February 23

Sales Lessons from the Oscars


I watch the Oscars with a seller’s eye: Who is really connecting with the audience? Who is surprising us? Who seems like they just got the invitation that morning? True to form, this year’s Oscars provided many gems, some brilliant (three words: Neil Patrick Harris) some typical (really Patricia Arquette, you knew it was coming, you couldn’t have memorized your speech for us?) to “I’m here, but I’m not super happy about it (Eddie Murphy and Sean Penn).

Because the Oscars is a collection of live mini-presentations and speeches given in front of an audience with a short attention span, it’s a great opportunity for salespeople to learn what works, what doesn’t and why.

And the Oscars for…

1. Addressing the elephant in the room go to Neil Patrick Harris:
There was much negative press this year about how little diversity there was among the Oscar nominees. Host Neil Patrick Harris very quickly got this out of the way with an obviously planned misquote, “tonight, we honor the best and the whitest…” He acknowledged the issue and then quickly moved on. Nicely done.

Sales Lesson: Walking into a situation where there is some obvious obstacle, whether it’s a prospect who prefers another vendor or has had a bad experience with your company or product? Ignoring it is simply wishful thinking. Diffuse it early through humor (carefully) or with a well-crafted story or analogy, and then move on.

2. Encouraging audience interaction: Octavia Spencer
NPH got Octavia Spencer to watch his locked ballot box during the entire show. Not only was it clever, it crated on-going interaction as he had to check back with her occasionally and even get other members of the audience involved.

Sales Lesson: Find numerous ways to get your audience involved early in your presentation. Don’t wait until the end when it’s too late. You teach your audience how to respond from the very beginning, so establish the rules up front and follow through. Check in with your audience throughout your presentation.

3. Getting to the point. JK Simmons
This isn’t specific to a presenter, but you may have noticed that the very first award in the Oscars is for one of the major categories: Best Supporting Actor (JK Simmons). This is not by chance. Television networks know that you need to give your audience what they came to see early on in order to keep them engaged.

Sales Lesson: Provide an insight or something of value in the first few minutes with your prospect if you want to grab their attention. Don’t hold back on the good stuff until twenty minutes in or your audience may be taking a mental commercial break.

4. Best use of an analogy: Benedict Cumberbatch
For most of us, film editing doesn’t mean a whole lot. We’re sure it’s important, but don’t really know what’s involved. When Benedict Cumberbatch introduced the award he helped us picture it with this analogy: “Imagine being dropped in a field of wheat and being asked to look for a needle. That’s what film editors do every day.” In a few short sentences I had a much better understanding of film editing.

Sales Lesson.  Use an analogy or metaphor to help your prospect understand a complex solution or recognize its application or importance. A spot on story can paint a picture in your prospect’s mind and make it easier for them to grasp how your solution works or why it’s important.

5. Juxtaposing the unexpected with the expected: Michael Keaton
NPH saying “Acting is a noble profession” while standing in his underwear, ala Birdman. The winning director for best foreign film, Ida, opened with this: “How did I get here? I made a black & white film about contemplation and withdrawal from the world and here we are at the epicenter of noise and attention.” The unexpected stands out in a sea of the familiar.

Sales Lesson:  Standing in your underwear may be going too far, but unusual comparisons or contradictions can wake up your audience and draw them in. It shows them that you are not just like everyone else and that they need to pay attention.

6. Rehearsing like a pro:  Meryl Streep
If you think Meryl Streep’s beautiful, heartfelt introduction to the celebrities we lost this year was just something she “whipped together” think again. It was actually a fairly long (in terms of Oscar talk) monologue, which she memorized and managed to deliver as if the words were her own.

Sales Lesson:  No, we can’t all be Meryl Streep, but let this inspire you to practice key pieces of your presentation or sales conversation that you want to impact your audience. Proper monologue preparation and rehearsal can help you connect to your material (and thus better connect to your audience) as well as keep it fresh and natural every time you say it.

7. Lightening up a heavy subject: Citizen Four
The team from Citizen Four who won for Best Documentary took the podium with a gravity usually reserved for something more serious, like a funeral service. Granted, the subject about Edward Snowden, the NSA and civil liberties was hardly light-hearted, but their one-note demeanor didn’t add to the import of their words and didn’t stand out as it would if they had showed some joy in winning an award or being recognized by their peers.

Sales Lesson: Variety is key ingredient in a presentation. Don’t strike one-note with your prospects. Look for opportunities to vary your approach and delivery or your message can feel very heavy-handed or repetitive to your audience. Sometimes we are talking about very serious subjects, but take a lesson from the moments that engaged you as an audience and lighten up!

photo credit: 135063_1010 via photopin (license)


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  1. Nice analogy even if I admit not having watched the Oscar! So can’t quite add to the analogy. But I like the first point, effectively hoping that a major issue will not crop up isn’t the right way. It will. But rather than defusing, I find that tabling it, asking if this is going to be a major hurdle and then working a way round it with the prospect helps address it. Maybe that’s what you mean by diffuse it?

    1. Great suggestions: “Tabling, asking more questions and trying to find a work around” to deal with an issue that hasn’t been addressed and thus potentially defusing the situation. I don’t mean to imply that defusing will necessarily make the problem just fizzle away. Asking questions could lead to an uncomfortable conversation, for example, but it’s probably a conversation that needs to happen in order to move past a particular issue.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this one Ms. Hansen, all of your examples were clear and entertaining. Some of the points I have experienced myself while there were others that I haven’t even thought about. It is admirable the way you are capable of turning the Oscars into a very short, quick to the point yet entertaining lesson.

    Thank you


    1. Thanks for your comments April! I’m glad you found it valuable. I enjoy the show for the performance aspect as much as the variety of presentations and acceptance speeches. I think it’s helpful to see that good presentation skills don’t “just happen” – even for successful actors. Awards shows are one place where there are no special effects when they take the stage (usually), no second, or third takes, and a live audience, so it puts them on a more level playing field with the rest of us who do presentations as part of our job!

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