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Back to basics

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In an information and technology-hungry world, Rich Schuette is a throwback. While many of his peers try to wow clients and prospects with presentations loaded with information and high-tech features, Schuette, a certified financial planner with MJL Associates in Santa Barbara, Calif., says a low-tech, less-is-more presentation style ultimately brings more business his way. “The way I present to clients and prospects, it’s really not a presentation at all. It’s about understanding your audience, and today people are on information overload. You throw too much material at them–investment policy statements, product brochures, Morningstar reports–and they will walk away dazed and confused. I have no problem sending them home with performance reports, product literature and other stuff, but I won’t put it in my presentations. Try to go through that stuff and you’ll lose people in five minutes.”

But this is no techno-caveman. According to Schuette, there is a right time and a right place for advisors to bring technological tools, intricate diagrams and fancy illustrations to bear in their prospect and client interactions. He isn’t alone in his belief that clients, and especially seniors, are more likely to react favorably to a presentation that is simple, uncluttered, heavy on personal interaction and tailored specifically to them than to a lecture-style, data-laden presentation centered on material that appears either onscreen or on the printed page. In an era in which people are constantly bombarded with pitches and information from so many different sources, a minimalist, anti-”presentation” style of presenting resonates with them. This approach can differentiate you from the crowd clamoring for their attention, whether you’re addressing an audience of one or 51. Through this approach Schuette has landed many of his best clients.

Katherine Vessenes, principal at Vestment Advisors, a Shorewood, Minn., firm which provides marketing and sales consulting services to financial advisory practices, contends that the low-tech, personalized approach is helping more advisors close cases and convert prospects into clients. “I’m old school in that I believe there’s no reason to spend thousands of dollars on fancy electronic stuff when a simple flip chart will do,” she explains. “Get too technical with your presentation and it makes you look too slick. It also exposes you to technical problems, and that can really take away from the client experience.”

Properly structured and with the right combination of fundamental elements and well-chosen flourishes, a simple presentation can make a big difference in your success rate. Says Vessenes, “It can hugely increase an advisor’s closing ratio.” On the other hand, cautions Bill Davenport, president of Forefield Inc., a financial services content and technology firm in Marlboro, Mass., “if you are a good, capable advisor who has weak presentation materials, that won’t reflect well on you.”

Let’s look at some of the practical, field-tested and easy-to-implement ways to turn a presentation into a positive force for your practice.

Always custom, never canned. Vessenes recalls watching a multimillion-dollar producer for whom she was consulting interact with a prospect. “He started with a PowerPoint presentation that I guess wasn’t bad, but it was entirely the wrong way to start with a new prospect,” she says. PowerPoint and video presentations can come across as very canned while as an advisor, you want to give them something they can’t get elsewhere: a professional relationship with you and your specific skill set. Onscreen or on paper, canned presentations hamper an advisor’s ability to establish dialogue and build rapport. “If they’re focusing on a PowerPoint document, they’re not making eye contact with you. That means you’re missing a chance to bond.”

Spell it out in a written agenda. Forget prospectuses, performance analyses and marketing brochures. A one-sheet agenda for the meeting at hand often is the only thing on Schuette’s desk when a client or prospect enters his office. “An agenda puts us on the same page, tells them I’m prepared and keeps us on track,” he says. Adds Vessenes: “It’s always good to have a printed agenda, something you can run through to outline what you’re hoping to accomplish in the meeting. You want to be sure to put the person’s name at the top, because we know that people like seeing their names on things like that. The message is, ‘This meeting is all about you, you, you.’”

As an antidote to boredom, try the board. “A lot of people are visual learners,” says Vessenes. “Your simply making a point to them may not be enough. They need to visualize it.” Instead of using canned diagrams to illustrate a point, she and Schuette rely heavily on a white dry-erase board. “Even the simplest kind of illustration, when you draw it on the board yourself, can be a thousand times more powerful than the same chart printed on a piece of paper,” asserts Schuette. “Using the white board allows you to illustrate your point, and to keep the presentation more interactive.”

Help them visualize. Chosen wisely, presented clearly and used sparingly, charts, graphs and pictures bolster a presentation, particularly for the visual learners to which Vessenes refers. “Illustrations can make a point much easier to conceptualize and understand,” says David Rando, a senior editor at Forefield who also has his own advisory practice. Graphics work especially well in depicting annuitization, comparing taxable vs. tax-deferred investments, plotting the performance of variable and fixed instruments, and in other areas where fundamental points can be easily depicted with charts and graphs.

Use a flip chart. From unresponsive hardware to uncooperative software, technical glitches can undermine a presentation. No advisor wants to interrupt a vital presentation to seek help from an IT person. When the presentation medium is a good old-fashioned flip chart, that’s not a concern, says Vessenes.

Use images to stoke imagination. Placed strategically and in the right context, high-quality stock photos can add a human touch–and humor–to a presentation, while helping balance quantitative elements. “Good, commercial-quality photos help illustrate qualitative lifestyle points,” says Rando. “They set a mood and a tone and pull a presentation together. We tend to use photos that show seniors leading active lives.”

Avoid fine print. Whether onscreen or in print, any text in your presentation must be easy to read. “We generally suggest that advisors use a slightly larger, more readable font with seniors, for obvious reasons,” says Davenport. It also helps, he adds, to use pull quotes with larger type to highlight key points in a presentation.

Whether or not you subscribe to the minimalist approach espoused by Schuette, it’s wise to periodically revisit and revise a presentation, because, there’s usually room for improvement, says Vessenes. “Sometimes it’s the nuances that make all the difference. Even the big guys can find something new that might help them.”