How to use a presentation theme…and avoid going full theme park!


Disney Theme Park

A group of flight attendants in matching uniforms strolled through the boardroom handing out drinks and snack-sized peanuts to the executive audience in the boardroom. After some puzzled looks, one of the flight attendants announced: “Buckle your seat belts, you’re in for the ride of your life!” Landlocked training program? Nope. Just an example of a sales presentation venturing into full theme park territory.

A theme can be a powerful unifying tool – especially for longer presentations of several hours or more, or team presentations.  But there’s a fine line between a theme that memorably anchors your solution to your prospect’s goals or objectives and one that veers into theme park territory .  When you don’t have a clear understanding of the purpose of a theme and how to use it most effectively, things can start to get a little uncomfortable for you and your audience and even cost you the sale (as it did for this sales team in the above example.)

What is a Presentation Theme?


A theme underscores the central message of your presentation in a way that is meaningful and memorable for your customer. The most effective presentation themes center around prospect’s objectives (growth, competitive advantage, innovation, etc.) and how you’re going to help them achieve it. A theme can typically be described with a few words or with a strong image. Although used prominently in your opening and closing, a good theme often runs like a thread throughout your presentation, even influencing your slide design and messaging.

What a Presentation theme is not:

Your Brand.

Don’t make the mistake of confusing your product or service “theme” with your presentation theme.  Most materials provided by  your marketing department are not good candidates for a theme.  They are typically focused on your product or company and will not be specific to your prospect’s unique goals or challenges. A generic theme will not resonate with your customer and provide very little in the way of value or “stickiness.”

Your Customer’s Brand.

I’m all for using a customer’s language and examples from their world.  However using your customer’s product or branding as a theme is not as unique or effective as you might think. Case in point: I was working with an experienced sales team who was pitching an enterprise solution to the Disney organization. Their initial idea was to use a Disney character theme.  Each section of the presentation would focus on a particular character, complete with Disney character props, videos and pictures.  I asked the team how many “Disney-themed” sales presentations they thought Disney executives had sat through. They acknowledged it was probably not the first.  In fact, it could well be in the double digits.  As clever as it seemed at first, the team realized they had grabbed at an obvious choice which probably would have set Disney execs on edge.

Together we worked to come up with a theme targeted to the unique goals Disney had in a specific area that their solution resolved. (They won the deal.)

How to choose a theme for your sales presentation:

In order to strike a balance between no theme and full-on theme park, get clear on your goals and your audience. Consider these three questions:

  1. What do you want to accomplish? Different themes convey different emotions. For example, a sports-related theme may be good for challenging or motivating a prospect.  A space-related theme may serve to inspire them to greater heights.
  2. What is the tone? Serious? Light-hearted? Humorous? The tone of your presentation should be consistent with your theme. For example, if your message is about turning a company around from the brink of disaster, a theme about badminton may be too lightweight to support such a substantial subject.
  3. What are the visual possibilities? A good theme lends itself to a clear visual. The more instantly recognizable the better. For example, a theme of “teamwork” might be easily identified by a celebrating sports team or two clasped hands.  A theme about “maximizing value” might be more difficult to quickly convey.

Finding your theme:

Coming up with a theme can be a challenge if you’re not a creative type. Here are some suggestions to help you get started finding the right theme:

  • Brainstorm: If you’re working as a team, plan a brainstorming session with one rule: There are no bad ideas! If you can’t all get together in one place, have everyone list off ten ideas and submit them via email by a certain date. You can then run a poll and vote on the top choice.
  • Review your core message. This is the 10,000-foot view of what you’re trying to say to your prospect. Your presentation itself can be a good source for this core message. Try looking in these sections:
    • Your customer’s objectives: In discovery you should have identified the challenges your customer faces and what desired outcome from your solution was most meaningful for them. Can you describe it in a word or two? Is it freedom, innovation, visibility?
    •  Your competitive advantage: If your presentation is focused on “why buy us” – in other words, they know they need your solution but the decision to buy from is not made — you may want to create a theme around a competitive advantage. For example, maybe mobility is important to your prospect.  This is a strength for you but your competitors are lacking in this area.  In this case, a theme like “The Power of Now” can highlight your strengths.
  •  Do a google images search. Plug in your core message to Google images and prepare to be amazed at the type and variety of images that you get. If you don’t find a usable one, it will certainly get you started on the path.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr: Michael Gray Early Morning at Cinderella Castle Magic Kingdom Walt Disney World 2008

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Performance Sales and Training: Persuasive Presentation Skills to meet the challenges of today’s B2B Sales Environment