Quick Practical, Tactical Tips for Presentations

Posted on May 15, 2011 | 77 comments


In the past I’ve given some tips for handling meetings effectively, covering topics like:
– How not to let your meeting go down a rat hole;
– Dealing with the elephant in the room;
– Dealing with skeletons in your closet;
– How to make meetings discussions, not “pitches”
A tale of two pitches (I eventually invested in the first company that pitched)

Today’s post is a subtle one about positioning yourself in a presentation. This might be a VC meeting but also might just be a sales or biz dev meeting. It’s any meeting where you are in a small room and are being called on to present on some form of overhead slides

1. Sit closest to the projection screen – Many times a week I have entrepreneurs who do presentations for me and often I’m with some or all of my colleagues. From witnessing all of these presentations I can tell you that there is a right place and a wrong place to sit.

If you look at Diagram A above you’ll see that the presenters are sitting at the opposite end of the table from where the screen is. When I lay it out this way I’m sure it would be obvious to you that this isn’t the optimal place to sit but I’d say a good portion of presenters make this mistake. The problem is that the people your presenting to are forced to choose between looking at you and looking at the screen. When they choose the latter they are totally tuned out to what you’re saying.

If you look at Diagram B you’ll see that the people you’re presenting to can look you in the eyes and glance up at the screen. You’ll hold their attention much better. Your laptop will be synchronized with the screen so resist the temptation to turn around. Your goal is to work the room, look people in the eyes, judge people’s responses to your presentation and engage. You can’t do that if you keep turning around and looking at the screen.

2. Avoid a home team & away team (unless you’re in Japan) – Another thing I often try to avoid is the “home team” and “away team” format if I can. If you show up early to set up then it’s easy to stake out the right seats (Diagram B). First, sitting across the table from your teammates puts you in the right position near the screen but also it creates an environment that is not “across the table” and therefore easier to make things informal and build rapport.

I personally wouldn’t worry about it if it the team coming to see your presentation seems a bit surprised and says, “oh, we normally all sit on the same side.” Just smile and say, “Oh, sorry. We didn’t realize.” If you can get away with it, go for it. Sitting by the screen is the best excuse.

I’ve lately been attending meetings with our shareholders (called LPs or limited partners). I’ve learned that LPs don’t expect presentations to be done on a screen so I need to travel around with paper. That’s not really me but I’ll stick to convention. I’ve found it more difficult to break out of the home team / away team this way.

One warning: I was taught that culturally in Japan there is an expectation that you sit in the home team / away team format so you need to follow this convention. The away team (that’s you) sits with their backs to the door. I’m told that this comes from ancient times when you would always want to be able to see the door to know whether an enemy was coming so if you were hosting you always chose the side across from the door.

3. Work the entire room, don’t fixate – When you’re presenting to another team make sure to spread your eye contact evenly across the team to whom you’re presenting. Often in a meeting there is one or more talkers in the group of people you’re meeting and I’ve found that some people end up giving them all of the eye contact. I’ve also seen some presenters give all of the eye contact to the most senior team members.

Both of the scenarios make me REALLY uncomfortable when I’m in the room because I always notice. I can’t stop thinking inside my head, “What is the person who’s not getting no attention thinking? Are they offended?” Honestly, this is a very common occurrence and is a mistake. Don’t make it. Show respect to everybody you’re meeting.

4. Don’t have hand outs - If you’re doing a printed presentation (as I have been lately) you have no choice. But for all other presentations don’t hand out any printed materials in the meeting. Your goal in the meeting is to build rapport and to command the complete attention of the people to whom you’re presenting. Even the best behaved of recipients can’t help themselves but to flip ahead to see what’s coming. The worst behaved will literally never be on the slide you’re presenting. Yes, it’s rude. But you enabled them. If you really want to hand out notes do so at the end of the meeting as a “take away.”

5. Never present “eye charts” – One line that I hate hearing is, “I know you can’t read what’s on this slide, but …” or “I know this is a bit of an ‘eye chart’ but …” Listen, if I can’t read it then why the eff would you bother putting it up on the screen? In slides, less is almost always more. Bigger fonts, more visuals, less text should be your guideline. For any situation that requires a complex diagram then you must do a “build.” That means that you only show one section of the screen at a time and then hit the mouse to show the rest. No fancy builds (i.e. spinning, complex fade ins) – if you must use it keep it subtle.

6. If you have detailed slides you can hand them out in real time - There are times where teams want to go through detailed information in a meeting. One example would be detailed financial statements. In this instance I recommend coming with printouts of those pages, hold them in your folder and hand out when you hit that section of the meeting. Some great CEOs I know do this for board meetings.

So, there you have it. Tactical advice for meetings. It’s not going to make a bad company, good. But trust me when I say that if you get the tactical meeting dynamics right the rest of the meeting has a better chance of going more smoothly.

  • Anonymous

     @msuster:disqus  saw your other response above. I’m with David, I agree if the room is small it probably changes the dynamics. 

    I’ve always thought of sit-down meetings as being collaboration – i.e. your team working on a solution to a problem or a two-way discussion; as opposed to a presentation where you are showing something off and the spotlight is really on you / your team. Maybe stand during your presentation and then sit during follow-on discussion? I haven’t done any investor meetings yet so I’m not sure how often I can expect to be interrupted. If there is a lot of 2 way conversation then sitting could make more sense. 

    As an entrepreneur, now my curiosity is piqued – can something like standing vs. sitting change the outcome of a meeting? 

  • MichaelRattner

    I have a separate account on my computer just for presentations and when I’m showing people stuff in the office. I don’t even want to think about what online services I need to turn off or what directories might be open. 

  • http://www.webjoe.com webjoe

    Mark, I appreciate you sharing the subtleties and the “psychology” of a meeting and presentation dynamics.  One thing that I thought from experience to add, which I believe you mentioned before in an earlier post, is to have a designated speaker (usually the CEO) drive through the deck, then allow the whole team respond to Q&A (where the real value is) based on the context.  

    Unless the presentation has logical blocks like (marketing vs. engineering), I’ve seen some awkward presentations where everyone does a slide and it looks like some kind of college presentation where everyone has to participate.  Thoughts on this?

  • http://www.toddysm.com toddysm

    Very good suggestions, Mark!
    There is a book from Nancy Duarte called Slideology, which talks about how to structure your presentation, and goes even into details like what colors to use etc. I think it is a good addition to the list you have.

  • http://twitter.com/mark_wayman Mark Wayman

    Great and important list of effective meeting guidelines. I’ve sat through a few presentations and  I’m often amazed how cluttered the presentation computer desktop is.

    Before a presentation I always make sure I have all docs/reference material either bookmarked or dropped onto the desktop, a clean professional background image (if any) and nothing else. I think it’s a reflection of your own level of organization.

    100% agreed on shutting down email and messenger clients, also make sure any software updates are done so they don’t popup mid-presentation. Not a big deal but another potential distraction.

  • http://twitter.com/DanielCole DanielCole

    Great advice.
    Also, when someone is calling in stop talking to the speakerphone while ignoring those sitting in front of you! I can’t tell you how often this happens in meetings I’m in.

    Also, even when slides are not involved, sit closest to the individual you want to influence. Helps a ton. Do not site at the other end of the table. No one ever throws a hand grenade at their own feet.

  • Anonymous

     Great stuff as always!
    Just for accuracy though, you had the Japan seating reversed.Its the guests that sit furthest away from the door (usually facing it) and the home team who sits the closest to the door (often with their back to it).

  • http://twitter.com/dbcsg dbcsg

     what great additional tips, TY – btw the link above = file not found, here is a good link: http://ecorner.stanford.edu/authorMaterialInfo.html?mid=2597

  • http://growingforward.net Scott Asai

    These are awesome suggestions for giving a presentation in a conference room, especially seating placement!

  • http://about.me/humphrey HumphreyPL

    Thanks DBCSG. I thought I got the right link :) 

  • Anonymous

    Great advice Mark. I’ve been doing it all wrong.

  • Joshua Maciel

    I strongly

  • Maha

    I agree. I was also given the same advice by my CEO. And he was a micro detailed guy. Another advice – ensure a majority of the slides follow Q-E-D rule. 
    Title should state what you want to prove, body should demonstrate facts/show proof and slide takeover should state, hence the learning/imperative/conclusion…I found it very reasonable.

  • http://hacksocialmedia.com/ Tony

    I completely agree with your point about the eye contact. It annoys me whenever a speaker in class or at work is essentially talking with just the teacher or senior members of the team. I no longer feel like an active participant and instead a passive witness. 

    Another point I would make is the use of a whiteboard to make ideas more concrete. This not only helps you the speaker better articulate the idea you are trying to convey, but helps the audience understand the process in how you made your conclusions. 

  • http://twitter.com/Eatads Eatads

    Thats really great advice. I guess its something they don’t teach you in university. :-) 

  • Lakshmiramanan

    good suggestions.

  • Anonymous

    Totally agree with your suggestions especially the first point. My neck hurts when I have to focus to both presenters and the screen on opposite sides.

  • http://www.anishvshah.com Anish

    Very good tips!

  • Ian Tindal

    re diagram b the folk at the back don’t get much of a view unless the projector is well above or below eye level.

  • Ian Tindal

    ah overhead projector as in ceiling mounted I guess 

  • Bobby

    This is killer, thanks Mark. What are your thoughts on no powerpoint or keynote presentation, rather, stand alone prints sent out to everyone before the meeting. I personally feel that I am more effective when I don’t need to remember when to press a button to move on to the next slide. My flow is much more natural this way.

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  • http://www.bestoffiverr.com Charleen Larson

    I love these tips.  Positioning myself close to the screen is something I wouldn’t have thought of, and avoids head-swivel irritation (unconscious though it may be) for the others.

  • Linda

    I recently gave my first presentation and got lucky on the seating you recommend.  I knew instinctively to save the handouts until the end.  I was a little nervous so I brought notes on 3×5 cards, one per slide, to glance at and still keep eye contact.  They were hole-punched and on a ring to keep them in order and prevent an embarrassing spill.  The feedback was terrific.

    Keep these tips coming! Thanks!

  • Wannacatchsomesnooks

    Your use of your rather than you are or you’re stopped me from reading the rest of the article (paragraph under Diagram A).  If you can’t get that right then what else is wrong in your article?

  • http://www.vaporizerreviewsource.com Matt

    great guide.  should be required reading for anyone who has to do presentations as part of their career

  • http://twitter.com/outwardbox Outward Box

    good quick read, I like it.