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Elephants in the room

Elephants in the room

Client "I don't want to talk about this, because it reminds people of [X] which failed. Let's call that differently because there was that research project 10 years ago that did not work. Hmmm, let's not put that on page 3".

Me "But your technology solves all these problems from the past right?"

Client "Yes"

Me "And in meetings, where do you end up talking about all the time"

Client "People confusing me with technologies from the past"

Sometimes it is just better to take things head on and stop avoiding the big elephant that is sitting in the room but nobody wants to bring up in a conversation.


Image via WikiPedia

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Branching out

Branching out

Most business or scientific concepts come in a lot of flavors and variations. The objectively correct way to explain the concept to someone is to sketch the overall framework of possible permutations, then start filling them out one by one. This is what academic literature does, or a manual with a comprehensive index section.

To a cold audience with no understanding what so ever on the subject, starting with a layout of all the options is either frightening or confusing (probably both). Instead pick one model/option (don't let the audience choose), and take here through the whole thing. Then - and only if necessary - add more variations and options.

In most cases, the audience is not interested in a comprehensive representation of whatever field you are working in, she is pondering whether to buy your product or invest in your company. University-style lectures will not get you there.

 

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One level deeper

One level deeper

In order to design a good presentation, you need to understand things one level deeper than what you are actually going to share in your slides. If you are the inventor of the product, or the university teacher of the subject, that is no issue. When you are a junior executive, management consultant or a professional presentation designer, it is not obvious.

The most obvious issue of knowing your slides but nothing more are questions. They will be difficult to answer. In management consulting firms, knowledge documents are shared internally and used freely across the entire firm. Modified versions of slides end up in all kinds of decks and are often presented outside of their original context. A few questions from the audience can undermine the credibility of the entire deck.

As a presentation designer, going one level deeper allows you to think about the story you want to tell from scratch. Often the expert has left out bits of the story that are obvious to her, but crucial for a cold audience to understand the full picture. Or, the expert goes on and on about facts and details which are not important. If your knowledge is not broader than the 20 minutes of content covered in your deck, you cannot choose what to include or not.

Clients are often surprised that I insist on trying the product demo, understanding the mechanism of action of a new drug, or dig into the financial model line by line. It is also the reason that I think presentation designers cannot charge by the slide, since there is a big fixed cost component to understanding a new story, independent of the slide count of your presentation.


Image via WikiPedia

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"They are not interested in this"

"They are not interested in this"

Or maybe: "they understood it". When you don't get questions about a certain issue in your presentation does not mean that you should pull that part of the story. It is most likely that the audience understands your point and is ready to move on.

If it works, then there is no reason to spend a lot of time/slides on something. But leaving that part of the story out, creates a deck with only your contentious issues left without the glue that stitches everything together.


Image via WikiPedia

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Usually one thing is special

Usually one thing is special

Back in the 1990s at McKinsey, a very senior Director told me that while the Firm does high quality work across the board, in ever project there is usually one insight, one piece of analysis, one original idea, just one, that stands out and makes all the difference. And that one insight is enough to break a deadlock where the client or other consulting firms could not solve the problem.

In sales and investor pitches that is pretty much the same. Yes, smart phone use is growing, yes the team consists of a bunch of very smart people, yes security is a major concern of enterprises. People have seen it before. But that one unusual combination of technologies, or that completely new approach to a problem that is interesting.

Show why it is so tricky to solve. Show the solution. Show why it is so clever.


Image from WikiPedia

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The presentation is not always the bottleneck

The presentation is not always the bottleneck

The presentation needs to "transplant" your idea in the head of your investors or customers. They need to understand what the idea, and then be excited enough about it to buy or invest.

Paying a professional presentation designer to do your slide deck is not a guarantee to succeed. I see many presentations that might not be top notch, but which look professional enough and are clear enough to convey the idea. In those cases I am honest and say that the startup's funds might be better spent elsewhere.

Remember: investors might not like you, investors might not like the idea, investors might not like the market segment, investments might not believe that it will work, there are thousands of potential reasons for "no", and misunderstanding the story and/or the visual quality of the slides is just one of them.

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Presenting the conclusions vs the recommendations

Presenting the conclusions vs the recommendations

Most business presentations present conclusions. You did a ton of analysis, and now you take people through the data and their implications, often using the same slides the team used to get to those conclusions. "Look, here is what we did!"

Now, take it one step further, and tell what needs to happen next and why pretty much in the same way as you would talk to someone informally at the water cooler. What needs to happen, and why. Make slides that support exactly that, and attach the "look, here is what we did!" pack as appendix to that document.


Image via Add Letters

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Generic investor pitch presentation flow

Generic investor pitch presentation flow

Here is a story flow that I end up using often for investor pitches of my clients:

  • Good idea
    • Once, there was a situation
    • Something changes/changed
    • This creates an opportunity/problem
    • It's not easy to solve it
    • Enter [company]
    • It's clever
    • It's different from the competition and alternatives
  • Good business
    • Market: lots of (potential) users
    • Market: lots of dollars
    • Profitable: Unit economics work, company economics work (when company reaches scale)
  • Good startup business
    • Product/feature pipeline is doable
    • Sales & marketing strategy is doable
  • Good company
    • Team knows what they are doing
    • Traction shows that things are gaining momentum
  • Good deal (often not covered in a presentation)
    • Board configuration
    • Deal terms

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Sounding convincing, versus actually convincing

Sounding convincing, versus actually convincing

Some people naturally sound convincing. They have charisma, they find it easy to tell their story, they are confident, they can wing the presentation, they say that they consider themselves good presenters. They sound convincing, but do they convince?

Many of the people who fall in this category are not very good at reading body language. Maybe the buyer or investor on the other side of the table is (slightly) introvert and does not push back that much. Maybe if the same type of question comes back for the third time (after 2x the same sort of answer), the answer was not very clear. Maybe there is a difference between a great meeting with great energy, and a decision to buy/invest.

As a presentation designer, I have built up another type of self confidence: not being ashamed to ask again if something is not clear, even if it is the fifth time. If I don't get it, the presentation I am going to design will also not get there. Investors and buyers won't be as patient as presentation designers


Image from WikiPedia

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A personal speech

A personal speech

We recently celebrated my daughter's Bat Mitzvah and here is the process I went through to produce my short speech:

  • I did not make too big a deal out of the speech, it is not the State of the Union, I wanted to express my feelings to my daughter, and focus the attention of the entire crowd for a few minutes on her.
  • I created a digital notebook accessible from all my devices weeks in advance. Here I jotted down ideas: stories, memories, jokes, anecdotes, as they came along. It is hard to come up with ideas 24 hours before
  • About a week before the event, I wrote down a whole version, and put it away
  • A few days later during a bike ride a crafted an entire new story in my head, shorter, simpler, and less dry. Immediately after dismounting from the bike I wrote that one down.
  • I rehearsed a couple of time and created a short bullet point lay out of my talk that I could print in small font and hold in my hand. Important points are the key element of a paragraph (you can summarize those in 4 words if you have to), and lists ("what was that 3rd character trait again?")
  • During the speech i made sure that I was really "into the story" feeling the meaning of the words while saying them (i.e, not pressing play from memory and just recite text without processing what it means).
  • Instead of uttering "uhm", I tried to keep the composure and pause to form the next key idea in my mind before speaking it out.
  • And yes, I did not use slides!

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Backgrounds and introductions

Backgrounds and introductions

You got 30 minutes with a senior executive to present your case in a highly politically charged issue. Many people bring a very long deck that starts slowly, industry trends, backgrounds, history, until finally at 25 minutes we get to the real issue.

These type of presentations are not TED talks were we take the audience on an inspirational journey. Everyone in the room pretty much knows the background and history (if they did not, they could have read it the night before in your document), probably knows the arguments both sides are making.

Your 30 minutes is best spent showing why the combination of your arguments is the best one. You need to get the point early in your presentation, and have at least one slide that puts all the options, pros and cons on a page. Other slides in the presentation are backups for the points you are making.

Yes, that one slide can be busy, but it should not be unreadable. 

  • Keep sentences short, think of every word you are adding to the slide whether it is worth it or not
  • Group similar points into one overarching one
  • Spend very little slide real estate at no brainers to which both sides agree
  • Use colors, and layout to highlight the differences between the options
  • Project the slide over a white board if you can, so people can scribble and write on it

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Staring at a page and repeat

Staring at a page and repeat

When you start at a blank or partially complete slide, it is tempting to put that key message in. You don't have the overview of the entire presentation, so the key point will appear - duplicated - on many pages.

The same thing I often see happening on corporate web sites: multiple people make edits on different pages independent from each other.

The slide and the page on its own make sense, the overall story looks garbled and duplicated. 


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Problems, problems, problems, solutions, solutions, solutions

Problems, problems, problems, solutions, solutions, solutions

Most product pitches go something like this:

  • Existing solutions have this problem
  • Existing solutions have this problem
  • Existing solutions have this problem
  • Existing solutions have this problem
  • Existing solutions have this problem
  • Our solution does not have this problem
  • Our solution does not have this problem
  • Our solution does not have this problem
  • Our solution does not have this problem
  • Our solution does not have this problem

The story gets repeated, which makes the whole things boring. A better option is to elaborate on the problems, but then keep the solution section relatively short. You can even show a grid of small screen shots of all your "problem" slides, with tick marks over each one of them.

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One audience

One audience

Presentations have one audience. If you have 2 messages for 2 different audiences you need 2 presentations, or one presentation with 2 clearly marked sections. Using presentation A for audience B does not work, and diluting the content (a bit of A, a bit of B) results in nothing.

If you are lucky, you need to do some extra presentation design work. In the worst case, you might have to back to the fundamental positioning of your business, product, project, idea and cut one of the two options.

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Full circle

Full circle

Every pitch starts with an informal, but often very good, story/conversation. Then we start to complicate things with slides, templates, storylines, structures until we get to some slide deck. Then, it is often useful to step back to the very fundamental investor questions:

  1. What is it they are trying to do? (Often not clear in a presentation)
  2. Will anyone want to use it? (Rational logic, emotional gut feel)
  3. Can you make money from it? (There are many good ideas that do not deliver a profit)
  4. Can this team pull it of? (Probably most important question)
  5. (Can I construct a good deal given valuation, cap tables, Board seats, etc.)

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No patience for backgrounds and market trends

No patience for backgrounds and market trends

Some of my client work is for managers of business units in a large organisation who need to convince the corporate centre to make a politically charged decision. Some mistakes I encounter in the briefing document:

  • Most decks start with backgrounds, market trends, history of the unit, all information that is not directly related to the issue on the table. Only in the back (or on the last page), buried in a bullet point comes the central point of the meeting.
  • The overall pro/con arguments are not well laid out, you need to distill them from the pages, or sometimes it requires verbal explanation
  • Critical arguments that could be backed up by facts are not.

In these type of meetings with a busy senior executive I like to get to the point early. Lay out the options, and summarise why you think your preferred one is the best. Then dive with charts to support the points, where ever you can backed up by facts.

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Description versus story

Description versus story

They are different

  • A description is an exhaustive, dry representation of a concept. It is what education uses. It is better to add too much information, rather than being incomplete. Description have a standard format, structure (inside, outside, etc.). Descriptions are wordy translations of what can be transferred using an image in one second.
  • Stories get to the point. Anticipate the audience's obvious questions, take into account the audience context, build on what the audience already knows, use surprise and tensions, and a flexible structure that is not always the logical, standard one.

Image from WikiPedia

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The tricky point

The tricky point

The bar is rising in presentation design. More and more people know how to design decent slide, more and more people know how to explain a business concept visually.

The challenge that remains is often a very specific point. In most cases, this is the answer to an "elephant in the room" question, a very specific answer to a question an ignorant but intelligent layman might have.

Most people burry these super important points inside a "standard" slide. "Oh, that is the point I make verbally when we present the competition slide."

I tend to make these points more in your face. Dedicate a specific slide to it. Even sometimes putting things straight in the headline ("No, we are not another Google").

These slides can be hard to design. The best approach is to listen really carefully when you explain it verbally to someone. "There are 3 groups of products, 1, 2, and 3, but none of them address y". "Gasoline engines can do x, but with electrical power we can do this.". "Up until now you could not see at nanometer level, but now it is possible". Look at the sentences and see what they do. Divide things in groups (boxes), contrasts between two options, "From to". Your language gives clues about what visual concepts to use. They don't have to be sophisticated, they just should be clear. 


Image via WikiPedia

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Overcompensating

Overcompensating

Each pitch has a weak spot to overcome. How to deal with it in your presentation?

  • You can ignore it, sweep it under the carpet. You will have had a very pleasant meeting, but you are unlikely to land the deal
  • You can mention it, and support a very shallow case why it is not an issue. (Vague analyst quote)
  • Overcompensating, give 15 different possible analysis that triangulate to the most likely market size number. This just might scare your audience. If 50% of you time/charts are about this issue, this must really be a big deal.

Better: admit the issue is there (you scored some realism points in the process). Give an honest defence, but don't burry the audience in analysis (yet). Wait with that for the 2nd meeting which might have that issue as its sole agenda point.

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Make it personal

Make it personal

It can be hard to figure what to talk about when you are invited to speak at a professional event as an entrepreneur, an investor, a designer, a CEO.

One option is to prepare a business school-grade lecture about your profession. Organised, structured, all the key points laid out, with informative slides that will be photographed by hungry aspiring entrepreneurs, investors, designers, and CEOs. But in the world of Google and Amazon, there are probably hundreds of "how to's" for these professions available at the click of a mouse.

The other option is to make it more personal:

  • Case examples
  • Anecdotes
  • Stories

Yes, you might not hit all the points of investing 101, but the audience will learn something they cannot learn anywhere else, will remember more, and have a better time.

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