The Oral Presentation: Tie-Breaker for Winning Government Contracts

A Project Management Article by Lawrence L. Tracy

Over the past decade, the Federal Government has placed increasing emphasis on the "oral presentation" in awarding contracts. Additionally, Government agencies, in their Request for Proposal (RFP), are stipulating that only those who will be working on the contract, especially Project Managers, are to deliver the oral presentation.

This is obviously intended to permit government evaluators to have an "eye-to-eye" meeting with those with whom they will be working, thereby resolving issues and questions before the contract is awarded.

In a very real sense, the once lightly regarded oral presentation has become the essential tie-breaker among otherwise equal companies vying for lucrative contracts from the government.

This new emphasis on the oral presentation was not initially greeted with universal acclaim by companies. Most of them had developed a skilled cadre of proposal writers, and probably felt a bit uneasy about having their economic future riding not on the demonstrated ability of these writers but instead on the verbal skills of engineers and technicians who have not been called on in the past to make marketing presentations. Under the new government rules, the "doers" had to become "sellers."

Although the oral presentation is now an accepted fact of life in the government contracting world, the apprehension has not lessened. Contributing to this is that “public speaking,” in survey after survey, is viewed as one of the leading phobias in the United States. The best known of these surveys listed “speaking before groups” as the number one fear, ahead of even “death.”  This led Jerry Seinfeld, in the opening of one of his television programs, to quip that this meant that most people would prefer to be in the coffin than required to deliver the eulogy.

Such anxiety is intensified when millions, often billions, of dollars are resting on the speaking skills of people making oral presentations for government contracts. Uncomfortable and unsettling as they are, however, oral presentations are a fact of life for companies vying for government contracts.

While the emphasis of evaluators will be on the substantive, RFP-responsive information, there can be no doubt that subjective factors—the presentation skills and interpersonal skills of the various presenters, and the rapport they are able to build with the evaluators—play a very large part in determining which company is awarded the contract.

The "Team" Presentation: Competence Indicator

Most companies responding to a Government RFP seek to gain leverage by partnering with other companies. This is a “win-win” arrangement, as the complementary skills of different companies can be applied to the RFP requirements, and the government stands to gain from the combined skills this consortium of a prime contractor and sub-contractors brings to the table. In the ensuing oral presentation, care must be taken to assure a smooth, coordinated presentation from these people from different companies who may not know each other very well.

Evaluators may, understandably, view a disjointed and unclear presentation as an indicator that this team will be unable to perform the terms of the contract. Evaluators from the government have a responsibility to get the "best buy" for the taxpayer’s dollar, and may, at least subconsciously, see a correlation between the effectiveness of the team’s presentation and how the consortium will accomplish the requirements stipulated in the RFP.

Certain key questions will be in the minds of Government evaluators:

  • What is the chemistry between and among team members?
  • Does the team have a clear vision of what the Government wants accomplished, or does  the presentation suggest the team is still trying to figure out what is required by the RFP?
  • Do the skills of the different companies and individuals complement or clash?
  • Is the prime contractor really in charge, or do there appear to be some Prima Donnas   among the sub-contractors, suggesting later friction?
  • Does the presentation demonstrate that the consortium has the experience to accomplish  the project required by the RFP?
  • Is there a willingness of team members to accept Government oversight, or an attitude of  "give us the contract, then get out of the way?"
  • Most importantly, does the company/consortium seem genuinely interested in, and demonstrate proven capability to solve, the Government’s RFP-expressed problem?

Technical experts placed in the position of making the oral presentation must strive to demonstrate they are a confident, competent, and coordinated team. Forging this unity and cohesiveness is achieved with thorough planning and rigorous preparation.

Introducing the “Team”

Because of the strict time limits imposed for oral presentations by the RFP, there is a tendency for many presentation teams to jump immediately into the substance of their presentations by  immediately “answering the mail” requirements of the RFP. While this is understandable, it is also a mistake.

Evaluators are human beings, and want to know about the consortium of companies presenting, and the individual presenters. This is especially so for small companies without a “brand’ name. For example, an IT firm that started up  in the dot.com boom of the 1990s, and is still flourishing in  2006, is a story worth telling. It sends the signal to the evaluators that this company is resourceful and operates on a solid business model.

The lead presenter should in his/her opening remarks provide a brief profile of each  presenter, highlighting the skills and experience of these presenters as they relate to the RFP requirements. In effect, this permits the presenters “shake hands” with the evaluators and make them comfortable with the prospect of working with this consortium of companies. This is where you fuse the macro--the companies and their history of accomplishing requirements for the government similar to what is required by the RFP--and the micro, where the evaluators learn about the individual skills and personalities of the presenters.

Competing Against Incumbents

One of the most difficult challenges for any company or team of companies responding to an RFP arises when one of the companies competing is the incumbent already doing the job. How does this situation come up? It could be that the contract originally won by the incumbent was for a fixed period, and it must now be awarded anew.

The incumbent has every right to submit a proposal, and it has the advantage that it is intimately familiar with the Government’s requirements. It is also “on the ground” performing the work.

Factor in that the evaluators are government employees who are risk-averse. They will make the same money each month no matter which company is awarded the contract. Even if the Government agency is not completely satisfied with the work done by the incumbent, the evaluators may still be reluctant to make a change. Doing so could make them vulnerable to criticism that they “changed horses in mid-stream” and caused harm to the government by so doing.

Does this mean a company should not compete against an incumbent? Not at all. If the proposal and the oral presentation succeed in making a compelling case for change (especially if intelligence can be gained as to the weak elements of the incumbent’s performance), then a company certainly has a good chance of winning.

Just realize that in such a situation, the “new guy” is not playing on a level field—some companies (incumbents) are simply “more equal” than others.

Winning Contracts Through the "Three P’s”

 The heart of my presentation skills workshops and the essence of this brief essay is what I call the Three P’s--Planning, Practicing, and Presenting. I use this teaching model for both corporations and government agencies. It is a flexible model that can be adapted to situations ranging from presentations to supportive audiences to those made to hostile groups that would rather jeer than cheer. It is particularly adaptive to the unique requirements of the oral presentation for a government contract.

Planning

The oral presentation must be consistent with the written proposal. Evaluators will have scrutinized the written document, which undoubtedly will have provoked many questions

When the proposal is being written, I believe it a good idea to have those who will be presenting the orals to be looking over the shoulders of the writers so they can extract “nuggets” of relevant information to be included in the orals.

Unfortunately, many companies wait until the lengthy written proposal has been submitted to start thinking of the Orals. This leads to a hurried pulling together of these “nuggets” into an oral presentation. Combined with selecting, per the RFP, who the presenters will be, the result can be a hurried drafting which may not accurately reflect the written proposal. If the presenters are working jointly with the writers, a more efficient, thematically consistent oral presentation will be the result.

The RFP should, to the degree possible, be read from the government’s perspective. The government has written the RFP to solicit a solution to a problem, and is looking to the private sector for that solution. The government agency also believes it has the ultimate responsibility to the taxpayers, and probably will not look kindly at the consortium that appears resistant to oversight. In effect, read the RFP as if you are a government agency looking for help. If, instead, you read it from the perspective of what you wish to do, you’ll probably not make the cut.

Involve senior management to gain commitment of resources/personnel. Both the prime contractor and the sub-contractors must be willing to expend resources necessary to win the contract. This commitment must be made by senior management of all involved companies, and include making key experts available when required for brain storming and practice sessions, even during the June-August vacation time frame.

Develop an overall theme that is responsive to the RFP. Think of this theme as the lead paragraph in an article in The Washington Post describing the program to be undertaken. Seek focus and thematic unity, centered on what the government wants accomplished. When this theme is developed, all presenters must coordinate their presentations with this theme to produce clarity, cohesiveness and consistency.

Practicing

Get professional help. 

The purpose of the Government’s emphasis on oral presentations is to have the people with in-depth knowledge make the presentation, not polished speakers who possess less-detailed knowledge of the RFP requirements. Still, the team of experts making the clearest and most professional presentation certainly increases its prospects of winning the contract. An outside speaking coach should be brought in to show the technical experts how to make a coherent and effective presentation that focuses on the Government’s needs.

In addition to providing knowledge of the speaking art, this coach can be much more frank in providing constructive criticism to presenters than will co-workers, who, wanting to maintain positive working relationships, may be "kinder and gentler" in their critiques of presentations in the various "Murder Boards" (see below). The coach’s objective is to blend the techniques of effective presentation skills with the expertise of the presenters. The fusion of these two elements produces contract-winning presentations. (Modesty precludes me from making a specific recommendation as to whom this coach should be!)

Developing PowerPoint slides. 

You will have started developing your PowerPoint slides during the Planning phase, but it is during the Practicing phase where you will refine them. A complicating factor presented in many RFP is the number of slides permitted. I worked with a company once that had 90 minutes to deliver their presentation, but was limited to 20 slides. Another problem arises when the RFP requires all visuals to be delivered  prior to the actual date of the oral presentation. A solution to this problem is presented below. Have one person coordinate preparation of the slides, assuring consistency, and it is advisable to have the visuals prepared by a professional graphics company, with oversight by the competing firm’s specialist.

Conduct a series of Murder Boards. 

Although the “Murder Board” sounds like something Tony Soprano might convene, it has nothing to do with a criminal act and everything to do with becoming a better public speaker and a more persuasive presenter when competing for a government contract.

The Murder Board is a realistic simulation of the actual oral presentation to be made. Colleagues role-play the government evaluators, asking the type of questions these people are likely to ask. It allows presenters to make mistakes when they don't count, increasing the odds that they will shine when the actual presentation is made.

The Murder Board is the presenter's version of the actor's dress rehearsal, what lawyers do in preparing a witness to face cross-examination in a trial, and what the flight simulator is to the pilot. Just as with the actor, the witness, and the pilot, this simulation permits presenters to learn from their mistakes, so that the actual presentation is (1) more responsive to the informational needs of the audience, (2) answers are developed for likely questions to be asked, and (3) overall speaking confidence and competence are enhanced.

When preparing for an oral presentation for a government contract, a Murder Board will enable the presenting team to visualize the presentation in advance. Proficiency in speaking is increased by such a meticulous practice, and so too is self-confidence. Public speaking ranks high in the pantheon of phobias because of apprehension that one is going to be embarrassed by not being able to answer questions from the audience. Add to this the pressure on presenters vying for a government contract with millions of dollars--and perhaps their jobs--on the line, and the need to practice is obvious.

The success or failure of a Murder Board ultimately depends on its realism. The closer it is to the real thing, the better prepared will be the presenters. This realism, to a great degree, depends on the ability of colleagues to get into the heads of the government evaluators. This does not mean having a great gift for acting or mimicry; but it does mean trying to think like these evaluators. Consequently, intense efforts must be made to acquire as much intelligence as possible on the evaluators and the needs of the agency they represent.

If team members  can anticipate questions of evaluators, they can then develop answers ahead of time. Think back to when you were in college or graduate school. Your GPA would probably have been higher if you could have seen the questions before the final exams. The Murder Board permits presenters a look at the evaluator’s probable "exam questions." The principle obstacle to developing a question-anticipating simulated presentation is imagination and willingness of team members to take hard hits in practice so they are more effective in the actual orals.

Some presenters will probably resist participating in such intense practice sessions, saying they do not require such play-acting. These confident (or fearful) people should be reminded of words of Albert Einstein: "What a person does on his own, without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of others, is, even in the best cases, rather paltry and monotonous.”

If Einstein believed he needed outside stimulation for his best work, perhaps these reluctant presenters can be convinced they may benefit from the crucible that is the Murder Board. The various Murder Boards (and there should be several) should be videotaped, and the videotapes critiqued with little mercy on the premise that it is better to have mistakes pointed out in practice by colleagues than have them noted by evaluators, thus jeopardizing the chance to be awarded the lucrative contract. Follow the five areas below so that an effective Murder Board will pay-off in the actual orals.

Employ two video cameras.  

All Murder Board practice sessions should be videotaped to enable presenters to gauge their individual performances, and how the team presents as a whole. Consequently, employ two video cameras.  One will tape the entire presentation, including the “choreography” of how presenters pass the baton to the next presenter. The other camera can then videotape the individual presentations, so the presenters can review their  performances individually.

Hone the delivery skills of all speakers. 

The purpose of the oral presentation is to transmit, clearly and persuasively, the vision of the consortium as to how it intends to accomplish the RFP-expressed requirements.  The technical experts making the presentation will concentrate on the What of the presentation, while the outside coach provides valuable insight into How the speakers communicate their ideas to the evaluators. Poor eye contact and body language, as well as poor vocal inflection, especially monotone delivery and "uh’s" and "Y’knows," can negatively impact on the way a message is received. We like to think the lucidity of our presentation is more important than how we look and sound. Research has shown, however, the importance of non-verbal communication on perception of messenger and message. The outside coach earns his or her keep in showing how to blend Substance with Style.

Don’t read from a script. 

One of the greatest speaking errors of people not accustomed to presenting is to read from a script. Little eye contact is made with the audience, and the thought may occur to the evaluators that this person is reading words written by someone else. Note cards--3x5 cards are best because their size precludes writing too much--with memory joggers can certainly be used, but speakers should show they "own" the material.

Don’t read the visuals. 

The evaluators are literate and do not need you to read the words on the screen. Few things alienate people more in any audience than to have the speaker read verbatim the words on the visuals. Speakers should reduce to a minimum the text on the visuals during the various "Murder Boards." To avoid falling into the "reading from the screen" trap, try this drill: Position yourself with your feet pointing at the audience, and at such an angle from the screen that turning to read will cause you discomfort. Don’t make the pivot; keep those feet pointing toward the audience.

Use rhetorical devices to reinforce your message. 

Use of rhetorical devices can add impact to the intellectual content of the message, as well as increase retention by the audience.  Start using them in the practice sessions, and you’ll be quite comfortable in the actual presentation.  Repetition of key points, done adroitly in cadences of three, has a remarkable ability to cause audience members to remember the speaker’s remarks. The Pause, especially if it is used as a substitute for "uh" and "Y’know ," likewise tends to reinforce the speaker’s words and message. In my workshop I put special emphasis on learning these and several other techniques I call "Shortcuts to eloquence." Even inexperienced presenters, when they add these weapons to their speaking arsenal, will appear polished and articulate.

You need to conduct a Murder Board for the same reason that professional football teams, despite having injured players who could benefit from a rest, go through physically demanding practice sessions before the next game. These athletes and their coaches realize the team will be better prepared by having practiced against what the coaches have anticipated, through scouting reports, the game plan of the opposing team. A team vying for a government contract must follow the same logic.

Solve the "early visuals" problem. If the RFP stipulates that visuals must be delivered early, the potential problem of having the thinking and recommendations/solutions "frozen" to the visuals already sent to the Government agency must be taken into account at the outset. When the visual are being "built," they must (1) have the specificity to permit the evaluators to follow the presentation’s general theme, main points, and recommendations, but (2) are sufficiently broad in scope to permit "fitting" in new ideas generated after the slides have been submitted.

Presenting

"Case the Joint." If possible, the entire team should visit the room where the presentation will be made before the big day. Observe where the evaluators will sit, where the electrical outlets are located, if there are easels for flip charts (if permitted by the RFP). If the room lacks curtains or blinds, will sunlight at the time you are scheduled to present wash out the visuals? Because you wish to neither wash out the visuals nor plunge the room into total darkness, can lights immediately in front of a built-in screen be turned off separately? If driving, determine the traffic and parking availability at the time you will be arriving for the presentation. It might be wise to have the presenting team stay at a nearby hotel the night before the presentation.

Bring your own projector (and screen if necessary). Projectors vary in how they operate.  A team that shows up with its own projector (and a spare bulb) sends a signal that it "has its act together," and certainly will know how the projector works. Conversely, a team that does not know how to operate the government’s projector, or that is faced with a blown projector bulb, will appear unprepared. Be ready for the little problems created by visuals, as Murphy’s Law has not been repealed. Bringing your own portable screen will permit you to avoid being forced to project your visuals on a built-in screen in front of a bank of lights.

Handling the "I forgot what I was going to say" problem. One of the reasons that speaking in front of a group is the number one fear in America is the certainty many people have that their mind will go blank at a critical time.  That is why so many make the mistake of reading their presentations. You can control this fear with just two 3x5 cards. On one card place an anecdote, quotation or statistic relative to the problem posed in the RFP. On the second card, place an outline of your presentation. If your mind goes blank, merely reach for the two cards together, and relate the information on the first card. You will probably recover from your temporary amnesia. If not, slide the second card to the front, and use it to see where you should pick up. The cards are "life preservers" when you are drowning in panic.

Beware the perils of PowerPoint.  If you are permitted to use PowerPoint or a similar program, don’t let yourself or your team be carried away by ringing all the bells or tooting all the whistles available. Keep these visuals as simple as possible so you gain the advantage they provide, while avoiding having the brilliance of the visuals overwhelm the substance of the presentation. You want the audience to remember your recommendations, not how arrows flew in from different sides, and the "creative" use of colors. Above all, seek to keep the visuals clean, consistent and professional.

Stand while presenting. Inexperienced presenters will prefer sitting while making the presentation. It may be more comfortable, but the presenter who stands has better presence, better voice control, better eye contact. All "Murder Board" presentations should be made standing to help presenters get used to "being on stage."

When evaluators fail to make eye contact. It can be disconcerting to presenters to find evaluators failing to make eye contact. It could be that these evaluators are busily taking notes, or they could be looking only at the slides, and it could also be that they wish to limit “human contact” so as not to be swayed  by the personalities of the presenters. In any event, presenters should continue to look at the evaluators.

The Question & Answer session. The RFP generally calls for a Q&A session for clarification purposes after the formal presentation. Unless the evaluators say they wish to direct their questions to specific team members, the team leader from the prime contractor should quarterback this session, directing questions to team members according to their respective expertise. The stress level on presenters will probably be less during the Q & A session because it will take place within the more familiar conversational context.   But don’t be lulled into a false sense of comfort.

Practice Q & A sessions should be an integral part of the Murder Boards so as to anticipate the type of question likely to be asked. The Q&A session is where the evaluators’ doubts and questions can be resolved, key points driven home by the presenters in their answers, and the confidence level of the evaluators with the ability of the team to "do the job" increased.

When a small company, responding to a “small business set aside,” has a large corporation as a sub-contractor, evaluators may ask if the small firm is actually “fronting” for the big company, thereby allowing the bigger company to get a piece of the lucrative “set aside” pie. The small prime must be prepared to document convincingly that it sought the larger firm to sub-contract a portion of the RFP, that it was not “recruited” by the large firm. If done adroitly in the Q&A session, this can actually work to the advantage of the prime, as evaluators may see the leveraging advantage of having a corporate giant’s “reach” being applied to the “small business set aside.”

Some Final Advice

The information included in this brief essay is a bare bones outline of the training in my workshop. Despite its brevity, the advice provided will help companies deliver more effective, persuasive presentations. Two statements, written many centuries apart, underline the eternal importance of speaking skills:

In his 1984 autobiography, Lee Iacocca wrote:

"I’ve known a lot of engineers with terrific ideas who had trouble explaining them to others. It’s always a shame when a guy with great talent can’t tell a board or committee what’s in his head."

About 2500 years before Iacocca’s observation, the great Greek statesman Pericles wrote:

"Those who can think, but cannot express what they think, place themselves at the level of those who cannot think."

Iacocca and Pericles have a warning for companies competing for contracts:

"Terrific ideas" can easily be trumped by those who can "express what they think." If your competitors are improving the presentation skills of their technical experts because of the importance they attach to oral presentations, while you rely on your "superior" ideas, programs, and experience, you may find your firm losing millions of dollars. A small investment in presentations training, therefore, can pay large dividends when lucrative contracts are awarded.

About the Author

Lawrence L. Tracy

Larry Tracy has been cited in several publications as one of the top speech coaches in the US. His website (www.tracy-presentation.com) has been at the top of Google since September 2004 for “Persuasive Presentations.”  He is a retired Army colonel who formerly headed the Pentagon's top briefing team, responsible for daily intelligence presentations to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense. 

Because of his speaking skills, he was detailed to the State Department, for which he participated in hundreds of presentations, debates and panels throughout the country before skeptical, often hostile, audiences. For these efforts he was hailed as “An  extraordinarily effective speaker” by President Ronald  Reagan. 

He now conducts presentations training seminars, to include preparing companies for oral presentations for government contracts. 

His book, The Shortcut to Persuasive Presentations, is the primary textbook for the “Oral Presentations” Course at the Center for Leadership Education at Johns Hopkins University.  His speech “Taming Hostile Audiences” was featured in the March 2005 Vital Speeches of the Day, and was subsequently published in the top magazine on public speaking instruction, American Speaker, with Larry’s photo on the cover. He was quoted as a leading expert on making Boardroom presentations in the April 2007 issue of Maxim magazine.

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