A simple technique to improve your presentations


call out one

I learned a bit about publishing and the printed book while working at Addison-Wesley Publishing Company as General Manager of their Educational Software Division.  Back in those days of yore software actually shipped with user manuals, so I had to deal with layout, typesetting, printing, etc. How quaint!

But there’s one technique from print that I do recommend you borrow for your presentations, though this piece of advice is aimed at ventures who are far enough along to have a product to show, or at least a prototype.  The screenshot above was taken from an Apple presentation about a new version of the Apple TV.

While you may not have a giant screen behind you like this presenter (whose all black outfit merges with the image) you can still use the technique of call outs to help viewers understand your product. You can think of a call out as a special type of image caption. Instead of captioning the entire image a callout calls your attention to a specific part of the image, in the case above, to the numerous output on an Apple TV.

You can get really fancy and use the build function of PowerPoint or KeyNote to progressively add new captions to the same image.

call outs

With all due respect to Apple, kings of the keynote, I wouldn’t put a black product image on a black background, nor would I have the presenter dress all in black. Very funereal! Make sure your product or prototype image stands out against the slide background and that your callouts are big enough to read and clearly attached by fine lines to the features you are trying to highlight.

I gain an invaluable ally in my battle against PowerPoint!


When you have a Don Quixote complex like my battle against my archenemy PowerPoint and more specifically its enabling of text-only, bulleted presentations that are not only ugly, but boring and totally ineffectual you welcome any ally.

Bullet points, like anything are fine in moderation. Believe it or not I sometimes use them. Apple Mail and WordPress enable them – along with numbered lists. But as Shakespeare said, For as a surfeit of the sweetest things, The deepest loathing to the stomach brings. PowerPoint not just enables but defaults to lists of bullet points, enabling presenters to show slide after boring slide of bullet pointed deathly prose.

 John Queenan’s article in The Wall Street JournalMy Short List of Things That Need to Be ‘De-Invented’ sub-titled From PowerPoint to leaf blowers and singing waiters, there are mistakes waiting to be undone warmed the cold cockles of my heart. Not only does Joe hate PowerPoint, but my other pet peeve in life, leaf blowers, is also highlighted!

Joe Queenan has invented the concept of de-inventing. I quote Joe at length because he expresses my loathing for PowerPoint far better than I could:

I’m hoping my concept of de-inventing will become more popular. A couple of weeks ago I sat on a panel during which one of the participants induced mass spontaneous catatonia by launching into an electrifyingly inane PowerPoint presentation. A PowerPoint presentation for a seven-minute talk!

If anything ever needed to be de-invented, it is PowerPoint. Almost from the moment it reared its ugly head, it was recognized as a cruel weapon. PowerPoint made simple things complicated by turning even the most basic subject into a byzantine series of lists, that then generated other equally tortuous lists, which then gave birth to still other heart-rending, soul-destroying lists.

It’s not sufficient that PowerPoint gets purged, terminated, sidelined, discontinued. PowerPoint needs to be repudiated. It needs to get smacked in the face. It needs to be de-invented.

Careful readers will note that I’ve bolded three phrases, all containing the word lists. And it’s endless slides of bulleted lists that form the core of my hatred of PowerPoint. Heck, I use PowerPoint myself, but my goal is that no one in the audience would recognize it.  Photos, charts, graphs, diagrams, illustrations, animations, video – all can be delivered with PowerPoint. I confine my use of text, as I preach to my mentees, to a captioning tool. Yes, text in a presentation has its place: the title of a presentation or a slide title, for your contact information, and, of course, to caption visual images. I’d even go so far as to allow the use of text for quotes – unless you happen to have audio of that quote!

Joe Queenan is one of my favorite columnists and to have him call for de-inventing both PowerPoint and leaf blowers in one column made my day. I can’t do full justice to Joe’s humor in a blog post, so take a break from that PowerPoint you are working on and read Joe’s column. Maybe you won’t only be very amused you may even abandon those endless slides of bulleted text for something else, say something visual.

Now, about those leaf blowers, handheld infernal combustion engines that invade my neighborhood promptly at 7:30 a.m. each morning. Can all you landscaping guys go back to raking leaves, please, please, please! Elon Musk, how about inventing the Tesla electric powered leaf blower? I’m ready to PayPal you my deposit right now!



How to make your presentations concrete


Far too many founder pitches operate at a very high level of abstraction. To successfully engage investors, partners, job candidates, the media, and others you need a pitch that is down to earth, not up in the clouds. Here are some simple ways to help your audience understand the message you are trying to communicate by making your presentation concrete not abstract.

  1. Use examples: “We work with companies in the that burn coal for fuel, like Jenkins, Inc. in Kentucky, to help them reduce their carbon emissions – known to most of us call smog or dirty air.”
  2. Tell stories: “The reason I started this company is because my grandmother, who is 88 years old, lives in Louisville, Kentucky. I recently found out she suffers from asthma. After consulting with a number of asthma specialists I learned that there was little she could do rather than relocate. Well that might work for her, but what about the 616,260 other people who live in Louisville? That seemed like a big problem worth tackling.
  3. Don’t use business or technical jargon or hackneyed words like “innovative.” People who are not technologists or investors, like your parents or next door neighbors, need to be able to understand your pitch.
  4. Use proper nouns: names of people, companies, locations, and things. Better still, if you can use the names your customers, their locations, and the person you work most closely with.
  5. Don’t try to jam everything about your company, your product, and your team into your pitch. Slides jammed packed with multiple ideas will overwhelm your audience. Make one major point only per slide. Find or create a photo or diagram that illustrates that point. Text should be used as a caption for your image. Think of your pitch like a movie trailer. Movie trailers are designed to entice viewers to go see the movie and take only a minute or two to watch.  I call this problem FILO – Fear of Leaving Out. Don’t be a victim of FILO; be willing to leave your favorite slides on the cutting room floor if they don’t help tell your story.

More advice about pitching is on my blog https://mentorphile.com/category/pitching/.

A one slide presentation on product positioning

Back in 1989 I co-founded a company called Course Technology, Inc. The idea was to extend the concept I had invented when employed as General Manager for the Educational Software division of Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. The invention there was a product that could meet the needs of college professors and students at a price that students could afford.

The business concept was simple: work with a college professor who had written successful textbooks and taught students the basic computer course to write a textbook on how to use Lotus 1-2-3.  We licensed a version of the IBM PC Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet – then the dominant software package for business professionals. The textbook and software were packaged together and sold not for the $495 for the professional version of 1-2-3 with its hundreds of pages of manuals written by the Lotus documentation department, but for $49.95, a price all students could afford. This product sold extremely well and led to an entire Student Edition product line generating millions of dollars for Addison-Wesley and to Lotus in licensing fees.

For some reason – perhaps seeing a lot of pitch decks recently – I recalled a one page slide I had created to illustrate how the Addison-Wesley Student Edition was positioned against the professional version and against a typical college textbook.



As you can see my graphics skills are no better and probably worse than they were 30 years ago, but the slide is illustrative. I may well have the tagline wrong – it  doesn’t sound quite right to me – but it will do for these purposes.

Can you create a slide that illustrates the positioning of your product?

Why you need to tag team the VCs!



As a kid I was fascinated by watching professional wrestling on TV. I had no idea it was fake and that the wrestlers were highly trained actors. One of my favorite types of wrestling match was the tag team: two wrestlers made up a team and they would switch off wrestling their two opponents. The different combinations of wrestlers made watching the match even more fun.

A couple of decades later I started founding companies, four of them VC-backed. The three where I had a co-founder all succeeded, eventually. The one where I was sole founder failed. This is just one reason why I almost always recommend to solo founders that they consider bringing on a co-founder.

One of the great things about my having a co-founder was that we tag-teamed the VCs.  The two of us would divide our roughly 15 to 20 minute presentation into two parts and would switch off in the middle. Then during the firestorm Q & A from the team of VCs – they only meet solo for the first meeting, interestingly, we would take turns answering questions. The major advantage of this tag team approach was that one of us could observe the VCs to gauge their reactions, and take notes on their feedback while the other spoke. We even developed subtle hand signals to communicate to the partner presenting things like “slow down”, “speed up”, or “move on to the next point.”

But reading the Incarticle about Apple’s keynote presentation format taught me that we had stumbled upon a scientifically-based way to keep our audiences engaged. The article is titled No Apple Presenter Speaks for Longer Than 10-Minutes, and the Reason is Backed by Neuroscience and the sub-title delivers the advice for founders: Change voices frequently to keep your audience from getting bored. This article is by the person I consider the expert on presentations, Carmine Gallo. Check out my posts about his books on this blog. I highly recommend all his books, but especially The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. Carmine is a genius at reverse engineering Apple presentations to show you the powerful persuasive techniques used first by Jobs and now by his successors.

Here’s what Carmine has to say about his 10-minute rule:

The brain is easily bored. This one fact explains why Apple does what it does in its product launches. A presentation based on the fundamentals of neuroscience includes frequent changes to keep people interested. But how frequent is ‘frequent’ change?

Neuroscientists say our brains have a built-in stopwatch that ends around 10 minutes. In my conversations with University of Washington Medical School molecular biologist, John Medina, he cites peer-reviewed studies that show people tune out of a presentation in the first ten minutes. “The brain seems to be making choices according to some stubborn timing pattern, undoubtedly influenced by both culture and gene,” he says. “This fact suggests a teaching and business imperative: Find a way to arouse and then hold somebody’s attention for a specific period of time.”

Read the full article to see how Carmine dissects yesterday’s Apple keynote presentation to demonstrate how they carefully observe the 10-minute rule.

What if you don’t have a partner to bring to a VC meeting? Carmine, as usual, has the answer:

If you’re pitching investors, bring along members of your team or a customer. If you’re delivering a solo presentation, insert videos to reset your audience’s internal stopwatch.

You can use the 10-minute rule for company presentations and presentations at events – keep in mind that you if you are flying solo you can always use a video or demo to reset your audience’s 10-minute engagement clock. But I would advise against wearing the pro wrestlers tag team outfits!


The goal of a presentation is … influence!

gettyPresentations are so much a part of the founder’s life that I’m constantly on the lookout for new tips and perspective on how best to present. Because let’s face it, audiences do get jaded, especially investors, whose job it is to review presentations.

So I was glad to discover some new advice from Stacey Hanke in her post on Entrepreneur.com 3 Tricks to Get People to Actually Listen to Your Presentations. Many of her suggestions, like don’t read your slides, are techniques I’ve written about previously in my Do’s and Don’t posts on presentations, so I won’t repeat them here. But there are some good tips I’ve not see before or new twists on old techniques that are notable.

But let’s lead off with a couple of statistics. Professionals spend an average of 40 percent of their workday in meetings. Seventy-one percent of people report that the meetings they attend are a waste of time. The major takeaway from her article is that Presentations aren’t just about sharing data, statistics and facts. You must influence the audience to act upon what you have to say.

Here’s how:

  • Open with a story, not with your name title, why you are there, and other stuff that the audience knows already. You’ll lose them from the get-go by repeating this information. Jump right into your origin story – how and why you started the company – or a story about one the the challenges you’ve had to overcome to get where you are today. Keep it short and make sure it’s relevant.
  • Tease your audience. The old “tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them” is out. Start with hinting at something very impactful that they will hear soon if they pay attention. You want your audience to be intrigued.
  • Don’t let props steal the show. I’m a believer in show don’t tell, but Ms, Hanke is right to warn against letting props distract from what you are saying. If you are passing around your gadget then allow them time to actually interact with it talk at the same time you are expecting them to check out your prop.
  • Create a memorable takeaway, NOT a summary of what you have just said.  People don’t takeaway summaries – they take away at most three things if you have done really well and the median case is one. So figure out what your one takeaway should be and test it out beforehand. In fact I recommend presentations start with the one takeaway and build their presentation to deliver it.

Presentations are a means to an end – not an end in of themselves. They are a means to influence your audience. But influence is not an end in of itself, either. Getting your audience to take action is the desired end result of your presentation. So make sure you are following up with them afterwards, even if it’s just an email thanking them for their time and attention and asking if there was anything you could have done better. Presenters are like athletes, they should be striving to get better for every performance.

Ideas, assumptions, assertions, generalities, opinions, and abstractions


Perhaps it’s because the focus of entrepreneurship is so strongly on the big idea, not execution, but I’m continuing to see smart, well-educated founders continue to make the same mistake, over and over again.

That mistake is filling their pitch decks with ideas, assumptions, assertions, generalities, and opinions. The latest example of this popped up during the review of a pitch deck in which the founders asserted that they could build a network of healthcare professionals to act as a referral channel for them. But when I asked the question, “How many of these individuals are in private practice versus being employed by hospitals, clinics and other healthcare organizations?” they couldn’t answer the question! Not only that, they hadn’t even given any thought to it. They just assumed that there were enough independent practitioners who they could work with – they’d done not only no primary market research, but not even any secondary market research.  Yet they were asking me when they should start raising money! My answer was when they could answer my question and turn their all their assumptions and assertions about their target market into hard evidence.

Founders also tend to speak in generalities. I have to work hard to get them to be specific, to give examples and provide data, not opinions. I’m not sure what the genesis of this problem is, but it’s a common one and one of my tests of whether or not a venture is “investor-ready” is if they have scrubbed their pitch decks of as many assumptions, assertions, generalities, and opinions as possible. Obviously if you are building a company on a new idea you can’t have a pitch that’s 100% facts, that wouldn’t be a pitch that would be a history lesson. By the nature of new ventures founders are trying to project the future not recapitulate the past, but their goal needs to be to minimize assumptions.

As I’ve written elsewhere, founders need to treat their ventures as scientific experiments: their big idea is their hypothesis which they need to prove by running experiments and gathering data (from the customer development process). They need to run smaller experiments, such as surveys and pilot projects, to prove (or disprove!) their idea. There are two dimensions to this data: validity and reliability. Validity means that your data supports the hypothesis. Reliability means that the data is consistent. You can’t rely on one data point to prove your hypothesis.

Perhaps founders are reading too many high tech pundits whose writings are by their nature based on opinions, not facts. In fact, in the world of traditional media the difference between reporters and columnists is that the former deal with evidence and facts and that the latter are free to express their opinions, to assert, to assume, to opine.

Whatever the origin of this problem, I know that VCs will tear these pitch decks to shreds. VCs are hard-nosed, evidence-oriented people. They will question every assertion, every assumption that a founder makes. VCs are risk averse, and they aren’t about to invest in an idea that totally lacks any market validation. So founders, roll up your sleeves and scrub your pitches until you are left with your one big idea and your evidence that validates your idea.

A related, but different problem I have found with founders and their pitches is that they tend to operate at a high level of abstraction. They have a tendency to avoid the concrete. Again, I’m not sure why this is. But I spend a lot of time asking the same question over and over again, “Can you please give me an example?” Ideas are concepts, they are not empirically based on experience. As Bill Gates and others have said, “Ideas are cheap.” And that’s probably because the materials of an idea are cheap – they are immaterial.

The best way to avoid these dual traps of reliance on assumptions and talking in abstractions is to get out of the office, which is the breeding ground for immateriality, and into the marketplace, which is where ideas come up against harsh reality. As Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan … until they get punched in the mouth.” So painful as it is, get out there and and don’t just talk to prospective customers, interview them. I promise you that customers will not be talking in abstractions! Be prepared to take a few punches, but better from prospective customers than taking a knockout blow from an investor.

I’d advise prospective founders who are still in school to take a course or two in journalism, to learn how to interview, gather facts, and tell a story. That will serve you better than Entrepreneurship 101.