It’s been several years since I last gave a presentation. Back when I was an active entrepreneur I was often asked to present to everyone from a business school classroom of twenty-five to a couple of thousand people at a conference. But I’ve spent most of my time as a mentor – going on a decade – criticizing other people’s pitch decks and presentations, not delivering my own.
But I was pleased to be asked to present at a meeting of MIT’s Postdoctoral Development Association (PDA) at The Broad Institute, probably because I’m one of their mentors this spring and I have a lot of experience as both a mentor and an entrepreneur.
I gave the presentation last night and it went ok, but far from great. In thinking about where I went wrong I realized I made several mistakes that were reflected not in the actual slide deck itself but had to do with things I should have paid attention to before I even started creating the presentation.
Part of my job as a mentor is to help my mentees avoid making mistakes that I’ve made. I tell them “please be creative, don’t repeat my mistakes, make you own!”
Ok , so where did I go wrong?
- Knowing your audience – most of my past presentations have been to audiences that are tech-savvy and recognize the people and technology I’d be talking about in my presentation. So here’s the first place I went wrong. Postdoctoral fellows are all MIT-affiliated, they all have achieved their Ph.D’s in one of the sciences. But they are not nearly as tech-oriented as business school students, whom I’m used to presenting to. What I like to do to make a presentation more interactive by asking the audience questions as I present. But I got lazy here and wrongly assumed they would have heard of VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet or Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web. But I was sorely mistaken! Out of an audience of perhaps 50 people I got a show of hands ranging from zero to three on every tech-related question I asked. So don’t make my mistake! Knowing your audience is the first rule of any type of communications, but it’s especially applicable if you intend to ask questions, which I do recommend. Just make sure they are questions at least a good percentage of your audience can answer.
- Pay attention to guidance – I never pay attention to directions! For example, I never read instructional manuals for the audio, video, and computer equipment I buy. I just turn it on and learn on the go. This trait got me in trouble in school, for as a student I rarely, if ever followed directions. The leader of the mentoring session had emailed me a few suggested topics: the mentorship experiences you’ve had, the broad benefits of mentorship, advice for mentorship groups, and what your mentees have gone on to do. I managed to ignore all these excellent suggestions and do a presentation on what is mentoring? A very bad mistake, as I was quite embarrassed to see the leader follow my presentation with his, which was – hold your breath! – what is mentoring! He’d been too kind to ask me to redo my presentation when I sent him a first draft to review. So here’s another lesson: if you ask someone to present make sure you allow time for you to review a draft, don’t hesitate to provide feedback, and allow time for the presenter to make necessary changes.
- Practice – you all know the old joke about the tourist asking the New Yorker, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The reply: “Practice! practice! practice!” Well I managed to ignore the advice I always give my mentees and didn’t practice. In a mild defense, I got thrown off a bit by being asked to talk about how I became an entrepreneur as part of my keynote presentation, well after I had started work on my presentation. I had five minutes for that and ten minutes for the keynote. But it took me quite along time to compress five decades into five minutes. And my joke about how I had used a very lossy compression algorithm fell flatter than a deflated balloon. These research scientists had never heard of codecs, why should have? So by neglecting to practice my presentation I actually messed up on the time limits I was given. My bio took longer than five minutes, so I panicked slightly and rushed into the “what is mentoring?” presentation. To make matters even worse I was using the timer on my iPhone to keep track of my time and of course I forgot that it goes dark after 5 minutes! I had meant to change that before the presentation, but managed to forget to do it. As a result my keynote presentation actually ran under the ten minutes I was allocated and so I missed out on providing the audience more about the mentoring process – like what are the benefits to the mentor and mentee.
There are many mistakes you can make presenting, the most common being cramming multiple ideas onto a single slide, the second being, using all text and no graphics. I didn’t make either mistake. Though I should have chosen one of PowerPoint’s attractive templates rather than using the default, which has no chrome at all. Actually mistake number four!
I am very, very good at critiquing other people’s presentations, I should be, I’ve seen hundreds and critiqued dozens. I’ll be participating in a pitch scrub for The MIT Venture Mentoring Service in a couple of weeks. But by both being out of practice and not following my own advice, I delivered a sub-optimal experience to a roomful of scientists who deserved much better. There a lot of mistakes you can make giving a presentation, please avoid these!