How to Present and Answer Questions in a Team Presentation or VC Pitch

Posted on Sep 3, 2013 | 48 comments


I sit through a lot of presentations. These range from companies pitching me to portfolio companies presenting at board meetings.

Each of these scenarios has a team presenting. Almost always the CEO plus members of his or her management team including tech, marketing, sales and/or product.

Some CEO’s are masters at communicating when team members are present. Some fare less well.

Investors love teams. They want to see a strong CEO / Leader who is in charge but they also want to see that you can lead talented people. One of the most important traits of a great leader is the ability to attract and retain high-calibre team members. Great leaders are able to empower their team members to make autonomous decisions and great leaders know when to empower them versus when to step in and course correct.

So part of seeing you with a team is to get a read on team dynamics and believe me all VCs discuss the team dynamics after you leave as in

Here are some guidelines for you – particularly for VC pitch meetings.

1. Everyone talks: My golden rule is if somebody on your team is attending the meeting they need to talk. Otherwise they end up looking ineffective or insignificant and this is especially troublesome if you’re raising money. It’s OK to attend a first meeting on your own but eventually people want to meet the team.

2. Assign out slides: The best way to involve your team members is to assign out slides they will own. Help them prepare and practice. Weave in their pitch to an overall pitch narrative. But I find when you don’t assign slides that each person owns often the quiet team members get silenced.

3. Don’t argue: I know there will be times you don’t agree with how somebody answered a question. Make a note. Discuss with them after the meeting. You’d be surprised how often people disagree in front of me and it’s clear when they don’t agree. I know that back in your office you will disagree with each other – but never in front of investors, customers, partners, etc. It’s a terrible sign and VCs don’t miss this. Behave.

4. Watch body language: Remember that more than 90% of all communications are non-verbal. As humans we pick up a lot of signals even when we don’t realize we do and you give them off in the same manner. We pick up eye-rolls, sighs, arm-crossing, boredom, etc. We know when you’re disagreeing even if you don’t speak. If you disagree or don’t like what somebody says pay attention not to give this off in body language. Just take a note to come back to it later. I know I’ll get mocked for saying it, but I actually think it’s important to think positive thoughts when you disagree with somebody. It’s a known fact from NLP. If you’re thinking positive thoughts your body communicated positivity and you’re less likely to let off negative body language. I do this all the time – especially when somebody is pissing me off and I don’t want it to show.

5. Quarterback questions: The hardest thing to coordinate is how to figure out who should answer questions when asked. This is as true for a VC meeting as it is for a sales meeting or any group setting. I always recommend you assign a quarterback in the meeting. Sometimes it is the CEO and sometimes it is the number 2 person. The goal is that this person listens to the question and then either answers or assigns out somebody to answer as in, “Donna, would you mind picking up that question?” In a perfect world you spread the questions out and resist answering every question yourself.

6. Have the difficult discussions before you come in: Any question a VC asks you is fair play. The tougher the question the better. For example, if two people are co-founder & co-CEOs I might ask, “if you got an offer for $100 million would you sell?” or “if you ran out of cash and one of you had to go who would it be?” I’m just looking to find out how decisions are made, how open you are with each other and whether there is clear leadership. Anything that can go wrong in a company will. So I prefer to know how people respond to adverse situations and who is empowered. So have the difficult conversations – it’s better that you’re all on the same page anyways.

7. Don’t talk over your staff: This is the main reason I wrote this post. It is the most common form of CEO’s undermining team members and is a less-than-admirable sign for leadership. There are two forms of “talking over” – the first is when the CEO feels the need to “preamble” every other person’s page. This is really annoying. As the person receiving the presentation you are thinking in your mind, “Why don’t you just let them speak for themselves?” Preamble is bullshit. It shows that you are domineering, a control freak or don’t trust your team. The second form of “talking over” is when a team member speaks or answers a question and you feel the need to summarize what they said in your own words. Don’t. I know your team member won’t always position things exactly as you’d like. Chances are they do a better job than you think. If you’re really not comfortable with how they position things let them know after the meeting. If they REALLY say something wrong then of course you can politely correct them.

Summary: Teams matter. Great leaders build great teams and weak leaders or dictators hire weak people or sycophants. You are at your best in a team presentation when your team is perceived as just that. We all love great ball players but we love leaders the most who know when to shoot and also know when to pass the ball.

Don’t be a ball hog.

  • http://www.mywifipassword.com/ Parham Beheshti

    Great Post Again,
    When I was lead sales guy for a software company, pitching fairly large telcos around the world, we trained our selves and all sang the same song in different languages, technical, business, customer satisfaction, marketing. All different topics were leading to same pitch from different directions.
    For some customers we were differentiating our selves by being cutting-edge, stable, great support or large customer base.
    If we were focusing on great support for example, all points from different team members were eventually emphasizing our great support from different points of view.
    We knew we had the customer when they were talking about our great support in the first meeting :)

  • chrshammmr

    So, while I can practice a talk, or a pitch concept, I probably just need experience in dealing with questions you did not yet discuss in a team.
    In your opinion, it is more important or more effective to disregard any differences within the team and let the person speak for the team, instead of admitting that there might be some things to internally? Almost any fixed opinion presented as a team opinion trumps the need for internal discussion?

  • Margarita Law

    Hi Mark,

    Really interesting post. A client of mine recently asked me to improve his investor deck, so this is incredibly right on time :D.

  • http://www.ibla.us/ Meganlisa

    One of your best ever (a high bar). Coaching teams the worst was the “ball hog”. Great if you can do it all alone (hint….not possible). I also do interviews for Coro (public policy program 75 years old) and those that can’t draw in others aren’t dynamic leaders..they are …well…not the bomb.
    Mark, thanks for your never ending words of wisdom and sanity!
    it takes a village.

  • http://www.repeatablesale.com/ Scott Barnett

    I’m apparently the typo police this week, another one I think you should address… point 7… you have “don’t not”… I think you want to kill the “not”.

    Other than that, right on! And this is just as true for any type of business meeting… especially sales calls.

  • Trent Rowe

    Rule #7…
    I’m sure we’ve all worked with someone who exhibits these traits.
    For me, #7 is one of the most important aspects of a start-up CEO for two reasons:

    1. At this stage of the Company, you’ll need to hear different ideas and inputs to be innovative. Drowning out others doesn’t achieve this.
    2. Do they behave like this on the customer facing side? A good start-up CEO in ‘sales mode’ will talk less and listen more.

    Fully agree that each team member has a role to play. No speaking? Well they shouldn’t be there!

  • Ryan Laubscher

    While I completely agree with all of your points, Mark, I think that the one situation where point #7 might require some flexibility is where a member of a team is presenting or answering a question in a language that is not his or her mother tongue. One of my backend devs is exceptional when it comes to his logical thinking and problem rationalisation, but his weaker English does sometimes lead to him verbalising his thoughts in ways that might be less than optimal (especially frustrating when I think I know what he is really trying to say). If this happens, I tend to ‘offer’ him a re-phrased version of what he has just said and then let him claim it, or otherwise, politely inform me that my version was not in fact what he was trying to convey!

    The technology world is packed with developers who are world-class in many respects other than their spoken English. When this is the case, a positive adjustment to #7 is probably a good thing.

  • danhimes

    I disagree. You should rethink this.

    The *worst* thing to see is some group that has Johnny speaking just
    because Johnny gets to play too. But Johnny has no interest, desire,
    nor skill in presenting and the audience just squirms through it all.
    Johnny is, however, a world-class expert on the patents involved, and
    can answer your questions precisely.

    I want to see leaders that know how to play to the strengths of the team
    members and not put the wrong people on the wrong tasks. Some of the brightest people you want in the room are not the ones that you want to present. The idea that we all have to ‘share’ the presentation is a bit too simplistic.

    I think you should change your golden rule to something more like:
    everybody should make a significant contribution to the discussion.

  • http://bothsider.com/ Mark Gavagan

    Terrific advice, though #3 “Don’t argue” might yield inaccurate or incomplete responses and cause you to miss out on valuable insight about how the team actually functions.

    While an outright argument isn’t helpful, if in your shoes, I’d prefer to see the dynamic of how the team functions amongst themselves while arriving at a complete and accurate answer (are they respectful of one another, is there excessive defensiveness, is anyone crying, etc.)

  • Ricardo Sanchez

    Ah! I have done some of the stuff you mentioned many times, thank you for the reminder and the heads up about keeping disagreements to ourselves and not talking over people.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    yup. sales 101.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Internally discussing an issue openly is different than disagreeing about it. Discussion = ok. Disagreement = no ok.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thank you. appreciate it. hope you’re well.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    ;-) thanks. fixed.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    re: your views on #7 – that is precisely the reason it’s a problem. the investor immediately draws the conclusion (rightly or wrongly) that this must be how things are done back at the office on with clients.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes. Of course you are correct about helping for language issues. Good carve out.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    so why not add a slide that allows johnny to speak to the topic of the patents? simple solution.

    if johnny doesn’t plan to talk, leave johnny back at the office working on patents.

    btw, answering patent questions with that level of detail is usually a due diligence item vs. a pitch item so the real answer is probably to have somebody else explain the high-level details in the pitch and set up a call with johnny later if the investor wants to dig in.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I do look exactly for that! I don’t mind if there are mild disagreements as it does show the team dynamics. but as advice for teams I suggest they minimize it because it adds risk and risks should be controlled where possible.

  • http://www.justanentrepreneur.com Philip Sugar

    I agree about not arguing in front of other people. But internally? I think we have a disagreement every day. You work them out you decide what is the best way forward, but there is no way you are going to get a group of bright people each with different roles to agree all of the time.

  • http://www.pointsandfigures.com/ pointsnfigures

    I’d also pay close attention to phrasing. How you phrase the same exact thing can have different effects. Know your audience. Corporate speak is not like startup speak. Totally different economic incentives and languages.

  • chrshammmr

    Thanks! It’s a fine line between an open internal discussion and conveying the impression of disagreement.

  • danhimes

    That’s not even a solution! That’s just ‘do it anyway.’

    You see, Johnny stutters badly, uses too many pronouns (you know what it’s like to sit through one of those presentations, right? After 90 seconds nobody knows what the heck ‘it’ refers to anymore) and is nervous speaking. Better to let a strong speaker make the pitch and have Johnny there for questions. He’s brilliant at that. And it could be patents or finance or whatever, the point is the same.

    Besides, sometimes you do get hard questions.

    Better to let the team members play to their strengths.

    EDIT: By the way, I think the rest of your points are quite good. I learned something from #7 (preamble). And, frankly, I’m more of a mind to share the fact that the team doesn’t agree on something (in the sense that we may be seeking wisdom here)- so it’s good to see that this may be seen a bad. Thanks for the write-up.

  • chandra dekeyser

    I totally agree. Yeah I know, hard to disagree with the guy :)

  • https://www.sharegate.com/ Chris@Alexander

    Great post and very timely – insights like these are invaluable. We use a lot of the same techniques in negotiating agreements between the US and other countries, as well – present a united front, lead negotiator has the lead and everyone else follows, defer questions to the experts present, and don’t disagree, debate, or otherwise “air the dirty laundry” in a public forum (unless you’re the lead negotiator, but even that is bad form). We actually see this broken by other countries, too, who will often revert to speaking in their national tongue – but you can’t miss the body language…

  • LisaLaMagna

    This is spot on, thank you again. The talk-over tendency is hard to stop in some people,

  • http://www.kineplay.com/ben Ben Milstead

    “Don’t be a ball hog” says it all. Great post as usual.

  • http://www.ibla.us/ Meganlisa

    Well! Well, crazy. Busy. You are so right things take longer than expected…but they are coming along great…so that’s good. Hope all is well with you!!!!

  • RogerVaughn

    I love this, but think it’s evidence of a good CEO. Addressing the symptoms only may suppress the cause, so the question is how would I present to my mom? A potential recruit? 10,000 people at a conference? As I read this, some of my staff I wouldn’t talk over, because I know they’re smarter than me at a certain part, others, I probably would.

    Which probably is a sign – but then, I am a control freak about certain aspects and should I do a board presentation, thanks for the tips. Too bad my key staff is in India! Flight, video, or webcam will have to work.

  • http://www.ringrevenue.com/ Jason Spievak

    Great post, Mark. The one thing I’d add … leave your phone in the car.

  • http://www.sketchasong.com/ Jacob Zax

    Thanks for this insightful post. I know great teams are incredibly important. Just wondering, have you ever seen an effective solo presentation? What were the circumstances?

  • kermit64113

    Mark – you have probably written on this previously, but how many should present to a VC? CEO, Finance, and Technology? At what point do you hit diminishing returns? Jim Patterson

  • Trent Rowe

    Jim,

    You might have to go back (way back) into time for this one….
    Here’s the link to Mark’s original post on this in 2009:
    http://www.bothsidesofthetable.com/2009/07/24/who-should-attend-your-vc-pitch/

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    ok. good to have more points-of-view. thanks for adding.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    true

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    most great founders are control freaks. it’s why I like to remind people “let your team be your team”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ah, yes. That, too!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes. Many. One is in many ways easier. But once you get to a wider audience at a VC they need to meet the team.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    first meeting 1-2. (ceo plus tech).
    partner meeting 2-3 (ceo + tech + one other … marketing/sales/product)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    holy cow! I forgot I wrote that. nice find! thanks. at least I’m consistent in my views ;-)

  • http://www.sketchasong.com/ Jacob Zax

    Thanks Mark!

  • kermit64113

    Thanks to both of you. For a growth round (this is a $10 million equity raise), assuming it’s OK for 3-4 to go along.

  • http://deliciouskarma.com/ Michelle | Delicious Karma

    Great post….and great advice! It makes complete sense that investors would want to see the whole team engage. There is no better to get to know a team upfront, and to see how they interact. I’ve been in meetings where folks think that only one person should talk….as they think its less distracting, or that the CEO is expected to make the entire presentation. But I tend to agree with you that it should be the team…as a company’s success is not just based on one person alone, but the team they hire as well.

  • http://www.davidblerner.com davidblerner

    This is just such a bullseye! Ok- adding to the list of Susterianisms that I’m sharing with my class this Fall… Thank you

  • Kyle Braatz

    For young and first time CEOs this is a very relevant post that hits home beyond doing presentations. My company means the world to me. Learning how to let go and put complete faith in my team was one of the hardest, but most rewarding things I have done. I just wish I didn’t have to make so many mistakes to signal the issue and correct it. Thanks for the post Mark.

  • MinhasV

    Mark, your thoughts on pitching an idea solo.
    What if your team is offsource employees and you are the primary?
    Or what if your idea needs funding in the early stages before a team is in place?

  • Adrian Meli

    Great post-interesting to think through. I think you have me convinced just in the example of leaving out “why” in front of titles matter. It seems like more people are on to the impact of titles thus increasing my frequency of link opening.

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  • Aspiring Entrepreneur

    This is a mofo of a post. It reminds me what makes business such a mofo of an activity to pursue — the joy is not in the money, the joy is in the *enterprise*. Of humans doing hard things *together*, and doing it well. This man seems less a VC and more a scholar of men and women.