People find standing up and presenting to an audience one of the most stressful things they do in their working lives but it's something anyone can achieve. As with learning a musical instrument or a new language, it can be mastered with the right guidance and by constant practice.
I don't see any difference between formal presentation and any other form of communication. Whether you are conveying your company strategy to your staff or discussing your job plan with your boss, the basics of getting the message across are the same though the media you use to do it will vary. For entrepreneurs who are trying to convince people to invest in their venture, getting this right is crucial to securing funding.
I don't regard myself as an expert at pitching and presenting but I have had many years experience of speaking at events ranging from Board meetings to team meetings, small events to very large conferences. My largest audience was when I had to make the keynote speech at an internet conference in Lisbon and there were nearly 4000 people in the auditorium! I thought I could handle such an event until I was introduced, went up to the podium, and found myself frozen in fear. Thankfully I managed to recover and deliver my presentation without anyone being aware of the initial stage fright.
I have also attended more presentations than I care to remember, and have seen many, many people pitch their ideas to investors when looking for funding. Sitting in the audience, you see very quickly how good presenters thrill the audience and poor presenters have them snoring in their seats.
So what makes a good presentation? The truly great presentations I have seen have a few things in common. First the presenter is able to tell a truly engaging story. We are used to engaging with stories from our earliest childhood and respond well to people who can tell a really good story. This story forms the backbone of the content of your presentation. And just like the stories you read, your presentation must have elements of drama (the problem), a hero/heroine (your solution), a cast of thousands (your customers?) and a happy ending (revenues, profits, world domination!).
The second important thing is how you tell that story and thirdly, what supporting materials you use to tell your story.
For me, the presentation that embodied these three qualities the best was by an IT manager in a large multi-national who was tasked with getting approval from the Executive Board to invite formal bids for a major, multi-million pound SAP implementation in the company. He knew that none of the Executive team was technically minded and decided that he would use a different approach. He stood up and talked (using only 2 slides) about a day in the life of an employee in that organisation, the systems they engage with from the minute they walk through security and touch their ID cards on the reader to the moment they leave the office .This includes the breakfast they buy in the canteen, the meeting rooms they book, the forms they fill in to recruit staff and manage them, the process of appointing external suppliers and paying their invoices, to claiming and paying staff expenses. He then asked the Executive members if they knew how much all this cost the company. With a dramatic flourish, he then unveiled the first slide that had one figure on it - a huge number littered with zeros. He then talked about what a new staff journey would be with SAP in place and showed how much the company would save each year, unveiling the second slide which also had a large figure with several zeros on it. After a few questions, he got approval to go ahead. I saw him again recently and he is now the CIO of that company and a Board Director!
The biggest problem entrepreneurs have is being able to distil their venture idea into a coherent story. Many focus the pitch on their brilliant idea and spend almost all their time describing what their product does and forget about all the other important things like customers, competitors, financials and execution. Another common trait is entrepreneurs burying the key information about their venture under a mountain of facts - research data, audience uptake estimates, world populations and the like. How many presentations have you sat through which left you with more questions than answers?
This leads me on to the matter of the supporting materials you use to tell a story. I have sat through many'death by PowerPoint' presentations where slide after slide of data is put up on the big screen, or as I sometimes refer to it, the 'big scream'. The record is still 92 slides in one presentation, at the end of which the audience had lost the will to live. Don't feel you have to use slides if you think you can tell a great story verbally, supported by hand outs with key data. If you do use slides, remember - less is more. Think very carefully about what you are going to put onto those slides. Don't get sucked into producing one with four empty boxes depicting your customer segments, for example. You can easily talk about these. The rule of thumb is only use a slide if it supports what you are saying, clarifies complex information with pictures or graphs, and highlights the key details that you want your listeners to remember. Using funny graphics can work well as an ice-breaker or as a last slide but use these sparingly as they can start to grate if overused.
The critical element of any pitch or presentation is the delivery - how you tell your story. This is the point of failure for many pitches. Great delivery can overcome mediocre slides but no number of brilliant slides can save a disastrous delivery style. Remember that you are selling yourself as much as you are your venture. Your audience need to feel confident that you can and will deliver and that they can trust you with their money.
The key mistakes people make are:
- Not taking the time to build a rapport with the audience. Asking them a question can be a good way of breaking the ice, for example 'how many of you use your phones to take photos', if phones and photos are relevant to your pitch.
- Using the slides as an emotional crutch and losing the plot if one of the slides is misplaced. Also, reading the slides word for word. Please remember that most of your audience can read. It is both boring and irritating to hear someone regurgitate a slide verbatim. You should know 'your story' by heart. The slides act merely as pointers. Never, ever read from a script as this is a complete taboo (although I do know a couple of FTSE100 CEOs who do it)
- Not maintaining eye contact with the audience and keeping your eyes either on the slides or on your notes. If you must use notes, glance at them from time to time but keep your eyes firmly fixed on your audience
- Going way too fast. Presentations are not a means of data transfer from your head to the audiences' head via your slides. Slow down, pace yourself and breathe properly. It is perfectly acceptable to ask the audience if they have understood what you just said. That way, they have an option to stop you and ask for clarification
- Shuffling, mumbling and rocking backwards and forwards on your heels. Many people do this and it's very distracting so try and stand still with your feet firmly planted. If you're addressing a large audience, move from one end of the podium to the other but do it slowly and deliberately.
Perfecting your pitch won't come straight away. You need to practice at home, first on your own and then in front of an audience willing to be critical. Take their comments on board and practise some more. When you come to the big day, try to engage with your audience and enjoy the experience. They are interested in new ideas and they have money to spend so you are speaking to an attentive and willing audience. It's not like facing Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight and nobody is trying to catch you out. Leave any nail biting, shuffling and other social tics behind you, pin on a big smile and an attentive expression and try to enjoy the whole experience.