Here’s a piece I wrote for the Angel Venture Fair. Lots of specifics here for avoiding a Trainwreck Presentation and building a Good Enough presentation. Tending to these basic elements is also prerequisite to advancing your presentation to Outstanding. (See the previous blog entry, just below this one, to see what I’m talking about.)
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There is a lot of advice floating around on how to do an investor presentation: “Be concise.” “Be compelling.” “Show how you’re unique.” Etc.
None of this advice is wrong. But it’s too general to be much use when you’re staring down a deadline and struggling to describe two years of work and planning in ten minutes.
Some of the common advice out there does more harm than good—especially prescriptive lists of required slides and investor topics. Why harmful? Think about it. How can you rise above the pack, show you’re different, and capture the attention of jaded investors if your presentation is built from the same formula as the next company?
To be honest, building a truly outstanding presentation requires lots of time, hard work, and all the communication skill and creativity you can muster.
But you have a deadline. So here is a list of hard-hitting, practical tips you can apply immediately to help you avoid errors in your next investor pitch.
1. Start fresh. Don’t recycle slides from other types of presentations—marketing or technical.
2. Start analog. Don’t open PowerPoint first. Storyboard and outline the narrative on paper or a whiteboard.
3. As you write the narrative outline, build a list of all the ways you might use to show each point by using an image, photo, or prop. You won’t use every idea, but this will get you thinking visually.
4. Devote roughly 20% of the narrative to describing the product itself. Do it in two ways: 1) Customer facing—how does it satisfy a real customer need? 2) Secret sauce—how is your solution different from all other solutions? (Keep it short by leaving out most of the feature/benefit detail from your sales brochures.)
5. Devote the remaining 80% of the narrative to describing how you build a sustainable business around the product.
6. Don’t just give rote team bios. Instead, match the specific strengths of the team to the particular challenges of the venture.
7. If the market is specialized or unfamiliar, estimate addressable market. If the market is obviously huge, don’t waste time discussing it.
8. Structure with stories, not slides:
- Organize the entire presentation around the core story that drives your success.
- Find the core story by asking yourselves the questions: Why you? Why now?
- Tell the opportunity story in the first half. What drives the opportunity? How big is it? How do you createcustomer value? (Use images as much as possible in this part.)
- Tell the business story in the second half, with the focus on execution: How do you capture customer value and make money? (Fewer images, more text and numbers.)
- Wind up with the investment story: How will investor money make a difference?
9. Keep it short by talking at high outline level. Select only the most telling examples and facts to illustrate your argument. Prune out everything else. Prune again.
10. Keep it short by being intentionally incomplete:
- Illustrate, don’t prove. No need to pile on evidence at this stage.
- If it’s 80% true, it’s true. No need to qualify every statement, or cite every exception.
11. Watch your language. No jargon or acronyms (unless you define first). Talk in common business language—match the vocabulary and writing style of The Wall Street Journal.
12. Forget everything you learned at you corporate job about how to do slides.
13. Design slides to serve exclusively as visual support for your narrative, not to do double duty as print-outs or stand-along executive summary. This frees you to use more images and less text.
14. The number of slides is irrelevant. The audience doesn’t care. Don’t count slides.
15. Slide density is relevant. Use as many slides as you need to keep slide density low. Spread multi-part ideas across many slides.
16. Use lots of white space. Resist the temptation to fill every inch of every slide.
17. Where possible, use full-size, high resolution photographs to help the audience see what you’re talking about. Fill all or most of the slide with the photograph, bleeding to the edge.
18. Don’t use a busy template or one that eats up too much slide area.
19. You don’t have to put a title and logo on every page. For example, if you want to show a photo full screen, eliminate the title.
20. Don’t put your entire script on the slides. Rehearse to remember what to say.
21. No full paragraphs on a slide, ever! Avoid long sentences. Telegraphic, “billboard-style” phrases are best.
22. Don’t frustrate the audience. Eliminate anything on a slide that can’t be seen easily from the back of the room. No exceptions.
- No fonts smaller than 24 pts.
- Sans-serif fonts like Ariel, Calibri, Verdana, Century Gothic are easier to read.
- Use only high contrast colors, especially for text.
- Prune charts, graphs, diagrams down to the bare essentials so they can be grasped in a few seconds. Label directly on the chart elements whenever possible. No tiny keys.
- Never more than ONE chart or graph per slide, and make it big enough to fill the screen, even if that means eliminating the title, logo, and everything else on that slide.
- Title Case in Bullets is Hard to Read. Use sentence case instead.
23. Don’t be cheesy: shun clip art and clichéd images like the plague (examples: business people shaking hands, chess pieces, piles of money).
24. No agendas, a mission statements, or “Thank you” or “Questions?” slides.
25. Always show financial projections as a table, not a graph. Simplify to no more than 5 or 6 rows. Round to thousands. Annual projections, not quarterly. Three years, maybe four or five.
26. In financial projections, use “Goldilocks numbers”—not too hot, not too cold, just right. Never, ever say the words “conservative numbers.”
27. Don’t calculate any type of investment return, or say anything about offering terms. Don’t show a valuation (but be prepared for the question).
28. Rehearse at least three times out loud, in full voice. Time your presentation and practice until you can do it in 30 seconds less than the allotted time.
29. Practice maximizing eye contact. Speak to the screen and you’re dead.
30. Begin and end with the same title slide that includes your logo, presenter’s name, and contact information, possibly the amount of the raise.
Over the last ten years coaching and helping CEO’s create investor presentations, I’ve learned to adjust my technique to the skill level of the CEO and the quality of the presentation first offered to me as the starting point for my coaching. My approach to salvage a misguided mess is not the same as what I do with an already excellent presentation to take it up a notch.
But I found I had trouble convincing other people that guidelines and coaching had to be matched to presentation level. In particular, I have a running argument with venture advisors and event organizers who insist on imposing something like a twelve-slide template (or the “10-slide Rule,” or similar formulas) on all companies, with no regard for the skill and experience of the CEO presenter. In my experience, the templates are a lifesaver for some, yet a condescending and destructive intrusion for others.
Enter the BizClarity Presentation Scale. I devised it at first to argue against forcing all companies to squeeze their story into the same template. Now that I’ve worked with it for a while, I serves as a tool for making intelligent decisions about presentations at any level on the scale between disaster and perfection.
The BizClarity Presentation Scale maps four levels of presentation quality:
- Train Wreck
- Good Enough
- Insanely Great
A Trainwreck is a presentation that is, at best, confusing and forgettable. At worst, it alienates investors who remember the presentation–and the company–as a waste of time. A Trainwreck is characterized by any or all of the following:
- Wrong content, big gaps in the business story
- Too much detail
- Too technical, full of jargon and acronyms
- Too salesy, loaded with product features
- Bad slides, cluttered and unreadable
- Poor delivery, poor contact with the audience
- Rushing, or taking too long
- Bad attitude of the presenter
Trainwreck is not too strong a word for some of the regrettable presentations seen at every venture fair or endured by investors in private meetings. At the risk of being overly dramatic, I use the word to drive home the point that trainwrecks can’t be ignored because they’re a drain on the entire venture network.
Companies who show up at venture fairs or at investors offices unprepared and expecting to “wing it,” or who are ignorant and ill-advised, not only waste a good opportunity, but they do lasting damage to their reputation and their ability to raise money. Investors waste time and are unhappy. When otherwise deserving companies blow their presentations, the venture community could be missing out on a promising technology.
The good news is that Trainwrecks are avoidable. With the right knowledge and tools, it is possible and worth the effort to fix them.
A Good Enough presentation avoids the utter embarrassment of a Trainwreck. At a minimum, it is an organized run-through of a checklist of topics that investors expect to hear. The slides are legible, though often they still suffer from too much clutter.
A Good Enough presentation can be created by:
- Following a list of “recommended slides”
- Following basic rules for good slide design
- Targeting the presentation to the investor audience, and no other
- The CEO rehearsing the presentation, and responding to feedback
- Keeping within the time limit without rushing
A Good Enough presentation is accepted as the standard in the venture community. Although it may lurch from one idea to the next and force the audience to decide for themselves which ideas are primary and which are secondary, it gives enough information for investors to decide if they want to follow up. They may not remember the company a day later—presentations that follow formulas tend to all sound the same—but at least they weren’t left with a negative impression.
Good Enough delivery is confident, but not inspiring. The CEO demonstrates familiarity with the slides and expands what is on the screen while making good eye contact with the audience. (Curiously, it’s common to see a CEO give a limp delivery, then come to life during the Q&A.)
The main problem with a Good Enough presentation is that it gives investors just enough information to say “no.” It doesn’t make the case well for how the company is different or convey an urgency for investment.
An Outstanding presentation showcases the company as a special opportunity—the company stands out. It leads the audience to understand, without straining, the key ideas that make this company unique. It anticipates and counters major objections before investors can dwell on them.
An Outstanding presentation is constructed to highlight the core story that animates the company. The ideas unfold in a way that build the story from the beginning, ending with a persuasive argument for investment. All the elements—narrative, slides, and delivery—contribute to the impression of a quality company led by a CEO who communicates well.
An Outstanding presentation is full of reasons why investors should want to know more and say ‘yes’ to a second meeting. It is the one that investors recall first when asked that evening, “See anything good today?” Because the company’s story is so cogent and repeatable, it creates buzz.
An Insanely Great presentation is very rare. The audience becomes so engaged from the first word and image, they forget to take notes. They follow the story, get excited, and make it a priority to follow-up to find out more. The quality of the presentation itself creates buzz.
Insanely Great presentations are the artful merging of ideas, images, and showmanship. They require the highest skill and inspiration to create. Many iterations of slides and content and hours of rehearsal are what it takes to rise to the pinnacle of Insanely Great.
The phrase “insanely great” is a Steve Jobs expression. His presentations are notorious examples of how exceptional communications can be a decisive factor in a company’s success.
Although Insanely Great is a level very few companies will ever achieve, it serves as the epitome of perfection, an ideal to aim for. The hope is that by working to be Insanely Great, more presentations will be Outstanding, and not just Good Enough.
How to Use The BizClarity Presentation Scale
The BizClarity Presentation Scale is offered as a tool to guide the efforts of CEO’s, advisors, and coaches. It is a language for talking about what works, what doesn’t, and why.
Specifically, it’s a framework for making tactical decisions about how much time and effort to commit to the investor presentation. What minimal effort is needed to avoid a disaster? How far do you want to take it? Is it worth it? What do you address first, second, third? What results can be realistically expected? At what point do you ask for help?
In the course of looking for something else in the blogosphere, I came across the writings of Steve Blank, a serial entrepreneur and professor at the Stanford Business School. (He has a blog, and lots of his videos, podcasts, and articles are all over the Internet. All good stuff.)
Prof. Blank is known for fresh thinking and new ideas on entrepreneurship that are firmly grounded in his real-world experience founding and running and investing in venture start-ups. He has self-published a book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany, that reportedly is as hard to read as it is revolutionary.
My plan was to get the book, read it, and then tell you about it. But this morning I twice found myself describing some of the ideas to CEO’s I was talking to. So I decided not to wait.
The fastest way to give you a taste for these ideas is to quote a big chunk of a blog post by Eric Reis on this blog Lessons Learned. All that follows is a shameless cut-and-paste from Eric’s post. The exact post is here. Thanks Eric.
There’s so much crammed into The Four Steps to the Epiphany that I want to distill out what I see as the key points:
- Get out of the building. Very few startups fail for lack of technology. They almost always fail for lack of customers. Yet surprisingly few companies take the basic step of attempting to learn about their customers (or potential customers) until it is too late. I’ve been guilty of this many times in my career – it’s just so easy to focus on product and technology instead. True, there are the rare products that have literally no market risk; they are all about technology risk (”cure for cancer”). For the rest of us, we need to get some facts to inform and qualify our hypotheses (”fancy word for guesses”) about what kind of product customers will ultimately buy.And this is where we find Steve’s maxim that “In a startup no facts exist inside the building, only opinions.” Most likely, your business plan is loaded with opinions and guesses, sprinkled with a dash of vision and hope. Customer development is a parallel process to product development, which means that you don’t have to give up on your dream. We just want you to get out of the building, and start finding out whether your dream is a vision or a delusion. Surprisingly early, you can start to get a sense for who the customer of your product might be, how you’ll reach them, and what they will ultimately need. Customer development is emphatically not an excuse to slow down or change the plan every day. It’s an attempt to minimize the risk of total failure by checking your theories against reality.
- Read more
Too busy to read much? Look here.
A slide show.
How to use photos. How to use large text. Maybe you don’t go to this extreme. But here’s what hip people on the west coast are doing with slides.
(For more info on this style, see the Presentation Zen post, below.)
Everything you do or say during a presentation has an effect on the audience. Nothing can be taken for granted. Starting with the TITLE SLIDE.
If your title slide is uninviting, amateur-looking, or cheesy, your presentation is going downhill even before you open your mouth.
There’s really no excuse for a bad title slide. Because a good title slide is easy to do, a no-brainer, if you know a few basic rules.
Safe-Harbor Title Slide Design
Here are some basic, no-fault rules for a clean, serviceable title slide. With examples.
I found this slide deck while surfing SlideShare. It from North Venture Partners from Oakland, California, a firm with progressive ideas for helping entrepreneurs. Clearly this is a group that has seen a lot of start-ups fail and out of frustration are driven to prevent more companies from making the same mistakes.
All the points made in this deck ring true. Some of the “fails” have to do generally with getting your company venture ready. Some are direct hits on what to say and do–or NOT say or do–in an investor pitch.
The slides all use full-screen photographs. But the text obscures half of the photograph in each slide. So for that reason, don’t copy this style exactly as a model for your slides.
However, my guess is what you see here is a presentation deck that has been modified to work as a stand-alone deck on SlideShare and embedded in blogs (like BizClarity). It is a model to be emulated if you imagine the slides without the blocks of text, with only the “Fail,” “Fix” graphics and headlines positioned in a dead portion of each photo, and with the text delivered as a spoken narrative.
The photos themselves are a good example of how to do photo selection right. The photo in each case expands on the meaning of the slide, and adds humor or drama without being coy or cliched.
Photo selection is never as easy as it looks. It takes time, good hunting skills, and lots of trial and error. But when you find just the right photo, you know it. It pops off the screen, gets a chuckle from the audience, and gives a palpable boost to your narrative. (That said, there are a couple photos in this deck I don’t think work well. Can you guess which ones?)
If you’ve been reading my blog posts for a while, you’ve seen me refer to Presentation Zen more than once? What is Presentation Zen?
Presentation Zen is a book.
When I discovered this book last year, it changed the way I do and teach presentations. If you’re still among the millions who think that any respectable business presentation has to have slides of mostly text organized into bullets and sub-bullets, get the book. Spending just a few minutes leafing through the examples in Presentation Zen is the first step on the long journey to presentation satori.
The author, Garr Reynolds, is a product of Silicon Valley but now lives and works in Japan. Thus the “zen” part of his approach is somewhat authentic.
Presentation Zen is a DVD.
True story. I was invited to help coach the presentations of the ten companies incubated at DreamIt Ventures this summer. I hadn’t done the initial coaching of the presentations, so they were pretty far along before I joined the process.
I was blown away at what I saw. After the first few, I exclaimed to the group, “What’s going on here? These are great, visual presentations–exactly the style I teach! Who taught you to do this?”
What’s a wordle?
It’s a word cloud. Word clouds–called tag clouds if they include links–are common in the Web 2.0 universe. But a wordle is a special case, one created by the software at Wordle.net (NOT .com or .org). To my eye, wordles have class. They are intriguing. They look good.
At wordle.net, all you have to do is paste a text document into a field on the website, and out the other comes a tag cloud. Then you can play with a host of different font and color schemes, including greyscale for black and white documents, and a variety of layouts, from architectonic to crazy. Lots of fun. Easy, quick addition to a presentation, or document where you want to call attention to the content to follow.
Warning: could be a time suck. Once you start playing with it you’ll want to wordlize everything you can think of.
Here’s the wordle I created from the entire, 25 page document of presentation guidelines I use with my clients.
Here’s one of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.”
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. And stay away from the “randomize” button! wordle.net
I work closely with a lot of entrepreneurs and I’m often asked my opinion of the various venture fairs in the area. The question is urgently important when they need capital to keep their company growing and alive. They are reluctant to invest time and money into an event that doesn’t give them a good chance to connect with serious investors. They hear rumors that some are great, worth every penny, and some suck, stay away.
I’ve been to lots of venture fairs, I help plan and run a few, and I have my opinions and biases. But my purview is limited. I’m sure it would be much more useful to the entrepreneur community to collect opinions and reports from a statistically significant number of people who have experienced a range of venture fairs.
That’s what this post is about. I’m hoping that you will add comments about individual venture fairs, and venture fairs in general. As we get a certain critical mass of comments, I’ll break it up into separate event-specific posts.
I’m inviting comments from entrepreneurs, investors, event sponsors, service providers, and event organizers.
So have at it. Share anything you want. I only ask that your comments be objective and fair. What’s good, what’s bad? What works, what doesn’t? What is it about venture fairs you would like to see ridiculed and banned, and what should be praised and imitated?
I know what the ultimate, modern-day slide presentation should look like. I can visualize it, and I’ve seen it done successfully in investor presentations. Rich visuals, minimal text, lots of white space. I push the book Presentation Zen on everybody I meet because it evangelizes the promised land of rich visuals, minimal text, lots of white space.
But when I’m working with a client and time is short, it’s unrealistic to expect somebody who’s been thoroughly inculcated in what I call the “old school” text-heavy style to make radical changes overnight. So I’ve developed a list of short cuts , a few easy steps for making slides more visual and readable that can be applied to an existing presentation literally overnight. These aren’t the ultimate solution, but they yield the highest return-on-effort for a time-crunched entrepreneur.
Here is the BizClarity Cure for Clutter:
I’m from Philadelphia and to us Philadelphians the little town of Pittsburgh, if we think about it at all, is an afterthought, a city somewhere west in the wilds of Pennsylvania. Where the Pittsburgh Pirates used to terrorize the Philadelphia Phillies. And something about steel and glass and Andy Warhol.
But there’s something remarkable happening in Pittsburgh and the entire east-coast venture community would do well to take notice. 3 Rivers Venture Fair is putting Pittsburgh on the map (oh, and so is the G-20 Summit, but that’s no big deal).
I’ve been coaching companies for the 3 Rivers Venture Fair (”3RVF”) since early July, sponsored by my pals at the law firm Morgan Lewis & Bockius. Of all of the venture fairs I’ve coached for, this is the strongest batch of companies I’ve seen. Every one is solid. Big markets, strong teams, many with significant revenue, differentiated technology. Usually when I work with a whole batch of companies at least a couple are clearly duds. Not this batch.
Financial projections are, on the surface, a futile exercise. Nobody believes them. Studies prove that 98% of actual business results of start-up companies are less than projected and take twice the time, compared to the projections in the business plans. Yet investors insist on seeing them, and complain if you leave them out of your presentation. Why?
Because financial projections serve two functions.
A ten-minute pitch used at venture fairs and first meetings with investors should (almost) always include financial projections.
But most entrepreneurs do them wrong.
Any type of graph is useless. Use a table. Investors are numbers people who are most comfortable with real numbers. Save graphs for data sets of greater than 30 numbers.
THIS IS UPPER CASE.
this is lower case.
This is sentence case.
This Is Title Case.
Title case is for titles, not for bullets. When I see title case in bullets and sub-bullets, I cringe. This may seem like a minor point, but it’s not. Title case used incorrectly makes your slides hard to read, confusing, and makes you look like an amateur. Luckily, it’s a very easy mistake to fix so we can all move on to the bigger issues of presenting your business story.
Title Case Is Hard to Read for Anything More Than a Short Title Because When People Read Their Eyes Scan the Shapes of Words and Too Much Capitalization is Hard to Scan.
Title case can also cause confusion because proper nouns, as we all learned in grammar school, are capitalized to make them stand out from common nouns. Proper nouns get lost in the upper-case tangle, forcing the audience to work harder to puzzle out your meaning and distracting them from your narrative flow.
Here’s an example slide from an actual presentation, untouched. The author applies title case at random, compounding the confusion.
I attended DreamIt Ventures Demo Day last week in Philadelphia. Even though I had contributed some to coaching the company presentations, seeing it all come together in a formal event just blew me away.
DreamIt is one of those new programs, like TechStars and LaunchBox, that are a combination of business incubator + fast-track MBA + summer camp. 10 companies were selected from 300 applicants for the opportunity to spend the summer together at the DreamIt incubator in West Philadelphia, receive mentoring from a long list of experts, and then pitch to the venture community. They got some seed funding too as part of the deal. All the companies were developing a web-based product or service. All the entrepreneurs were either young 20-somethings, or young at heart.
I saw 10 exciting companies who stretched my idea of what is possible to do on the web. I saw the usually staid Philadelphia venture crowd eat it up. I heard about at least one exit from this batch of 10, and buzz about impending funding for some others. A remarkable track record already.
But what really floored me was the presentations. I saw the future. And the future is visually stunning!
10 things to know before you pitch a VC for Money
David Rose is a serial entrepreneur and serial investor, a leader in the New York City angel network, and the founder of AngelSoft, the de facto standard software system for angel groups all across the country. In this 18-minute talk at TED in 2008 David lays down the law for how to pitch to investors.
David is not a shy person, and he talks real fast (this is only a little faster than his normal speaking voice). But he knows what he’s talking about. This is a high-powered version of the things I hear investors say all the time. I agree with (almost) everything he says.
The only problem is that in 18 minutes he can outline only the high principles, the big-concept do’s and don’t’s. He says very little about the nuts and bolts of how to build a presentation that would meet his high standards. It all sounds good but, you ask, “now what do I do?” Well, that’s what BizClarity is here for. In my coaching, workshops, and writings, I turn investor imperatives, like those David lists here, into practical advice.
But I’m no match for his authority and intensity. Take a look:
(If you have trouble viewing this here, you can go directly to the YouTube page by clicking here.)
It happens alot. I’m working with a new client, seeing their presentation for the first time. And it’s terrible. I see one ridiculously crammed slide after another, small fonts, tiny images. When I point out the problem and launch into my spiel about the advantages of putting less on each slide, the entrepreneur exclaims, “But how else can I get everything on 10 slides! You know, the ten-slide rule!”
The ten-slide rule strikes again!
The ten-slide rule causes more agony, pain, and awful presentations then almost any other single idea. To be fair, this little simple-minded rule is a part of a bigger wrong idea: that the number of slides has anything to do with the quality or cogency of a presentation.
The ten-slide rule is an old idea, originating in the ’80’s and more recently perpetuated by Guy Kawasaki in his best-selling book for entrepreneurs, The Art of the Start (which I recommend, mostly). I don’t disagree with Guy’s motivation–he’s fed up with long, cluttered, boring presentations. He laid down the law to coax CEO’s of start-up companies to cut their presentations down to size.
The problem is, any rule that limits the number of slides assumes that all slides are equally dense with content. It made sense ten years ago when all presentations were text slides in the title/bullet/sub-bullet format. When investors count slides what they’re really saying is: “Don’t show us more than ten slides dense with impossible to read, confusing crap so we can cut your presentation short and get on with the meeting.”
Here’s the truth: the number of slides in a presentation is irrelevant! It doesn’t matter one dit if you have 10, 20, 50 or 100 slides in your presentation. What does matter is how well the slides support your narrative. And the pace of your ideas. How long you speak and the level of detail.