket a lot of speeders here.” A background suggestion would be “A speeder was in a horrible accident last week in this exact spot.” While the background suggestion may be more subtle in its delivery, it can trigger a more profound reaction.

Every presentation is based upon the complex process of communication consisting of verbal and nonverbal messages that the listener receives consciously and subconsciously. However, since we are talking all the time we tend to take the process for granted. Persuasion is not about getting others to acknowledge your arguments; it’s about making them internalize your message because they believe that it is in their best interests. Ultimately, persuasion is the ability to tap into someone’s emotions and reach the deeper subconscious decision maker within that person.

More blog posts by Steve W. Martin
More on: Sales

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