Once more unto the breach… muses on presenting

One of the most important things that entrepreneurs need to learn is how to present. Some do this naturally – they are natural-born story-tellers, who presentingcan present a compelling case for their new venture through words, body language, emotion and tone – in short, presentation skills. Because I work so much in academia, I see many first-time entrepreneurs who either never learned the art of story-telling or unlearned it in the course of an academic career or course of study. It seems to be ok in academia to have slides overloaded with words and graphs, to talk in a monotone and too quietly, and to refer to the slides such that they are more important than the speaker (“Please face the audience and turn the lights on,” I want to shout!). “It’s all about the content,” they might tell me. And I would answer, “It’s not just WHAT you say, it’s HOW you say it!”

In entrepreneurship, the purpose of a presentation is not just to impart information; it is to convince someone that the information is interesting and to convey your own commitment – enough to warrant a follow-on meeting, or to invest in, join, or help. Did you convey the core message? Did you display passion and interest in your own idea? Did you get what you wanted out of the presentation (as presenter) and did the audience get what they needed (to be convinced)? Ultimately, a presentation is about people. And entrepreneurs need to understand that and prepare for that – not only is the listener judging your venture, he/she is judging you and whether you are worth their time, energy, and maybe even money.

What does a good presentation consist of? And how can one learn to better presenter? For those who don’t do this naturally, you need to work at it. Let’s start with one of the first challenges:

public speakingStage fright.  The old adage is that people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of dying. Almost all people get nervous when they need to speak in front of a group. And in such situations, they misunderstand stage fright: pounding heart, fear, clammy hands, sweating, etc. You know the symptoms; you have suffered from this syndrome. Almost everyone has experienced some form of performance anxiety. Ask any actor and they will tell you that they ALWAYS get stage fright before a performance. “Even experienced actors,” you inquire? Yes, ALL experienced (and good) actors. As an actor, if you don’t experience stage fright, then there is something wrong. The little secret that actors know (and others don’t) is that stage fright is actually a good thing. It helps you to rise to the occasion, to channel your energy, to hyper-focus on what is important and to deliver clearly the message that you want to communicate. As an actor, you learn to harness the extra energy that stage fright induces. And you know that you can do it because you have that familiar butterflies-in-the-stomach stage fright. “Ah,” says the actor, “all is normal; I know that the butterflies will go away the minute that I hit the stage.”

Lay people (non actors) allow stage fright (understandably) to frighten them. It is unfamiliar and scary. Your body does weird things and your mind can alternate between blank (“OMG, I can’t remember what I am going to say”) to being distracted by a myriad of unrelated thoughts (“Did I leave the stove on? Look at that crack in the ceiling,” etc). Once you remember, “Oh this is classic stage fright, and I know that it will go away,” you can USE the condition to focus, communicate and feel.

I am not saying that all presenting is like acting. That the presentation should be more about the act of presenting than the information. That presenting is false. Or that you shouldn’t be sincere in your communication via presenting. I am however giving some tips for a mindset that will help you better and more effectively communicate and convince.

A second challenge to presenting is:

Slides. These days, most people are sick of powerpoint. We have been powerpointed to death so you need to be very careful of overusing slides. Slides are adjuncts to your story, not the main story. I love how Garr Reynolds discusses the power of pictures and graphics in Presentation Zen, which I highly recommend all entrepreneurs read. His book is the slide bible (Garr has a great blog too). His message is basically to be human, to tell your story simply and clearly, and to use pictures/images/graphics to emphasize your point(s). General slide rules of four by four help you avoid putting too many words on a slide – no more than four lines of text, four words per line. Make sure that the slides help you, that they help tell the story.

A third challenge is:

Rehearse.  Non actors sometimes eschew practice for presentations because they heard that you have to be spontaneous. Or, they simply don’t know that they should practice; if they do, they are likely to deliver their message more clearly, succinctly and in a more relaxed and engaged manner. This is called rehearsal. You don’t rehearse in order to memorize; you rehearse in order to organize – your material, your sequence, your thoughts – in short, your presentation!

So in summary:

  1. Recognize and use stage fright to channel your energy;
  2. Make sure that slides help not hinder you; and
  3. Rehearse (not memorize).

Other key pointers to help presenters better present include:

  • Make eye contact early and often.
  • Face the audience and connect with them.
  • If you are in a large group and are taking questions, rephrase the question just asked because most others in the audience will likely not have heard the question.
  • Demonstrate your own level of passion, interest in your venture through your physical engagement and tone of voice.Henry V

Good luck!

“Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more,” from Shakespeare’s King Henry, speaking to rally his troops to fight the foe (the French) which vastly outnumbers them.

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