How to avoid blowing your presentation

You've finally got the opportunity to present your idea to the right VC with connections in your industry and a track record of success.  You rush out to work on your presentation pulling in all the data, industry trends, snappy graphics, and entertaining anecdotes that support your position.  You conclude with the big ask on the last slide having lead everyone inexorably to your stunning conclusion.  You wind up with 30 slides to present in your 15 minute slot.

And predictably, what happens?  You get through through two slides, there's lots of debate around irrelevant topics and you never come close to getting your point made.  In the last 20 seconds, you race to your last slide on a Hail Mary hoping someone will see the brilliance of your plan from your asks alone.  The meeting ends with a couple nice handshakes and we'll get back to you, which of course they never do. It's a wreck.

Obviously, you blew it, but what went wrong?  The problem was you designed a presentation you wanted to present, not one your audience wanted to hear.  I see this mistake made all the time, and not just with VC presentations, with all presentations.  So now, lets stop and think about how we avoid this mistake.  Go back to the beginning before you even start your presentation.

1. What is your goal for this presentation?
If you aren't clear on that, you're dead before you start.  You want to convince someone to invest.  In other settings, you want additional funding for your project, or to reorganize a team a particular way, or to shift to a particular strategy.  There's some reason you've gathered important people and are taking their time.  You want them to do something.  Be crystal clear with yourself about that before you even get started.

2. What does your audience need to hear?
The second biggest mistake I see is that people present what they want to say.  Perhaps they're proud of a slide they put together, or of the way they implemented something.  They want to talk about how good they are at something, but if the audience doesn't need to hear that, then you've just wasted the time.

3. Be Hyper Aware of the time.
In your most important presentations, you've got an opportunity with the attention of the people that matter.  But you don't have much time, and it's probably hard to get more.  Time is your most precious resource, and you don't have much so think through how you want to spend every minute.  If you've got 15 minutes or 3 hours, plan out how you want to spend it.  In a 15 minute presentation, I'd probably think through something like this:
  • Get them interested (3 minutes)
  • Give your pitch (5 minutes)
  • Support it (2 minutes)
  • Questions (5 minutes)
4. Grab their attention.
Most presenters are boring.  Not a little boring, really boring.  Plus the environment of a darkened room with 10-15 people around a table and a 15 minute slot isn't conducive to paying attention.  Right at the start, you've got to demand that people pay attention to you. If you're funny, say something funny, but be careful because it's really got to be funny.  Lame jokes don't get people's attention, they're just lame jokes.  I often like to start way out in left field.  A few times I've opened presentations by saying I want to talk about a "Really Important Topic" and then flash to a slide with the Boston Red Sox logo.  And then I start talking about the Red Sox, and people are hooked.  How am I going to tie that back to my main point?  Do I have a point?  Plus, the story of how the Sox beat the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS can't be told often enough.

5. Get to your point
Now that  you've got a goal, and you're aware of the time pressure you're under, and you've got their attention, now you need to make sure you get to the point.  Think carefully about every slide you put in front of your ask, because that's a potential rat hole that will prevent you from getting to your goal.  It's often a good idea to lead with the ask unsupported and have all of your clever analysis and details follow that up.  At a minimum, it ensures that you'll spend the time talking about what you want to talk about.  I've seen many meetings where you open with your conclusion, and everyone starts attacking it, and their questions often lead right into your supporting slides.  "Where did you come up with that revenue forecast?" "Why, I have that on the next slide..." etc.

6. Use words sparingly.  In general use pictures.   
A presentation should be a multi-media entertainment experience.  The fact that you're talking about the important topic you care about is an engineered coincidence to the observer.  Here's my aforementioned Boston Red Sox presentation (with where I was really leading them cut off).  You probably can't follow it.  That's the point. If I'm writing a presentation for you to read, then I've got to use words, but if it's something for me to present, then I speak all the words.  And there's no excuse for not finding good pictures.  With Bing Image Search, you can find the perfect picture in three clicks.  Can you use it legally?  Probably not...but most of the time you're presenting to 10 people who don't care about that.  If you're a presenter for a living and getting paid, then you better find images you're allowed to use.

There's a whole host of other material on how to give effective presentations out there, and I really consider this the basic "101" version.  If you don't think about these points, it doesn't matter how you use your dynamic range, the graphics, fonts, colors on your slides etc.  Your job in a presentation is to communicate and lead to decision, and you have to engineer your time and your delivery to get to that decision.

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*sigh* said...

Thanks for this, Boyd! I have to present at a conference in May and I'm totally applying your advice to my (already too long/too many slide) presentation. Wish me luck ;)

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