The Model for a Customer-Centric Oral Presentation: The Philly Cheesesteak

A Project Management Article by Larry Tracy

This experience has led me to the conclusion that the invention of the Earl of Sandwich is an apt model for what can be the deciding factor in awarding a contract. But not just any sandwich-I’m referring to that classic from my native Philadelphia - the Cheesesteak. The Oral Presentation-Cheesesteak comparison is based on their three similar components:

For the orals, 1) the opening statement by the Project Manager (PM), 2) the Technical Solution to the requirements of the RFP by the key personnel who will be working on the contract, and 3) the closing statement by the PM emphasizing the discriminators which make this the best company to solve the government agency’s problem.

For the Cheesesteak, 1) the bottom half of the roll, 2) the steak, cheese and onions which are the essence of the sandwich, and 3) the top half of the roll.

Let’s view this relationship with a hunger-inducing graphic:

Closing Statement
Technical Solution
Opening Statement

Although I will be touting the importance of the PM’s opening and closing statements, and the unique quality of the rolls of a Philly Cheesesteak, the most important elements are, of course, the middle two-the technical solution by the key personnel, and the ingredients of the sandwich. They are literally the “meat” which will cause evaluators to award, and eaters to salivate. No one would buy a Cheesesteak that had no steak and cheese, just as no government agency would award a contract to a company whose oral presentation lacked a technical solution. But the rolls of the Cheesesteak, and the corresponding opening and closing statements of the orals, provide the context to decide which is a “winner”.

Let’s start with the orals. After all the submitted proposals have been reviewed by the government agency, they are whittled down to a precious few-those that are in the Competitive Range. There is not a lot of difference, or true discriminators, among these finalists. The companies all have similar technical capabilities to solve the government’s requirements as specified in the RFP. Competing companies, therefore, must find a way to separate themselves from their competitors. The orals provide such an opportunity. Constructing an oral presentation the way a Cheesesteak is built can literally bring in the dough (Sorry).

Just as the technical proposals submitted to the government in response to an RFP can be virtually indistinguishable, the same is true for the ingredients for a Cheesesteak. So what separates the Philly sandwich from poor imitations, such as the so-called Steak and Cheese? Ask Philadelphians, and they will exclaim "It’s the Bread!"

The bread for Philly’s contribution to culinary art is actually a roll, which has a taste and texture unlike any other. It blends with, and complements, the Cheesesteak’s cheese, steak and onions, for unequalled flavor. Ask any displaced Philadelphians area what they think of local sandwiches which claim to be Cheesesteaks, and they will sneeringly say, “ugh, the bread is terrible!”

UNLESS, that is, the bread is a Hearth-baked roll from Amoroso’s, the Philadelphia bakery which now exports its product to all fifty states and the District of Columbia. A true Cheesesteak connoisseur knows the difference between a crisp Amoroso’s roll and doughy imitations.

While you are probably salivating for a taste of Philly’s finest food, let me now show how the “Amoroso’s Factor” can provide a model for oral presentations, and what evaluators are looking for when they size up which company will get the “bread” from a lucrative contract. (Again, I’m sorry, just couldn’t resist).

In the age of Low Price, Technically Acceptable (LPTA), there is little wiggle room on price. That leaves the Technical Volume as the area where there is some space to maneuver in order to increase the perception of “acceptability.” When an oral presentation is required, the advantage grows, for the personalities and likeability of the presenters, and their ability to tell a persuasive story, can influence the evaluators. Applying the “Amoroso’s Factor” of a strong opening (the bottom half of the roll) and a resounding close (the top half)can be the deciding factor in causing the evaluators to award the contract to your company.

So what do these two “rolls” consist of in an orals? The main ingredient is passion and enthusiasm, thereby creating the impression that this company really wants the contract because it has the best capability to satisfy the government’s needs. The opening, which should emphasize 1) past performance on similar projects, 2) the elements which separate this company from competitors, and 3) the credentials of the technical experts who will follow - and the closing, which must drive home those points - cannot be a pro forma “why we bid and how we’ll do the work” as most orals are. The Project Manager delivering the opening and close must do so with an intensity that shows his/her confidence that the company is ideally suited for the challenges outlined in the RFP.

That leads us the question of what these evaluators are looking for. They are certainly seeking the company which provides the best service for the government at the lowest cost. But they are also highly risk-averse and fear making a choice which results in being labeled “the idiots who gave the contract to that company.”

So these evaluators are between the proverbial rock and the hard place. What can you do to give your company an edge? You must first reduce the fears and perceived risk of these evaluators. Perhaps the greatest advantage of an oral presentation, for the government and the competing firms, is that it gives the government agency evaluators the chance to “size up” the people they will be working with for the duration of the contract. At the end of the workday, do they want to have a beer with these contractors, or be glad they can walk away from them?

In my book The Shortcut to Persuasive Presentations and my other writings and presentations on oral presentations, I list six elements evaluators are looking for:

  • 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?
  • 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 company 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?”

Keeping those six evaluator concerns in mind, let’s construct an oral presentation using the “Cheesesteak” model. Just as the foundation of the sandwich is the bottom roll, the foundation of the orals is that opening statement by the PM. He or she, at the outset, must alleviate the worries of those risk-averse evaluators and create a positive perception of the company. This beginning, like the Opening Statement of a trial lawyer, makes the case why this company provides best value for the government, and can do much to convince the evaluators that they need not fear selecting this company.

Every orals has an opening statement and closing statement, but you want yours to stand out, just as Amoroso’s rolls make the Philly Cheesesteak so different than other “Cheesesteaks.” This opening should signal the company’s adaptability, showing it will keep the headlights on to see potholes in the road, and also be looking in the rearview mirror to see how actions could be improved. The PM must emphasize his/her past performance managing similar projects, and then introduce the key personnel who will be working on the contract, emphasizing their experience on similar projects.

It is these technical experts who are the “steak and cheese” of the proposal. They specify how they will address the requirements of the RFP. This, as stated previously, is the most important part of the oral presentation, showing how they can be innovative. The government likes that word because it can be interpreted as “at no charge.” Each technical expert should “hand off” smoothly to the next expert demonstrating they are a well-coordinated team. A competent presentation suggests a team that can work together without friction on the contract. Conversely, an uncoordinated presentation may be the kiss of death.

The top roll of the “sandwich” is the closing statement by the PM, reiterating those discriminators touted in the opening. The job of the PM job is to cause the evaluators to conclude that this is the company which should be awarded the contract. This closing statement need not be lengthy, and in fact should build on what was promised in the opening, much as a lawyer uses the Closing Statement in a trial to persuade the jury.

Keep in mind that those on the orals team, including the PM, are not experienced presenters but IT specialists, engineers and other technical experts. They are very good at what they do, but not necessarily good at explaining what they do. Moreover, they are now being placed in the unenviable position of having the company’s financial future-as well as their jobs, and those of their colleagues-dependent on their ability to make a “sales presentation.”

Consequently, when I conduct orals coaching, I volunteer to draft both “rolls.” As a technical illiterate, I rarely understand the details of the written proposal and the technical solutions by the subject matter experts in the orals. But I am a writer and can generally craft the story of why this company will give the government more bang for the buck. I write these opening and closing statements in the “voice” of the PM so he or she can make these words his/her own. We then practice so the PM is comfortable delivering these messages. I also seek to find words or phrases which will “stick” in the minds of the evaluators. (Note: Read the excellent book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath for some ideas on making ideas “sticky.”)

An example. An IT company I recently worked with had an enviable record of low turnover of its key technical personnel, an important discriminator in the highly fluid IT industry. They pointed out that a reason for this stability was that when these experts published in professional journals, the company paid them a bonus. I then recommended the PM say the following:

In academia, the saying is “publish or perish.”
In our company, the saying is “publish and profit.”

The objective was not to turn a clever phrase, but to highlight the fact that the government would not be dealing constantly with new people, but would have continuity with the key personnel of this company. That’s a huge discriminator, and that phrase helped the fact to “stick” in the minds of the evaluators. Think of these rhetorical add-ons as the green peppers on a Philly Cheesesteak - they enhance the “flavor” of the presentation.

The next step, after “the sandwich” has been prepared, is to have a series of practice sessions simulating both the oral presentation and the Q&A session (see below). These sessions should be videotaped to provide a “game film,” and the proposal writers should play the role of the evaluators to help the presenters anticipate questions and develop answers

A cautionary warning on the Q&A session. Because it is interactive, unlike the orals where the evaluators sit silently, the PM and his/her team may relax. Big mistake - it is still “showtime.” Answer the question, but don’t be overly verbose. The more you say, the more targets you provide for the evaluators. When a question is asked that you find less than brilliant, don’t say “Yes, but...”.The evaluator who asked the question may feel you are putting him/her down. Instead, say “Yes, and we thought the same until our research indicated...”. For the same reason, avoid that terrible response of “With all due respect...”. No respect is intended, and you will alienate the questioner.

The benefit of intense and realistic practice session was shown in a Lockheed TV ad of a few years ago.Two fighter jets were maneuvering in simulated combat, and a dramatic voice intoned "if you train the way you’ll fight, you’ll fight the way you trained". If presenters practice the way they’ll present, they’ll present the way they practiced.

Pointing out the importance of technical experts to be able to articulate their concepts, Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Ford and Chrysler, wrote in his 1984 autobiography:

"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."

We can say the same thing about a PM and his/her orals team which is unable to persuade government evaluators to award their company the contract. Just as an authentic Philly Cheesesteak needs the Hearth-baked Amoroso’s roll to highlight the sandwich’s ingredients, so too does the technical oral presentation need the right opening and closing statements to separate a company from its competitors. If you ignore these humanizing elements, and depend only on IT and engineering expertise, you are likely leaving a lot of money on the table.

About the Author

Larry Tracy

Larry Tracy, author of The Shortcut to Persuasive Presentations, has been cited in several publications as one of the top presentation skills trainers/coaches in the country. He has spoken at numerous PMIWDC events. A retired Army colonel, he formerly headed the Pentagon’s top briefing team, responsible for daily intelligence briefings to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS). He was later detailed by the White House to the State Department to debate controversial foreign policy issues to hundreds of demanding, often hostile audiences, leading President Ronald Reagan to describe him as “An extraordinarily effective speaker.” He can be reached at Ltracy3936@aol.com.

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