by Kerry Feuerman

When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, he had no idea that one day it would become an instrument of death. If you’ve ever presented creative work over the phone, you know just what I’m talking about. When your audience can’t see you and you can’t see your audience, more work dies. I don’t have any hard data to support that statement but 30 years of presenting tells me it’s true. I’ve yet to find an agency that likes making phone presentations, which in itself indicates they’re a less successful way to sell work. On the other hand, I don’t know of any clients willing to give them up. From their perspective presenting by phone saves time and money. And they’re right (if you don’t count reconcepting). So if phone presentations aren’t going away, and they’re not a great way to sell work, what do you do? Learn how to give good phone.

Several years ago, after making a bunch of crash-and-burn phone presentations, I decided to do a little research on the subject. I couldn’t find any studies directly related to selling creative work by phone, but I did discover a few interesting things that forever changed the way I present.

It turns out that our five senses aren’t created equal. Sight is by far the most dominant sense, with nearly 40% of the brain’s cerebral cortex devoted to what we take in with our eyes. By comparison, only 3% is reserved for hearing. In other words, human beings are wired to be much better watchers than listeners. If you think you have everyone’s rapt attention when you’re presenting by phone, you don’t. Not even close. To overcome this attention deficit issue I now force the audience to listen to me. I take control of the meeting as quickly as possible (phone presentations are notoriously disorganized). I ask if everyone has the deck ready, does anyone have a question before we start, have they got their box lunches sorted out, etc.—things that force a response. Even while I’m presenting the work I intentionally ask questions to keep the audience actively engaged, sometimes to specific people. If people think they might be asked a question or opinion, they’re much less likely to mentally wander away from camp. Mostly though, I crank up the charm factor. My theory is get folks smiling and you’ll get them listening. As Bill Bernbach said way back in the 1960s, you can’t sell a person who isn’t listening.

My quest for the holy grail of phone presentations led me down another path, a social behavior path. I won’t bore you with details, but suffice it to say that people act differently when they can’t see each other. What would be considered rude audience behavior during face-to-face presentations is common practice on the phone: texting while you present, replying to emails, online shopping (I wish I were joking) and worst of all, looking ahead in the deck. To counter this attention-robbing behavior I sometimes address it upfront, “I know everyone is crazy busy so I’ll try to keep things moving. If you could hold off on other business stuff— texts, emails, etc.— for just a few minutes, things should go even faster. You guys cool with that?” My other tactic is to tell them it’s okay to look ahead in the deck. Counterintuitive as that may sound, I find that giving people permission to skip forward can actually keep them from doing it. Finally my college psych class pays off! Sometimes, anyway.

Unfortunately, the more I looked into the problems associated with phone presentations the more fingers started pointing at the presenter. This hit me between the eyes during the presentation of a humorous campaign in Boston. I flew in to attend the meeting in person. As the CD, I did a quick setup and passed it over to the creative teams who presented via speaker phone. It was a sobering half hour. I watched the level of client engagement drop as each new piece of creative work was delivered. What was funny back in the agency fell flat when body language and silly faces were taken out of the equation. Until that moment, I never appreciated how much of what we do as presenters is physical. Humor is physical. Emotion is physical. Power is physical. Which means when the physical is lost, you have to compensate—make that overcompensate. From that day on I began describing work in greater detail and used richer, more descriptive language when presenting by phone. I became extra conscious of staying focused and connecting the dots. Hell, I was even my own laugh track when I had to be. Every phone presentation was approached as if it were a radio show, despite the fact that clients were looking at storyboards. Theater of the mind became my most effective weapon.

But even when a presenter is kicking ass and half the audience isn’t watching Hulu, there’s something else at play during phone presentations: they simply don’t feel as important. It’s almost like they’re dress rehearsals for the real meeting, existing more to weed out work than give anything a green light. Real or imagined, it’s a problem only the agency can fix. I found the best way to make phone presentations feel more important is to bring less work. Even in face-to-face presentations, agencies devalue their own product when they show too many campaigns. Phone presentations magnify the problem ten-fold because of the built-in lower attention span of the audience. You might as well send an invite to the Grimm Reaper. In my opinion, agencies have to act like they’ve arrived at the final destination, not merely another refueling stop. Get the highest level folks you can wrangle on both sides to attend and be prepared to support and defend whatever you show. Force it to be important. Otherwise you could be reconcepting and making another presentation. By phone. By tomorrow.

I’ll leave you with one last thought: death is negotiable. This I learned from a chief creative officer who taught me a tactic that I’ve used for years. The tricks is, it can only be applied just after a new business win. During the brief honeymoon period when CMOs are still swooning over their new agency’s creative genius, a window of opportunity exists to make deals with the client. One of those deals is no phone presentations for important work. Those are done in person. Even day-to-day work should be presented by phone only as a last resort. Skype or Google Hangouts are much better alternatives. Why should your new client agree to it? Because you say, “It incentivizes the agency to create more of the kind of work you just hired us for. You deserve to see it in its best possible light.” or some variant of that. Hey, if the agreement only lasts six months you’ve still probably saved four or five good pieces of work from the gallows. I’ll take that any day.