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.