How to Nail a Group Presentation

Posted on Oct 20, 2013 | 50 comments


Most 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 not to 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.

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.  If you care about being a compelling presenter you need to work on it if it doesn’t already come naturally.

Monotony. Kills. Speeches.

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

Be human. Try to connect with your audience. You need a narrative. I talked about the importance of the narrative here.

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 shit about your features other than your product manager and your developers.

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.

3. Know your audience - I always try to find out something about the audience before I present.  I ask the conference organizer all the details I need to know:

  • how many people will be in the audience?
  • who is speaking before / after me and on which topics?
  • is there a theme for the event?
  • what level will the audience be in terms of knowledge / experience?
  • what do you think they’d want to hear about?

You are there to speak to the audience so make sure you know what they care about and how to entertain them. If you don’t, you’re wasting your time and theirs.

4. Be unique / memorable - Remember that at most speaking events you have a ton of other speakers – most who are exceedingly boring. I  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.

But spend time before your presentation in creative thought. Don’t overwhelm the audience – just find some way to be on their memorable consciousness.

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. In any speech I do that is information rich I often have a summary slide at the end with the key points I want them to remember.

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 them – only key words to help you remember what you’re going to say. If you write sentences you’ll read them and you’ll … suck.

One strategy I sometimes 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. Practice! – 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 when you deliver it in front of 300 people.

9. Stick to your alloted 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.

1o. Pick the right speaking slot – This is the hardest thing because you often can’t control it but you’d be surprised that you can often ask the conference organizer for a preferred time and others don’t so you might get your request met. After all, as I outline here, you don’t ask, you don’t get.

So here are some guidelines.

  • try not to speak first. everybody is always late to conferences so the best people will miss your presenation
  • for the same reason try not to be first after lunch
  • best slots are in the morning. Why? for starters you want to talk early so interesting people see you speak and want to talk with you at the event. The earlier you go the more interesting connections you’re going to make at the event. Also, in the afternoon everybody has food coma and conference brain. They pay less attention
  • mostly make sure you don’t have the coffin slot. If you speak Friday at 5pm at the end of a 3-day conference you’ll be speaking to crickets. Everybody leaves early on a Friday to get home.

Some final “no no’s”

- don’t say “how’s everybody doing today?” or similar lines like you’re having a conversation. You’re not. You’re presenting. Lots of people start with stupid banter 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. No joke, many people waste 30-60 seconds of a 5-10 minute speech with preamble. Fools.

- don’t say “how many of you have ever experienced x … (ie how many of you have ever had all of your photos erased on your home computer)” in your presentation. 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.  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 why did you put it in your deck?  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.

Photo Credit: Asmund on 500px

  • Scott Owens

    Nice post. Also: Don’t end with “That’s it”.

  • http://www.hypedsound.com/ jonathanjaeger

    x2 on Be Unique / Memorable. Spend the extra time to have one main point that can be repeated easily in addition to being substantive. When I think TED Talks, the word “spaghetti” comes to mind because of Malcolm Gladwell’s popular TED Talk that references spaghetti sauce types. Regardless of whether you liked the talk or not, it sticks in your mind.

    That’s why your (Mark Suster’s) blog post “Invest in Lines, not Dots” is so often quoted. Sure, it has a smart message behind it, but it’s also a memorable analogy because it’s visual. Also, the term “grin fucker” is memorable too, ha! By the way, your blog post ranks number one for grin fucker on Google search in my incognito browser.

  • José Ignacio

    Great advice! I learned a lot about preparing presentations from Garr Reynold http://presentationzen.blogs.com/

  • Trent Rowe

    Mark,

    THANK YOU. Finally an easy to read ‘how to’ on getting this right.

    The most important element is the story. If you get the story right, #3, #4 and #6
    will fall into place. Telling stories is what connects people, and sparks that
    desire to ‘on-tell’ your story to others.

    The only other piece of advice I’d add is to really rehearse
    your vocal variety for impact. Vocal inflection, pregnant pauses, and even anger grabs people’s attention. Get it right, it’s magical. Go in half-baked and it comes across as insincere.

  • Michel Birnbaum

    Thank you for sharing these great tips; I started using graphics in pres. a couple of years back and it does keep you on your toes when presenting, you better bring your A game! the other advantage is if you need to present the same speech again, it keeps things fresh.

  • http://www.johnsjobs.me/ John’s Jobs

    All useful tips – if someone gets just 2 or 3 of these right they will be light years ahead of most people.

    Here’s a few more that can be ‘quick wins’ for folks who might not have the time to really put the effort in and do something like Toastmasters**:

    - Work the room BEFORE you speak (corollary to Know Your Audience): There’s no better way to get some audience members on your side than by doing some socializing before your presentation. It makes you come off as more approachable / personal and that can never hurt!

    - Any ability to limit your ‘filler’ words (‘umm’, ‘aahh’, ‘ya know’, ‘like’) instantly uplevels your speech in the eyes of the audience. Those words, rightly or wrongly, will make you seem less prepared and can really take a speech off track. Instead of using these words, take a pause and gather your thoughts. Toastmasters really puts an emphasis on this and I think rightfully so.

    - Don’t apologize for screw-ups: Everyone, even the most practiced public speakers, make mistakes during speeches. The big difference is that they don’t acknowledge the screw up. In fact, because they don’t, most of the time the audience has no idea they made one.

    **Anyone who has 4-6 hours to spare per month to improve their professional skills should be in Toastmasters … but that’s a different blog post all together :)

  • http://www.bedrockanalytics.com/ Will Salcido

    Thanks for the advice Mark. I just signed up for my local Toastmasters via your link. Seems like a perfect place to practice.

  • http://byJess.net/ Jess Bachman

    Another tip, don’t memorize it word for word. Then it can easily trip you up if you forget what line you are suppose to say next, as you will be much more nervous when its live vs in practice. Make sure you know your material well and you can just riff off multiple points/slides.

  • http://www.onetact.co/ Rishi

    Mark, While I do agree your first “no nos”, I do think if one can make the audience crack up in the first few seconds that helps. Of course it has to be relevant, quick, and witty. Having said that, one shouldn’t just try to force a joke at the beginning of every presentation. One other thing about humor – if you F up in between, I think it’s okay, just accept it and make fun of yourself rather than getting nervous.

    Love your last example — ‘never say, “I know this slide is really busy and hard to read” – if it’s so busy and hard to read then why did you put it in your deck?’ — often many people (including me) don’t realize when we do it. Something to keep in mind.

  • http://smitpatel.com/ Smit Patel

    Funny how Gary Vaynerchuk’s talks literally follow all of these. Story, compelling, easy to digest, standing out (thanks to f bombs), and no slides.

    I should just stop saying “good post” anymore. If I comment, it’s a given that it’s a good post :)

  • http://www.spindows.com/ Clay Hebert

    One more reason not to go first…..possible tech issues. I gave a talk this summer and the opening speaker had a broken or dead remote. I felt bad for her. It screwed up her flow and rhythm a bit but she recovered like the pro she is.

    By the time I was up 45 minutes later, the AV team had a backup remote with fresh batteries for me.

    A proper tech walkthrough / dry run can help prevent this, of course but there can by a myriad of possible tech issues and some won’t appear until showtime.

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan

    Really nice summary, Mark. Thanks!

    I’d like to add 2 things –
    1. People don’t remember more than 3 things (and even that if you are an awesome speaker). So instead of taking a slide by slide view, I find it helps thinking about the overall objective/message and tying slides to it where possible

    2. Do whatever it takes to be authentic. That’s all people remember. Reading bullets, trying to be funny, etc., do not help here.

  • VS Joshi

    Great article. I hope it is okay if I share it on Facebook..

  • Mahendra

    Lots of real stuff! good one!

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ awaldstein

    My #1 rule is talk from the heart.

    If you are factual but boring, perfect but aloof you loose.

    If you are passionate and get most else wrong (which you shouldn’t) you can still win.

    The big leap from a group of 10-20 to a room is no interaction. You are not presenting you are performing. Not everyone can do this well.

  • Jiri Krewinkel

    Funny how I read the first paragraphs and thought “that’s something you learn in Toastmasters”. Then I saw you DID go to Toastmasters. To anyone reading the comments- I endorse going to your local Toastmasters.

  • http://about.me/kirsten.lambertsen Kirsten Lambertsen

    A great topic that isn’t talked about enough in startup circles.

    I’d like to add: have fun with it. Nothing is more contagious than someone having fun. I think many of the great Ted talks are great examples of this.

    Of course, the only way you’re going to be relaxed enough to have fun with it is to know your material inside out, backwards and forwards, and to keep it simple.

    I also think you should grab every chance you get in your talk to “open the kimono.” Every real, human, gritty, warty, truth you can tell that supports your point pulls your audience in. People love the truth.

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

    I had the privilege of attending several speaking events featuring Admiral James Stavridis, then Commander US European Command and Supreme Commander, Allied Forces in Europe. He spoke in medium to large forums to Ambassadors, Foreign Ministers, Defense Ministers, and more than a few Prime Ministers. He could speak for 20 minutes easily, with _4_ slides, ALL of which were pictures. From relatively young guys like me to senior heads of state, he impressed people, and everyone could walk away remembering almost everything he talked about. It really was borderline magical. It also made me realize that just like professional athletes, some people put in a lot of hard work to develop their skill sets, and some people (in addition to the hard work) just “have it.”

  • Randy Bretz

    Don’t use spreadsheets . . . never, ever, ever put a spread sheet on the screen. Pick the one or two most important numbers and discuss them. Tell a story about them, but don’t put a spreadsheet on the screen.

  • Jane M Scott

    Mark
    I’ve had the good fortune to see you speak and work a fidgety audience. I agree wholeheartedly with keeping it simple and telling a story.
    Thank you for disclosing an informative, easy to follow set of common sense guidelines. All noted, and link saved for future reference.

  • Ben Carcio

    It sucks that we can discuss entrepreneurship without using sucks.

  • http://www.5toolgroup.com/ Jay Oza

    Should you thank the audience when you are done?
    If not, then how do you end the presentation so the audience knows that you are done.
    Should you just ask for questions indicating that you have now moved to the Q&A part of the presentation if there is time for it?

  • Greg Mand

    1) Confidence, confidence, confidence…whether a large group or a small prez, I’ve found that projecting confidence (not arrogance!) goes a long way in creating a bond with your audience
    2) Never, ever admit to making any mistakes…learned when I was a radio DJ; people may tune in (on a radio or in a large ballroom) a second after your mistake and wouldn’t know about it unless you say something. So don’t.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I agree with confidence for sure. In many ways confidences and tone matters as much as content. I know people will cringe at that but my experience tells me it’s true

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I usually end by saying exactly that, “thank you.”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    yes. i like to end with thank you

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    ha. that’s funny re: grin fucker. re: analogies – I agree. it’s why I wrote this: http://www.bothsidesofthetable.com/2011/05/17/the-importance-of-the-narrative/

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    vocal variety matters a lot and it’s the single biggest mistake inexperienced presenters make.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    exactly! you can do the same presentation 5 different ways!

  • http://nextchapterbk.com/ Janine Holsinger

    Awesome post, Mark. I was always nervous about public speaking until I started pitching my startup and getting consistently hammered with questions afterward.

    One thing that has helped me is watching great presenters and taking crazy amounts of notes. Before a pitch, I like to play Tony Robbins and Gary Vaynerchuk presentations for inspiration – they are awesome storytellers and seriously, energy make all the difference!

  • http://veespo.com David Semeria

    What’s wrong with jokes?
    Jokes rock big time.
    Take my wife, no please…

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

    Oh, super, super important point.

    I did a presentation where I was showing multiple web pages….computer was an old i.e. browser that did not support tabs.

    I sucked.

    Shit like that will knock you off your game…..hard.

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

    Yes see my point above. People love when they hear you are not infallible….that you have fell on your face.

  • http://about.me/kirsten.lambertsen Kirsten Lambertsen

    Exactly :) Plus, it’s just good storytelling. There’s no drama to a story where nothing goes wrong, no obstacles are overcome!

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

    So, so true. Always wondered why it was different from 20 to 200. You nailed it.

  • http://www.startupsandiego.co/ Eric Otterson

    Great read…I am laughing at the dry humor and sarcasm

    Another to add to your NO-NO’s:
    * Don’t waste time explaining mistakes to the audience.

    Ex:
    ” Sorry, I’m late, [out of breath, pick your excuse] because I was…..blah blah”
    ” Oh, I forgot…..”
    ” Um, this slide should have been updated [or wrong slide, out of order, etc.]”

    Point being, pausing and commenting on little glitches causes you to lose momentum, it redirects the audience’s attention away from your main point, and does nothing to further your effort (do you feel better after you comment on a glitch?)

    Stream roll through as though it was normal. Who in the audience knows the difference? If they do, they aren’t likely to stand up and call you out on it.

    Hopefully you are spell-binding them with the content rather than the delivery, and they don’t care (about the glitch). They want to hear what you DO have to say, not what went wrong, that is one way that audiences can be very forgiving. Keep on rolling, the show must go on.

  • http://www.startupsandiego.co/ Eric Otterson

    Good point on the screw-ups, I ditto the idea in my post above (I’d admit my screw up that I should have finished reading the posts first…but…well…then I wouldn’t be following my advice!)

  • http://www.retentionscience.com/ Jerry Jao

    My favorite is KISS. It def is easier said than done.

  • Rachel Aubrey Morris

    a link to this could maybe just live subtly at the bottom of conference-organizers’ email signature :) one to add: ask someone you’re VERY close with to tell you your verbal or physical tic. maybe it’s saying ‘ummm’ between thoughts. maybe it’s snapping fingers by your side or pushing hair behind your ear. could be a repetitive habit for starting thoughts, like “honestly” “truthfully” “essentially”. But when someone does this throughout a whole presentation, it draws my focus completely away from the message. And these are just habits (I had a ‘like’ problem that occasionally rears its ugly head) and can be broken!

  • Josh

    try not to speak first. everybody is always late to conferences so the best people will miss your presenation

    Does that mean people who are late are best?

  • Eduardo Teixeira

    I totally recommend “the presentations secrets of steve jobs”.
    Its arguments are based pretty much on the same topics. Got any idea from it?

  • Mike Cottrill

    Mark – This post is fantastic. I’m so glad you were able to capture some of the easiest things people can do to liven up their stage presence. It’s amazing how many conferences I go to where people don’t grasp even two of the 10 points you make here. Quick question: You mention few/no words on a presentation slide. I’ve always tried to keep it to 25 words or less. In your opinion, is that too many? Thanks

  • http://objectreload.com Mateusz Drozdzynski

    And don’t spent too much time on your first or second slide explaining who you are and how to contact you. You haven’t proven to your audience that you’re worth contacting in the first place.

    Twitter handles and email addresses go on the last slide (preferably to stay up during Q&A), not the first…

  • Anthony Gair

    As a creative mumbler, I shall take heed! And congrats on coming first on google for “grin fucker”, made me laugh!

  • lauren

    great tips!

  • Alexis Nguyen

    Funny article & all good points.

    In regards to developing a take-away message, one way to
    check if your message is memorable is to say it to a friend, see if they can
    repeat it back to you, then ask them to repeat it again a day later. Iterate
    this with several friends. If the majority of them remember, you probably got a
    good thing going there.

    I found this tip while reading an article written by Olivia
    Mitchell, link here: http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/content/memorable-key-message-10-minutes/

  • Capital On Stage

    This is great advice! Perfect for the VCs pitching next Thursday in New York. Thanks for sharing.

  • Danny Juskiw

    All great advice, but did anyone else notice that number 3 is listed twice?

  • Dan Loa

    While reading this, I compared your advice with your keynote presentation at SeedCon Chicago ’12. I must say… there are very little/no discrepancies.
    Mark Suster = one of the best speakers I’ve ever had the privilege of listening to!

  • Nancy Christianson Stuart

    I love this. It’s possible that I now love you :-)