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You care about your company history, others less so

You care about your company history, others less so

The speaker puts up the “Company background” as the first slide with bullet points full of founding dates, employee numbers, when the second office was opened, etc. etc.

You probably lost half your audience.

For the presenter, the company history is incredibly relevant. It summarises your entire path (10 years) that got you here neatly on 1 page. It makes total sense.

For the audience, company history does not matter that much (maybe with the exception of luxury brands), what solution are you offering today? Also, company history slides tend to look remarkably similar across companies. So the audience probably saw it before, somewhere else.

Often, the history slide is a left over from when the company was still small. It always was page 2 of the deck, we just updated the employee and office numbers for each presentation. And the same slides are probably used in different presentations. When the founder addresses the annual sales staff gathering, the company history told directly by her, might actually be funny and/or insightful. But she is unlikely to stick to the bullets on the slide. And, the same bullets in the hand of a sales rep sound boring and without context.

Photo by Pawel Kadysz on Unsplash

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Moving a business audience

Moving a business audience

Everyday strategy presentations are not TEDTalks that makes the audience cry. The subject matter is usually a bit dryer, and the audience is not there to sit back and watch the show, instead, the objective is to get out of the room as soon as possible.

So, what can "move" a business audience? I thought back about decks I have seen, and here are some examples:

  • A surprising fact, something that goes against the common believe of the audience. If you have one like this: put it incredibly bold on a slide (a simple comparison bar chart with 2 bars can be all that you need).
  • A logic flow that involves 2nd and 3rd order effects: especially when discussing scenarios, game theory, options, uncertainty, possible outcomes. Thinking beyond tomorrow and see the inevitability where things are going on the current path, can wake/shake up the audience
  • A brave quantification of something that people think cannot be quantified. Yes, you know you are wrong, but with ranges and focusing on what matters and what not, you can put things in perspective.
  • Being complete, putting up all the available options for discussion, options that include "this is not how the industry does things". This can sometimes be mathematical process of generating all possible combination of actions
  • A case example, customer story, that could be extrapolated to the entire company and could have huge implications

This is not a complete list, but something to get you started.


Cover image by Tanner Larson on Unsplash

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Presentation = agenda

Presentation = agenda

In some cases, a stand up presentation is an emotional story telling performance that moves your audience to do something they did not know they wanted to do 60 minutes before.

However, not every presentation is like this. The majority of slides are presented in small conference rooms, the "trenches" of the economy, where middle management tries to get a decision agreed in the middle of opposing viewpoints, office politics, and interpersonal meeting dynamics.

In these meetings your deck is actually the agenda for that meeting. Make sure things get discussed, make sure people have the facts, make sure the right trade offs are presented, and make sure a decision is made in the end.

Think about this when putting your deck together. Which facts are obvious, which facts are disputed, what info is counter intuitive, what is likely to spark a big debate, what not, etc. etc.

The presenter is telling a story, but also orchestrating a number of humans.


Cover image by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

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The point is that there are many points

The point is that there are many points

Everyone knows (from experience) that bullet point charts full of text don't work. Still, now and then, I need to make a chart that is full of points, literally.

Why?

To make the point that there are tons and tons and tons of arguments in favour of something. The business, the abundance of points, IS the message of the chart.

How do I keep it readable?

Separate the chart that makes the point that there are lots of points from the slides that actually explain the points:

  • Show the overview chart that lists all the points, but not as written out sentences. For example, you can use circles with short descriptors in them: "low cost", "quick", "beautiful". Resist the temptation to go into detail about each of the circles,
  • Bring all (or a subset) of the arguments to the forefront with individual slides, here you can show your cost comparisons, speed comparisons, etc.
  • After the supporting slides, bring back your original chart with a slightly different headline

Note that this is an exception. Most arguments can be nailed with 3-5 decisive points. Rarely, I encounter the logic that "Each of these points are 'mah', but if you add them all up, a compelling case arises". In that case, use the above approach.


Cover image by averie woodard on Unsplash

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Cartoons in presentations

Cartoons in presentations

Want to use a cartoon in your presentation? Here are some things to consider:

  • Humor in a presentation can work, but be careful what sort of jokes you pick. A cartoon that was very funny late last night when you prepared the slides, could not fit the meeting context the next morning after that earlier remark that did not go down well. If you hardwired the wrong cartoon in your slide deck, make sure to click-skip really quickly.
  • Do you have the copyright for the cartoon you just found on Google Image search?
  • Does the cartoon actually add something to the presentation, or is it a business cartoon cliche?
  • Can the audience actually read what is written on the cartoon from the back row?
  • And finally, do you give the audience enough time to read it? As soon as you put a cartoon on the screen, everyone will start squinting to read what Dilbert has to say, and no one is listening anymore what you say at the same time. It might be best to pause your presentation until the first giggles start emerging from the audience. And remember the audience reads the cartoon for the first time, and needs more time than you to understand it. If you have to, you might have to read out the cartoon to the audience.

Cover image by Samantha Lorette on Unsplash

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Legal presentation arguments

Legal presentation arguments

Sometimes I work on presentations that border on legal or regulatory disputes. Two parties need to convince some independent party or regulator that they are right, often with the help of independent experts.

The briefing presentation at the start of a project usually is a left over of the original project presentation, it makes the case for the project in general but buries the actual smaller issue that is being discussed now, for example environmental impact.

What follows is a verbal discussion with the old slides as a background: then we did this, then we hired her, then we installed this technology, then they disputed the data, then we did a test (but changed it a bit), they came up with these counter arguments, that do not really apply to this situation. To the outsider who has not been part of the process it is completely impossible to understand the arguments. 

In a situation like this:

  • Start from scratch and build a presentation in which 95% of the time is spent on the issue at hand
  • Make sure that your flow of logic is clear
  • Separate the arguments that are undisputed, from more contentious issues
  • If the other party has a major counter argument, there is no point in hiding it, you might as well put it in your presentation prominently, and with your solid argument why it is not a valid point
  • Pick your battles, if the other side has a point that is pretty much true and hard to disprove, don't spend energy trying to make an impossible case against it. You will loose credibility when making other points that really count

Cover image by Chris Brignola on Unsplash

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"There are people who get it, and people who don't"

"There are people who get it, and people who don't"

The other day, one of my clients simply wanted to give up on explaining his concept to the typical 50% of people who "simply did not get it". 

In life there are many situations where you "give up" on certain people. Students who fail the entrance exam of a university, job applicants that did not make the cut, athletes who miss the qualifying threshold for the Olympics, contestants who did not make it to the next round of American Idol.

When presenting your company, you need to put the blame not on the audience, but on your presentation. Your targeted audience should understand your message. And that audience can differ: a presentation to a general audience, journalists, scientific experts can build on different levels of pre-existing knowledge and background.

Often, as a presenter you suffer from the curse of knowledge, you are so deep into your own story that you cannot possibly imagine how someone who is new to the subject cannot get it. Another reason for the disconnect is different types of reasoning/thinking of people. When people frown in disbelief, it might not be because that they did not understand what you are trying to say, they might have a valid different approach to evaluating your pitch that you have not yet covered in your presentation.

When you leave the room, your chosen audience of high school students or elite academics should understand your message. Whether they agree with it, that is a second challenge, but they understood where you are coming from.


Cover image by Khara Woods on Unsplash

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We only have 5 minutes...

We only have 5 minutes...

We only have 5 minutes... I noticed that my best decks are often the ones that were designed for very short time slots, usually pitch competitions where a speaker would have 5-10 minutes to give it all. Why?

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"Story telling" in a business context

"Story telling" in a business context

The majority of business pitches do not have the entertainment value of a Harry Potter story. It is hard to transform that customer case example where you installed new servers that are 4x faster into a fast-paced, spell-binding campfire story. And no, few people will be interested in the 30 minute mini episode of a "day in the life of" your hypothetical customer in Amsterdam who had a scalability issue.

So what elements of "story telling" can we use in everyday business presentations? Some ideas.

  • A sequence or flow that keeps the audience interested to hear the next point. This flow might be completely different from a text book business analysis.
  • Some sort of framework, context that keeps the whole thing together. If you use a quantified case example, us the it throughout the presentation to explain different concepts. If you use analogies, keep them comparable.
  • Show data points to which the audience can relate to. Per bottle, % of sales, hours saved. Abstract numbers don't talk
  • Slow down in details that are interesting, relevant, have the courage to skip over content that is obvious and or repetitive
  • Introduce unexpected transitions, "You think this is obvious, right? Well it isn't. Did you know that..."

Business presentations can use elements of story telling without having to open with "let me tell you a story..."


Image via WikiPedia

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When the problem is not the story

When the problem is not the story

All my clients want that presentation that uses story telling and captivating images to hook its audience emotionally and gets them to sign an investment check right here, right now.

But sometimes that beautiful story is not the issue. Ideas can be pretty simple to describe, the market size easily understood, what is left is the concern that company can actually make it happen.

Business models, cost structures, go-to-market routes, hiring plans, product releases, all "boring stuff" that pretty much only can be captured in McKinsey-style tables. Ah, that annoying presentation designer who keeps on pointing out inconsistencies between the slides.

These cases also highlight why certain companies can do incredibly well in big audience pitch competitions, but fail to raise money from professional investors scrutinizing the details in small conference rooms.

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Is it OK to be "negative"?

Is it OK to be "negative"?

People say that in marketing, it is bad to be negative, trashing the competition's product and/or business. I can see how that makes sense in public advertising. Being the angry company who keeps on kicking others will not help build your brand in the long term.

In closed room sales and investor pitches, I think it is a bit different. You don't have much time, and the audience across the table might not know the market very well. Stressing your positives and hoping that they will fill in the comparison to the competition might not be enough.

The tone of a presentation does not have to be negative, the differentiation versus the competition should be made very clear. In most cases, there is a positive way to spin this story. Both models have a reason to exist: your product works great for this segment, the other product will work better in that segment.

Even in the consumer market, people are looking for the head on comparisons, even if they are absent in advertising. Product reviews by trusted sources, and online comments by honest consumers, trolls, and competitors impersonating as a reviewer will inform the buying decisions.

For corporate buyers or investors, this back channel to get the real story does not really exist, and/or they do not have the time to find it, so being a bit more explicit might not be that bad.

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Why has this not been done before?

Why has this not been done before?

I ask this question often in client briefing meetings. "Your approach seems obvious, why did it take humanity as 2017 to come up with this, why is it so hard to do?" It is a useful question to take the position of the outsider. For the expert/insider the answer is so obvious that it does not even have to be included in the slides. For the outsider, it might be the most important piece of information.


Image via WikiPedia

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Favorite metaphors

Favorite metaphors

People have different presentation styles, and their favorite stories. It is very hard to "force" a completely new visual story metaphor on a good presenter who does a great job selling to customers or investors.

For example, when the CEO "forces" her particular visual analogies in the sales decks that should be used the a 10 person sales force, the result is not always good. The slides will be put on the screen, but then the audio track usually deviates with "hmmm, another way to look at this is [FILL IN FAVORITE STORY].

I usually see how flexible people are with coming up with a completely new way to tell a story, especially with someone with strong presentation skills.

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One idea at the time

One idea at the time

In technology, a new product often involves a complete new approach to a problem that did not exist before. Benefits impact on multiple fronts: it makes things cheaper, faster, or all of a sudden you can combine things, do things differently. The story is far more complicated than "this car now runs at y liters gasoline per 100 km versus x".

The tendency of a company insider is to create a chart that explains everything. It is a bit like 5 people speaking at the same time, each expressing one nuance of the story.

  1. Skill level one: write out the entire story in verbal bullet points
  2. Skill level two: craft some sort of visual diagram that brings it all together

The diagram works for people who understand the story already, all the elements of the story are now in one concise page. Every element of the diagram is a visual reminder that unlocks a full story in the viewer's head. 

The fresh audience does not have this background. The only way to tell the story is isolate what is really important, and design charts specifically around that. Then, if you have to, you can construct a page that ties it all together, after the audience had a change to grasp the individual components.


Image via WikiPedia

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Story vs outline

Story vs outline

When people write a presentation outline, they usually write questions: "why there is a market opportunity, why we are best to capture it, why it is great to invest in us".

The questions are mental shortcuts for the expert presenter, the answers is crystal clear in her head. The presentation looks incredibly logic on paper, yes, this is exactly what we should be talking about, answer these questions.

Missing though is the actual bridge between the questions and the answers in the head of the expert. Difficult for the audience to understand, or for the junior analyst to work on.

A better way to make a story line as actually write down in super short sentences the answer to these questions. You will bump into issues like repetition, order of arguments, where to go in detail, where not, where buzzwords pop up etc. etc.


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The stumble chart

The stumble chart

I am in the business of designing presentations that I hardly ever need to deliver myself. Now and then I come up with this brilliant visualization/analogy that simply does not stick with the client.

First she asks what it means. I explain. "OK".  In the next call: "remind how that chart works again?". I follow up with a passionate explanation. During rehearsals: "So, here we have an [um] great example", and the energy in the pitch grinds to a halt.

Time to take the chart out.

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Sizing IT markets

Sizing IT markets

The Internet is full of IT market forecasts with highly precise predictions of product sales 5 years from now. Will citing a piece of research convince an investor? No. A $1b market forecast in 2021 does mean that the investor should open up the check book and invest in your startup with zero sales.

How to use these market forecasts? Here are some thoughts:

  • Always approach market sizing from multiple angles. A top down market research estimate is one source. Trying combining it with a bottom up analysis, look at how the IT budget of one company could change and extrapolate that to the entire market.
  • While forecasts by market research companies might be highly speculative, their quantification of today's market is probably reasonably accurate. Established firms have been around for many years, gathered input from many sources, including sanity checks such as adding up the turnover of all the suppliers in an industry. Your company is unlikely to be the size of IBM in 2 years.
  • IT as a whole does not grow that fast anymore, single digit % growth every year. What fluctuates are sub segments inside the overall IT spend. When you are sizing your market, think about which IT spend category are you going to cannibalize?
  • Market research is a useful source of "boxes" in which a VC can put you. "Where do you sit?" is probably a question you get often. While the numbers might not be 100% correct, market research gives a shared vocabulary about how to think about a market, and whether things are roughly big or small.
  • Related to this, while VCs might not believe the point forecasts of market research reports, the junior analyst at the VC firms is likely going to use them as a starting point in due diligence. It is good to be prepared and go through the same process as she will.
  • When selecting which market research firm to use as a source, think about not only whether they produce data that exactly matches the category you are in, but also look at the breadth of their overall coverage. A firm that covers a lot of ground will provide a nice broad, consistent definition of the world of IT.

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Too many things in your head

Too many things in your head

When you are deep into your own story, your mind has hard-wired all aspects of it in one complex mesh network. Everything is related to everything, everything is connected. The upside: you are the expert and know what you are doing. The downside: it is extremely hard for you to explain your idea to someone who comes in cold, without the bits of information, and without the connections between them.

After I return to my office after a client briefing, I usually open a blank piece of paper, take a pencil, and jot down the big ideas I heard in the meeting, after I have given the brain to calm down in the 30 minute journey back. No worry about story lines, no worry about structure, no judgement about what is detail and what is a big message, and no going back to my meeting notes. 

These thoughts often become the core building blocks of the presentation. These are the points that I want others to remember when leaving a meeting.

Many people get to this point, they figure out the key messages of a presentation but make the mistake of communicating them in an overly simplistic, or minimalistic way. Just writing "the competition is not flexible" as a big, minimalist statement in a nice designer font is not going to make it stick. Many times, proven/showing these high level messages actually requires going into some depth.

So, a good presentation does not dumb down content. It unravels the wool ball in your head and creates a sequential line of ideas that can ultimately form the basis for a wool ball in the minds of your audience.

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"Why should people invest in my company?"

"Why should people invest in my company?"

Google is full of free investor presentation advice and presentation layouts. The problem with all of these is that they are generic and not specific to your situation. So blindly filling out a presentation template is unlikely going to give you the best pitch.

Here is another way to craft your pitch. Think of an investor you respect, and even better, an investor whose reasoning you sort of understand resulting from conversations and or blog posts. Now, jot down an imaginary conversation that could have taken place if you find yourself next to her in the check in line for a flight. The most important part of the exercise is to anticipate the likely questions are face expressions you are going to encounter: "Really, what is it about?" "Hmm, that is a sort of [x] for [y] right?" "But are any of your users actually sticking around?" "What do people pay today for this?" "But you have no machine learning expert on your team" "Yes, I know that online video consumes a lot of bandwidth, but what does it have to do with you"

 Now take you notes from this conversation and use it to craft the flow of your investor pitch. Then, go back to the standard investor presentation templates and use them as a check list to see whether you haven't forgotten anything important.

Why is the business school, standard, investor presentation structure not always the right one?

  • Investors might already know a lot about a market, a technical vertical segment, so there is no need to do the 101
  • Investors might actually know nothing about a particular market, and you will have educate them before getting to the actual pitch
  • There are "elephant in the room" questions screaming to be answered first, even if they allow show up on page 25 of your template
  • Visual or verbal analogies might require a story sequencing that clashes completely with a standard investor pitch template
  • If you have 500 pages and/or 3 hours of material there is no alternative but to structure things orderly. ("Hey, where were we again?")  In 10 to 20 minutes, you have a bit more creative freedom to shuffle things around
  • Standard presentation structures might not work in a conversational pitch style, if you start rattling down your Harvard-approved pitch the investor already gets worried: "Huh oh, we are going to get this one for the next 10 minutes" and you are likely to be interrupted with a question that invites a dialogue.

Art: Leonid Pasternak, The Passion of creation

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Over-summarizing

Over-summarizing

You had that magical slide sequence a few years ago that you used to pitch your product. But as you got more confident with your story, and more importantly, as you got bored with hearing yourself say the same thing over, and over again, you start cutting things down to your current page that collapses the whole thing in just 1 slide with 3 words that can be presented in 5 seconds.

But your audience is likely to still be at the level you were 3 years ago... What would happen if Disney strips the magic out of their stories and just presents you the generic dry plot line?


Image via WikiPedia

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