Sometimes I find really good startup concepts hidden behind the curtains of sloppy presentations. Not that every deck or one-pager requires professional graphic design, but a modicum of consistency in a clearly branded layout is a nice start. Grammar and structure need always to adhere to standards and to be concise. Every word should be meaningful. PowerPoint decks should also be carefully aligned as if they are going to be presented on a screen, so there will be no “jumping around” as you transition from one slide to the next. Never change fonts, color schemes, or formats within a single presentation. And, always pay attention to font sizes so that the back row can read your carefully crafted words.
These admonitions may seem pretty basic, but all too often they are ignored. You may be a powerful personal communicator, but if you back up your presence with a mish-mash of materials, that carelessness will be the impression you leave. Cobbling together thoughts, links, and citations from multiple sources and failing to homogenize them as if prepared by one hand is a cardinal sin. Jumbles offend the eye and distract the reader. They’re also normally the sign of too much content for the subject at hand. Distillation adds power to a presentation. You know the general guidelines about holding decks to 15 slides or so; if your concept can’t be explained in those confines, chances are you need to rethink what you are attempting to do.
Keep in mind that you are always competing for share of mind in any presentation you make. Other speakers can erase all memory of your hard work if their supporting elements are well put together while your own literally get in the way of your message. There’s always someone next in line to talk to your audience, and you will be measured against that person. Obviously, if you do anything that loosens your grip on your listeners, they’ve always got emails, messages, juicy news stories, and Facebook in their palms. Distraction is the baseline in modern meetings; you have to be really good to overcome that and make yourself heard and understood.
Time and cadence deserve some words at this point. We all know someone who, when asked the time, will tell you how to build a watch. Don’t be that person. Be sensitive to your allotted start time and end time, read the rhythm and body language of your audience, whether one person or one hundred, and adjust accordingly. If you get interrupted with questions, deal with them without losing the direction of your presentation. Brevity is your friend in those situations. If you get sucked too deep into the weeds and never finish your end-to-end message, your moment is lost.
On a somewhat related topic, make sure you are showing your most current materials. Not a week goes by that I don’t see a pitch that is out of date and which requires some apologies and some verbal overrides with respect to what is being shown on screen or on paper. If you can’t keep your own story straight on a timeline, what else in your work becomes suspect? How about sticking to the latest numbers, the latest product specs, the current management team, the up-to-the-minute pipeline, and/or the latest design road-map? Yesterday’s news is of little interest to someone trying to form an opinion of you and your business and perhaps to make a buying or investing decision. I saw an investor letter this week that referenced now discontinued business ideas; someone cut and pasted without checking the result and led with the wrong points.
You would think most entrepreneurs would be guilty of overselling themselves and their companies, that their hockey sticks would be too steep, that all their projections would be too optimistic, and that customer discovery would be filtered through rose colored glasses. I generally find the contrary to be true. Yes, all those overstatements may be in a pitch somewhere, but they get lost in the style and packaging. Too many eager founders let multiple acts of carelessness as described above actually undersell what they have to offer. They allow opportunities to slip through their fingers when they fail to paid attention to the details that turn doubt into credibility.
One good way to test yourself in this respect is to have someone else review any communication you are packaging for customers, investors, or other key outsiders. You are living inside the company and racing every minute to meet deadlines. You just osmose much of the data that measures your performance, and the next steps to you are obvious. Why would anyone not be sold by your pitch? You’ll get the answer to that when you try it out on a dispassionate observer who has your interest at heart but doesn’t live inside your boiler room. When I write one of these essays, I become blind to grammatical and spelling errors, repeated words, and other common mistakes of this form of writing. I print and underline each essay to double check myself, and invariably a few mistakes will slip through. But, in my case I am trying to deliver some useful information and generally believe I succeed in doing that. I am not trying to sell you a deal or a product. I remain relatively consistent in style and word count, and I listen to feedback I get from my readers. I fix any mistakes they find, using the real-time power of WordPress. If each week I had more at stake, I’d ask an editor to pore over my prose. Don’t be shy about subjecting yourself to such editorial scrutiny.
If you are a startup founder, you have much on the line every time you write, speak, pitch, or otherwise try to persuade anyone to act in your company’s best interest. You will not be able to “un-ring the bell” once you have clearly underwhelmed an audience of any sort. Get it right in a practice session, and carry that to the stage. There’s never an excuse for you to undersell yourself or your business.