How to Not Suck at a Group Presentation

Posted on Jan 31, 2010 | 138 comments


Business conferenceMost people suck at presenting to big groups.  It’s a shame because the ability to nail these presentations at key conferences can be once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to influence journalists, business partners, potential employees, customers and VCs.

So I thought I’d write a piece on how to not suck when you give a presentation.

1. Show some energy! – No great presentation can be delivered like a conversation.  You’re not lecturing to a college class, you’re not at a cocktail party and you’re not chatting with a small group in a board meeting.  You’re on stage!  People are sitting in their chairs for too long – most of them squirming.  Many of them have their iPhones and laptops ready to command their attention the moment that you start sucking.  You’re on stage – act like it!  Get out of your comfort zone.  You need to be an order of magnitude more perky than you would feel comfortable with in a normal conversation.

Project your voice.  Use your hands.  Don’t mumble.  Speak quickly sometimes.  Speak slowly to emphasize a point.  This is called “vocal variety” and it’s critical.  Speaking in a monotone voice is, well, monotonous.  A friend of mine once said about public speaking, “it’s far more interesting to the audience if you’re loud and evocative than if you’re actually making great points.”  This is so true.  Even better when you’re: loud, evocative and have compelling content.

If this isn’t naturally you then you need to learn it.  Go join your local Toastmasters.  It’s the best way to learn.  It’s how I did.  Or take an acting class.  No joke.  If you care about being a compelling presenter you need to work on it if it doesn’t already come naturally.

2. Tell a story – Every great presentation tells a story.  Stories have starts, middles and ends.  They are human and touch emotions.  The bring your product to life.  They are not buzzwords or bullet points.  Why do people think that buzzwords are going to interest audiences?

I always tell people that if you’re not creative in how you tell stories the simplest way to do so is by telling “a day in the life” of your potential user.  Establish the persona of the person who would be using your products.  Help us to get to know him or her.  Tell us what their life is like without your product – how they struggle.  Tell us about the breakthrough they’ll have when they’re using your product.

NEVER lead with features.  No one gives a shite about your features other than your product manager and your developers.  If you demo your product (which is always great) then tell us part of the story while you’re demo’ing.  Talk us through how the person using your product is benefiting through your technology.  Don’t: show us every single feature – we don’t care.  Don’t: tell us, “and now I enter my name, and then I put in my email address, and then I can pull in my social graph through Facebook Connect, and then then I can select the button here to Tweet out my actions on Twitter.”  Zzzzzzzzz.

3. Learn how to structure – Telling a story is one thing.  But make sure that you’re structured in the way you communicate.  You need to break down your message into key components.  It is generally best if you have a “theme” or “thesis” which if the main point you want to get across.  You then need sub-themes or “supporting evidence” to reinforce your key theme.  These are weaved through your story.

If you’re not naturally talented at good, logical structures you may consider purchasing The Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto.  She wrote the book that inspired the way that people at McKinsey and Accenture do presentations.  OK, hold back on your consulting humor.  But seriously her book is spot on.

3. Know your audience - I always try to find out something about the audience before I present.  I recently spoke at the business school at UCSD.  Before the event I wanted to find out what I could about the students.  I found out that they were older than most typical MBA programs.  They had more advanced degrees.  50% of them were interested in life sciences, 50% in tech (e.g. much more focused on life sciences than most audiences where I present).

I was the keynote for a dinner.  I walked around to a few tables and I asked students what would interest them.  I spotted my fellow VC Leo Spiegel (from Mission Ventures) who had spoken previously to the same group and asked about his experiences.

My choices – talk about the VC industry and where it is heading (which is what the dean asked me to cover), talk about how to start companies (which is partly what Lada Rasochova, the director of the entrepreneurship program asked me to cover), talk about how to get into VC (which a few students asked me to cover) or give advice on what the Rady School’s venture fund should think about when investing (the event was a kick off for this new fund).

My constituencies were broad and I felt like going deep into one single area would have bored large groups of the people on any topic I picked.  So I decided at the last minute to do a very quick & punchy version of all of them.  I had prepared notes in advance for any of the topics because I felt so confused before coming on my remit.  I think (?) it went down pretty well.  Usually you can tell when it does and when it doesn’t.

I also sometimes start a speech by asked for people to raise their hands if they fit a certain demographic.  “Raise your hand if you’re an entrepreneur, raise your hand if you plan to raise venture capital in the next year, raise your hand if you’re a service provider to the startup industry,” etc.  I can then change my focus based on the results.  But ONLY do this if you plan to adjust your approach.  If you don’t think you’re skilled enough to do it then asking my make you more nervous at the last minute than you need to be.  Also, asking is not appropriate at a marquee conferences like TechCrunch50, DEMO, Twiistup and the like.

4. Be unique / memorable – The stand out presentation at the last Twiistup event was Geodelic evidenced by their winning the “audience award” for best presentation.  The CEO, Rahul Sonnad, played the ukulele and sang a song about what their product did.  He did a great parody of a heavy Indian accent.  They had slides with moving images and music.  They planted fake questions in the audience with Geodelic team members posing as normal audience members shouting out something like, “can’t you just tell us what this means in normal words?”

OK, it was WAY over the top and I don’t recommend it for most people.  Rahul and Co. obviously have a great sense of humor and pulled it off.  But for you it is worth thinking about what you can do in more humble ways to be unique – memorable.  Remember that at many of these shows you’ll be up against 9 or 10 other companies that have also been selected (or in the case of TC50 – 49 other companies!).  They all start to blend together.  Do SOMETHING that makes you stand out.  For almost everybody – DO NOT attempt humor.  If you’re not already the funniest person you know in social situations you’re not likely to be funny on stage.  Nothing is worse than bombing at jokes on stage.

5. KISS – (keep it simple, stupid) The goal of the presentation is just to give the audience a basic sense of what you do and why it matters.  Don’t confuse this with a tour-de-force education on the finer details of how your company operations.  They simply need to know: who has a problem? how are you solving this problem? why does this matter? how big of a problem is it – really?

So I recommend that you GREATLY simplify your message.  The conventional wisdom is that the audience can only remember 3 simple things about any presentation 10 minutes after they’ve seen it.  I think 3 might be an exaggeration.  You’re there to leave an impression – not to educate.  It’s OK to throw in some facts & figures that people won’t remember because giving people numbers helps them understand the magnitude of the problem you’re solving.

6. Summarize – The old line about presenting was, “tell us what you’re going to tell us, tell us and then tell us what you told us.”  If you literally do this it will be very boring.  But the core idea is right.  If you want the audience to remember what you covered you need to be slightly repetitive with your key take-away message.  I like to have an “anchor line” which is my big take-away point and have it repeated three times throughout the presentation.

Example: you’re a fitness tracking company like FitOrbit.  You might say early on, “75% of Americans are overweight.  They’ve tried diet plans but nothing works.  In fact, they spent $2.4 billion on such plans last year.  You manage what you measure so the key to solving the problem is getting people used to tracking their performance.  You need to make it easy.  We’re offering an online community that connects personal trainers and people who want to get fit.”  Then you go deeper into the problem and the solution.  You remind people that it’s a big industry and people need to get online and track their eating and fitness to be successful.  Connecting to a trainer helps keep you in line.

Closing line: “FitOrbit is an online community for the $2.4 billion diet & fitness industry that connects people who want to be in better shape with trainers who can help them online.  Remember, you only manage what you measure.”

All numbers above made up.  Actual lines used are not from FitOrbit, they’re from me just for an example.  The point is – you need to revisit your key theme repeatedly for it to stick and you NEED to close with it.  Don’t make the audience think too hard – spoon feed them.

7. Make it visual – Bullet point were the worst thing ever created for group presentations.  Nobody wants to read your text on a big screen.  If you’re going to do that why not just print out your presentation and leave it on my seat.  Far more expedient.  You presentation should have almost no bullet points.  The way to capture an audience’s attention is visually.  Pictures set the image, your voice tells what would have been in the bullet points.

You need to memorize what you’re going to say when each image comes up.  If you wants some words to support the image – fine.  But make them sparse and make the B-I-G!  If you really get nervous and are afraid you’ll forget your lines have one 3X5 cue card in your hands for each slide.  Don’t write sentences on the – only key words to help you remember what you’re going to say.

One strategy I often employ.  I often do two versions of my presentations – one that has mostly images and one with a lot of supporting text.  I use the latter if I send out the deck after the presentation.  Sending out a follow up deck with a lot of images is silly – no one remembers the “meat.”  But writing lots of words on a slide you put up on a big screen so that later people will be able to understand what you said is also suboptimal.  My dual approach solves both needs.

8. For fawk sake, practice! – It was clear many of the people who presented at Twiistup’s Pre-Demo Night hadn’t practiced enough.  It is not sufficient to write yourself notes and read them before hand.  You actually need to do a dry run in front of friends, colleagues and others.  People don’t like to do this because it feels funny “pretending” to deliver a presentation.  That’s not you.  You’re going to read out your points like it is for real.  You’re not going to stop and go out of character and say, “oh, that didn’t sound right.  I’m gonna do this page over from the start.”  You wouldn’t say that on stage.

There is only one way to know how your presentation will go – to do it in advance.  Get real feedback from your listeners.  Ask them to be harsh.  Better that you know now than in front of 300 people.

9. Stick to your fracking time – If you’ve been given 6 minutes then plan a presentation that can be done in 5.  Trust me – whatever amount of time you’ve gone over in practice it will be longer when you’re on stage.  And if you’re done a minute early – bravo!  The audience will love you.  The best way to manage to a time is: a) practice with a stop watch and b) have less slides than you think you’ll need.  There is nothing worse than a presentation that runs over the end of the allotted time.  Oh wait, there is.  A presentation that is CUT OFF because it ran long.  And you don’t get to finish your points or summarize at the end.  Don’t be this person.

10. Have a “Plan B” – the show must go on –  At many, many events I’ve been to – there are times when you have technical difficulties.  The show must go on.  Have a plan b that you can fall back on.  Where you planning to demo?  Fine, but if it isn’t working you need to call an audible.  If it’s a really important show there’s an easy solution.  Have a PowerPoint deck with screen shots that you can walk through.  Simply say, “Obviously I preferred to do a live demo but I have a deck with screen shots just in case this happened.  Whew.”

11. Have someone else drive the demo – Don’t try to be super human.  Have somebody else drive the demo.  There’s nothing worse than the presenter constantly stopping their speaking to concentrate on typing text, clicking on tabs or futzing with the computer.  Have another person that drives the demo.  There actions need to be scripted so that you know exactly what’s going to happen.  They obviously need to practice just as much as you do.  If they do something out of sequence don’t hesitate to politely instruct them.  Tell them in advance to listen for your cues in case this happens.

Some final “no no’s”

- “how’s everybody doing today?” – lots of people start with stupid chatter like that at the start of their presentations.  It adds nothing.  You’re not a comedian warming up the audience.  Get right down to business.  I hate time wasters at the start of a presentation.  You’re already trying to stick to a rigid time plan.

- how many of you “X”? – OK, I already said above that you can ask if people are entrepreneurs, investors, etc.  But please don’t say things like “how many of you have ever had problems with Outlook?” or “How many of you are frustrated with Facebook?” or some similar line to prove your point.  You never know how the audience will react.  If you don’t get the response you expect it ruins your tempo and the audience will start to question your premise.  The risks outweigh the benefits.

- don’t turn around and read the screen – ooooh.  Big pet peeve.  If you don’t put up bullet points this will never happen to you!  But it looks really stupid PLUS your voice projects in the wrong direction.  Many, many people make this mistake.  Yuck.

- never say, “I know this slide is really busy and hard to read” – if it’s so busy and hard to read then WTF did you put it in your deck?  Are you a moron?  If you practiced you sure would realize that nobody could read it.  People say this all the time.  I cringe when I see it happen.  It definitely is an IQ test thing for me.

  • Jeanine Jacobson

    Great Post. Sending to all Founders in the Founder Institute, San Diego .

  • Shane

    LOL, I am so happy that you mentioned the acting class. I spent a significant portion of my childhood on stage, and it has served me so very well in these situations. In fact, I think it would be great to see a class in business school focus purely on acting, not even with a sales or business bent. If you could get more people to loosen up, presentations at these events would be a lot more entertaining.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    You guys did great. Hats off to you for not being phased by the technology failing.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, I did a lot of stage acting when I was growing up, too. It's why I'm not afraid of audiences.

  • http://www.JamesSiminoff.com Siminoff

    Another great post Mark. I think that the one that resonates most with me is not having text on the power points.

    I have always hated text in powerpoints and just did a keynote with only pictures, http://www.vimeo.com/9170415. If you scan through it really quick I think that you will like my slide on patents:)

  • alexandrafleur

    Couldn't agree more with #10 “Have a plan B”. The last thing one needs to worry about in the midst of unexpected technical issues is panicking over what to do or say. I'm an introvert at heart; expositional speaking on the fly is not an option, so I tediously prepare what I want to say beforehand. SO relieved I did. Everything that could have gone wrong with UCLA's tech did at that Wildcard night. My “speech” saved us.

    THANKS MARK for making yourself available. It was a pleasure meeting you. We appreciate your feedback and prospective and look forward to keeping in touch.

  • pek1960

    Great article. it is sad that brilliant people are axed below their knees when it is their turn to speak. The reading above is so clear, so simple, and yet we failed most of the time when the butterlies float in our stomachs.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Scanned through slides by clicking through presentation. Based on the way the slides looked – it is EXACTLY how the physical slides should look. Didn't listen to actual presentation yet but knowing you I'm sure it was full of energy and was compelling. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Shane

    LOL, I am so happy that you mentioned the acting class. I spent a significant portion of my childhood on stage, and it has served me so very well in these situations. In fact, I think it would be great to see a class in business school focus purely on acting, not even with a sales or business bent. If you could get more people to loosen up, presentations at these events would be a lot more entertaining.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    You guys did great. Hats off to you for not being phased by the technology failing.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, I did a lot of stage acting when I was growing up, too. It's why I'm not afraid of audiences.

  • http://www.JamesSiminoff.com Siminoff

    Another great post Mark. I think that the one that resonates most with me is not having text on the power points.

    I have always hated text in powerpoints and just did a keynote with only pictures, http://www.vimeo.com/9170415. If you scan through it really quick I think that you will like my slide on patents:)

  • Pingback: Cogblog » Blog Archive » Giving Great Product Demo: Screencasting, Baby!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Scanned through slides by clicking through presentation. Based on the way the slides looked – it is EXACTLY how the physical slides should look. Didn't listen to actual presentation yet but knowing you I'm sure it was full of energy and was compelling. Thanks for sharing it.

  • http://twitter.com/francisco_ramos Francisco Ramos

    These type of “been in those shoes” articles convey an authenticity that other VC firms and entrepreneurs could learn from. No wonder why The Funded and so many SoCal CEOs count you as a top VC.

    P.S. For those interested the website for Toastmasters in the UCLA area is: http://www.westsidetoastmasters.com/

  • http://richineverysense.blogspot.com/ scheng1

    haha, sounds like you back from hell! Welcome back! Some people are just not for stage. It's hard enough to keep them from shaking the building down. Asking them to deliver a presentation is worse than sending them to hell.

  • ibagrak

    Excellent resource. Thanks for the tips. My personal experience is that practice makes perfect. I used to suck at technical presentations, and I've gotten brutal feedback from the team for it, but the more you do it the better you get. The more you practice the better, and there is never such thing as too much practice.

    My most memorable presentation was the one where several people from the audience came up to thank me for being honest (while everyone else in the track apparently just delivered the same old boring sales pitch). I think respecting your audience above all else does wonders to establishing trust. Doesn't mean you should be talking about the bugs in your product, there is a fine line.

    There should definitely be passion and personality to the speaker. Once they recognize it, they start opening up and listening.

  • EfficientCEO

    Great article. I agree 100% – entrepreneurs need great presentation skills. When I was in college I decided that in order to become a great leader and successful entrepreneur that I would HAVE to become great at public speaking (not sure if I'm great yet, but I work on it every chance I get). Since few people are natural speakers and most people loathe doing it, I decided that I would learn to LOVE it instead. Now I actually do love it and it keeps getting easier and better. Here's an article I wrote about improving your presentation skills – http://www.efficientceo.com/richarddwalker/2008

    I look forward to more of your posts.

  • http://twitter.com/francisco_ramos Francisco Ramos

    These type of “been in those shoes” articles convey an authenticity that other VC firms and entrepreneurs could learn from. No wonder why The Funded and so many SoCal CEOs count you as a top VC.

    P.S. For those interested the website for Toastmasters in the UCLA area is: http://www.westsidetoastmasters.com/

  • http://richineverysense.blogspot.com/ scheng1

    haha, sounds like you back from hell! Welcome back! Some people are just not for stage. It's hard enough to keep them from shaking the building down. Asking them to deliver a presentation is worse than sending them to hell.

  • http://codercofounder.wordpress.com/ Ilya

    Excellent resource. Thanks for the tips. My personal experience is that practice makes perfect. I used to suck at technical presentations, and I've gotten brutal feedback from the team for it, but the more you do it the better you get. The more you practice the better, and there is never such thing as too much practice.

    My most memorable presentation was the one where several people from the audience came up to thank me for being honest (while everyone else in the track apparently just delivered the same old boring sales pitch). I think respecting your audience above all else does wonders to establishing trust. Doesn't mean you should be talking about the bugs in your product, there is a fine line.

    There should definitely be passion and personality to the speaker. Once they recognize it, they start opening up and listening.

  • http://millscom.com/expandable-phone-system/ Pat

    Sound as if you really care! Use hand gestures and stay away from notes and most of all sound confident!

  • EfficientCEO

    Great article. I agree 100% – entrepreneurs need great presentation skills. When I was in college I decided that in order to become a great leader and successful entrepreneur that I would HAVE to become great at public speaking (not sure if I'm great yet, but I work on it every chance I get). Since few people are natural speakers and most people loathe doing it, I decided that I would learn to LOVE it instead. Now I actually do love it and it keeps getting easier and better. Here's an article I wrote about improving your presentation skills – http://www.efficientceo.com/richarddwalker/2008

    I look forward to more of your posts.

  • http://millscom.com/expandable-phone-system/ Pat

    Sound as if you really care! Use hand gestures and stay away from notes and most of all sound confident!

  • Pingback: 6 Great Approaches to Public Speaking – ReadWriteWeb « Tech4buziness – Eng

  • lucy

    I enjoyed reading your post, it made me laugh reminding me of these silly mistakes Ihave committed more than once. What about giving practical examples from ur or others presentations on how not to do it?

  • lucy

    Justyn, I have also found enough material on presentation zen on the internet and suggest to check the slideshare for presentations zen. There are some three worth seeing.

  • lucy

    I enjoyed reading your post, it made me laugh reminding me of these silly mistakes Ihave committed more than once. What about giving practical examples from ur or others presentations on how not to do it?

  • lucy

    Justyn, I have also found enough material on presentation zen on the internet and suggest to check the slideshare for presentations zen. There are some three worth seeing.

  • http://www.eloqui.biz/ Deborah Shames

    You make a number of excellent points. After years of training service providers (including lawyers, accountants, insurance and financial advisors) who were technically competent but terrible presenters, we wrote the book: Own the Room: Business Presentations that Engage, Persuade, and get Results. Especially in this economy, no one has the luxury of losing a pitch, beauty contest or opportunity to drive their business. But like anything else, learning a new skill takes putting your attention on it and making it a prioity.

  • http://www.eloqui.biz/ Deborah Shames

    You make a number of excellent points. After years of training service providers (including lawyers, accountants, insurance and financial advisors) who were technically competent but terrible presenters, we wrote the book: Own the Room: Business Presentations that Engage, Persuade, and get Results. Especially in this economy, no one has the luxury of losing a pitch, beauty contest or opportunity to drive their business. But like anything else, learning a new skill takes putting your attention on it and making it a prioity.

  • Pingback: OrgStories Shorts: Group Presentation Advice with an Edge « OrgStories

  • http://twitter.com/jeffvincent jeffvincent

    Mark – an absolutely brilliant, well-thought out post. I really enjoyed it.

    I've learned gradually over my career that timely (and frequent) reminders to the audience of “why they should be interested” are absolutely crucial to keeping anyone paying attention and taking anything away. By reminding the audience of why it is important to them, they will be able to key in on the important points much easier. That and a touch of humor.

    But maybe the most important tip for learning to present that I could give is – watch top speakers! With these internets these days, there has never been an easier time to watch great presenters. Steve Jobs presenting the iPhone, George Carlin and his dirty words, even Bill Gates, releasing “malaria” mosquitoes at TED in Feb 2009. Just brilliant presentations, I haven't found anything else that works as well!

    Thanks again for the post Mark!
    jv

  • http://twitter.com/jeffvincent jeffvincent

    Mark – an absolutely brilliant, well-thought out post. I really enjoyed it.

    I've learned gradually over my career that timely (and frequent) reminders to the audience of “why they should be interested” are absolutely crucial to keeping anyone paying attention and taking anything away. By reminding the audience of why it is important to them, they will be able to key in on the important points much easier. That and a touch of humor.

    But maybe the most important tip for learning to present that I could give is – watch top speakers! With these internets these days, there has never been an easier time to watch great presenters. Steve Jobs presenting the iPhone, George Carlin and his dirty words, even Bill Gates, releasing “malaria” mosquitoes at TED in Feb 2009. Just brilliant presentations, I haven't found anything else that works as well!

    Thanks again for the post Mark!
    jv

  • http://www.cyberdera.com CyberDera

    spot on man

  • http://www.cyberdera.com/ CyberDera

    spot on man

  • http://www.cyberdera.com/ CyberDera

    spot on man

  • Dan Bowen

    The only way to become a great speaker is to do it enough that you actually love it. Prior to joining the Air Force I thought I hated public speaking…then I joined the intelligence world and I was forced to do it. Soon enough, when I gained command of my material, I found I loved it. When I built my first software company translating the passion for the product into a presentation was fun, not a something to be feared. I wish there were a crash course for young entrepreneurs to experience the ‘fun’ of public speaking rather than the mechanics because it would help them immensely.

  • http://tomordonez.com/ Tom Ordonez

    Don’t practice in front of a mirror. This is bullshit. Instead practice and record yourself on your computer so you can replay yourself. This can help you with timing and looking at the stupid things you say to fill in the gaps.

  • nannasin smith

    we failed most of the time when the butterlies float in our stomachs.

    ATmega16

  • Arpit Daniel Das

    This is one of the best article I have come across, though I knew many of these tips but I am so glad that I came across this fabulous article and learnt some of the new things on how to be a better presenter

    Really thanks for sharing this article

    Arpit
    authorSTREAM Team

  • David St. Geme

    great post, agree with most everything. kind of a huge dick toward the end though.

  • http://www.tablomedia.com/ Afzal Amijee

    Great post! In order to connect, some presenter ask rhetorical question during their presentation. If done well, you see people re-engaging and then nodding as the speaker proceeds to answer this question. Such a pause/questions also provides a moment of reflection. Ronald Reagan used this technique.

  • Michael Ozeryansky

    Thank you Mark, this is awesome!
    What do you think about using a personal story in a pitch? Picture of your kid, and related anecdote that made you go into edtech, as in my case? It’s kind of lovable, but wouldn’t look like ‘trying too much’?

  • http://blog.maxlytvyn.com/ Max Lytvyn

    Just saw this post – old but timeless (or evergreen as some growth hackers say).

    The last point in don’ts is gold – every time I hear someone say that I have to fight the urge to make the comment Mark makes here.

    Couple things to add that I found helpful:

    1. Pre-cook the demo as much as possible, especially if you do not have an assistant doing it for you (and I actually prefer doing demos myself – helps show the audience that you know and care about the product): login to the account in advance, pre-type everything that needs to be typed, if there is a long process, have several accounts open in different browser windows with different stages of the process so that you could fast forward and avoid filling in long forms with bogus info, etc.

    2. Do pulse-checks on the audience, especially if you are doing a canned presentation that has not been adjusted to the audience much. Initial pulse-check is particularly important – with some audiences you can start in the middle and avoid putting them to sleep by telling them what they already know, while others need some backgrounder in the subject matter before you start the actual presentation. In the middle, also build in a question or two to see if they are following. Sometimes even just asking “are you with me” can help. People a generally reluctant to say right away that they are not getting something, hoping to get it as you go along. But usually they just get more lost, and then they are reluctant to stop you because that would mean you would need to repeat too much.

  • d

    I believe the second #3 is the most important, very useful article though.