Sales presentations: Understatement makes a great big statement


“Brits aren’t the most uncivilised people in the World.”

By Peter Watts

Imagine you’re at a cultural event where representatives of national travel agencies are pitching their various tourism opportunities. How would you react when you heard that British sales statement?

A big chunk of the audience would respond with a mental process something like this:

 “Well of course you’re not uncivilized…..   There are lots of nations way more uncivilised than you…….   In fact, now I think of it, you’re really way up there towards the top league when it comes to being civilised. …….   And just to prove it, look at how wonderfully self-deprecating you are, you fabulously civilised little nation you!”

Now let’s consider another representative, only this one uses phrases such as “We’re the biggest….” or “We’re the best….” or “We’re the greatest……”.

The typical audience response to these great big claims?  An unspoken but instant view of “No you’re not!” This response may also be followed by one of the many local epithets of disdain that give language such tremendous colour.

It’s a challenge faced by sales presenters. You need to establish credibility for yourself and your product, but big-claims make the presenter sound bigheaded and audiences don’t like a bighead.

There is a solution. It’s a classical speech form called Litotes, which is used for dealing with exactly this problem. The heart of the technique is to express greatness by using a double negative such as “not unattractive”. It’s a global technique found in languages as diverse as English, Dutch, Italian, and Chinese.

Here are some examples of Litotes forms that you might use in a sales presentation:

Litotes sales statement:

Perceived by customer as:

“We’re not the smallest X in the business”

“We are the largest X in the business”

“We are not unrecognized for X”

“We’re award winning for X”

“We’re not unfamiliar with X”

“We have an intimate knowledge of X”

“It’s not unknown for X to be said about us.”

“X is said about us. You’re going to be saying it too!”

Litotes enable you to shout to the rooftops about your product’s major strengths, and do so without risking arrogance.

In terms of sales presentation structure, this isn’t a technique to either lead with or finish on. In those two prime locations you want big bold statements, whereas litotes is a guided missile of an understatement.  Use it during the middle sections of a pitch.

In this position the litotes appearance of self-deprecating modesty will keep your product’s credibility and your own personal likability warmly bubbling in the mind of the audience.

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