7 Presentation Secrets all Great CEOs Know

I gave a talk at Founder Institute Toronto earlier this week, on the 7 presentation secrets that all great CEOs know. I know these secrets through a 15 year career of pitching for investment, which has resulted in my raising funds from over 50 different investors (I also had lots of rejections to learn from).

Many of these ‘secrets’ are based on simple human psychology: presenting things in a way that appeals to the human brain.

That’s one thing all investors have in common: they are human. As a result, these secrets will work on any investor.

Secret #1: You audience can only hear a few ideas

In any presentation, it is tempting to want to say a lot. You’re an expert in your business, and you are likely very passionate about it. The natural impulse is to want to explain why it is so wonderful to anyone who will listen, and to overwhelm them with all your brilliant thoughts and enthusiasm.

Stop! You can’t share everything. Don’t even try. Your listener has very limited mind space to hear you in.

If you are using slides to support your presentation, the first rule of thumb is to put only one idea per slide. That’s it. The second rule of thumb is that you typically need to spend at least 45 seconds on each slide to be sure each person understands and remembers the one point you are making. So in a 5 minute fundraising presentation, you will have maybe 7-8 slides; in 10 minutes you will have maybe 12-13.

Whether you are speaking with slides or without, the same rule applies to ideas. In 5 minutes, you will typically share only 7-8 ideas (and people will typically remember only three or so of those 7-8). Take the 20 things you want to say about your business and start cutting ruthlessly, until you hit the things you want to say. Make only those points.

Secret #2: Make slides that don’t suck

Too many presenters make slides that are a laundry list of bullet points, which make the audience fall asleep. I see this happening over and over again, often from very experienced presenters with a strong corporate background.

What do slides that don’t suck look like? Watch a TED talk.

Every slide should have a graphic, and very few words.

Every slide should be readable in 3 seconds. Test your slide by looking at it for 3 seconds and looking away. Ask yourself what you understood in that time. Did you understand the one key point? Are you sure? You will rapidly find that you can’t have more than around 5-10 words on the slide, and that pictures are far better than words to get the key point across quickly.

Why do you want so little on each slide? Because the goal is to have people listen to YOU. As soon as the slide goes up, it will distract people, and they will stop listening to you so they can read the slide. You want them to stop listening for only 2-3 seconds, and then get their attention back on you, where it belongs.

Secret #3: Start by telling a story

The human brain is apparently designed to find stories stimulating. Stories grab people’s attention, make them focus, and get them to empathize. That’s what you want. So tell a story.

Stories have a very simple structure, as I learned through improv comedy lessons (which are both fun, and great pitch training).

The structure of any story is: person – problem – solution. This is the classic structure you can see from the earliest fairy tales down to the greatest literature. The person makes it real; the problem makes it interesting; the solution brings closure. Goldilocks walks into the forest – she meets a wolf – a woodchopper saves her. And so on for every other classic story.

This is why you are often told to present the problem first, and then the solution: you are trying to put things into a story format.

You can make the story even more powerful, by remembering that the best stories are always about a person. Think about the person who is having that problem. ‘Someone’ looking for a hotel is a lot less evocative than ‘a business traveler who has to travel at the last second’.

What’s even more likely to grab the brain of the investor? ‘I was traveling to Tokyo last year, had to extend my stay by one more day, and my hotel was full.’

Real people with real stories are by far the most interesting to listen to. Make your story about a real person. It is often best if that person is you. If not, then it should be a story about whoever is your customer. Let the investor into the customer’s mind, so they can feel the problem themselves. They will then appreciate and value your solution that much more.

Secret #4: Your detailed solution features do NOT matter

In an initial fundraising pitch, your goal is to get people interested enough to ask for more details.

You want them to really feel the problem, understand the solution and why it is a solution, and then move on to more important issues (like money, since that is what the investor really cares about).

The details of your solution should take up no more than around one sixth of the presentation: one slide in a 5 minute pitch.

An important factor to remember is that you can talk yourself out of a sale. The more details you give about your product features, the more likely the investor is to focus on those details, and to find something in there they want to argue about. You don’t want to be discussing the details about how your product or service works, and arguing over feature number four, which may not even be core to your business.

You DO want to be discussing how your business will make the investor money, which leads us to …

Secret #5: Your traction REALLY matters

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the privilege of hearing 20+ aspiring entrepreneurs pitch at the Founder Institute. I have been stunned by the number of them who have focused on product features in a one minute pitch, when they actually had talked to tens or hundreds of customers, and never told the listeners.

The investor wants to know what your customer thinks about your solution. Do they like it? Do they say they want to buy it? Have they actually bought it? Are they using it? A lot?

If you don’t tell the investor what your customers think, they will evaluate your business by putting themselves in the place of the customer. This is great if you are selling Uber, a service for busy venture capitalists in downtown San Francisco. This is horrible if you are selling something to corporate marketing departments, construction workers, teachers or any one of the thousands of other markets out there. You never want the investor judging your product by their personal experience, unless you are sure they are natural customers for you.

One of the businesses in our past Founder Institute program was a happiness app. The woman who presented it had a horrible hearing at the first mentor review, because the panel of mentors basically said ‘who would ever want to use an app to make you happy’. Then she went out and proved she could acquire customers for under $10/customer, and that on average something like 70% of her customers were male, which surprised everyone, including her. The conversation changed from ‘who would ever buy this’ to ‘what do your customers look like’.

Secret #6: You matter

If you ask any investor what they invest in, they will say they ‘bet on the jockey, not the horse’.

Since it is common knowledge that investors invest in people, remember to tell them about you. Who are you? What have you done that will excite them? Did you work at Google? Have you been programming for the past ten years? Have you cooked 5,000 meals at home in the past decade? Have you spent 1,000 days traveling? What makes you the right person for this business? (And please tell me it is more than ‘I think it’s a cool app that will make me some money’.)

The same idea can sound totally different depending who it comes from. Who has more credibility to build a music app: a computer science student, or someone who has been working with a music label signing bands for the past decade? And if you want to do a site that helps home cooks find recipes and get ingredients, you’re a lot more credible if you’ve been cooking for a family of six for the past decade as opposed to just reheating pizzas in the microwave in your dorm room.

Make sure if you don’t have personal credibility in an area that you add someone who does. For instance, if you have an idea for a real estate app, and your real estate experience is limited to having watched your parents buy a house once, make sure you get an advisor who is an experienced real estate broker. If you want to make an educational game, and have only ever played games, get advisors with experience in education and in making video games.

Secret #7: Answer the one obvious question

People often ask me for an exact formula to follow to make a presentation. There are a number of formulas you can follow from the classic Guy Kawasaki to Y Combinator and onwards.

The problem with following the formula is that every business is different. If you practice your presentation with people you will typically hear one question or concern reappearing over and over. The obvious question is obvious because it’s what people always ask you. That’s the point you need to address in your pitch:

  • if you’re building a new search engine, I don’t care how many PhDs you have or how cool the demo is, you need to tell me why you can compete with Google
  • if you’re building a personal helicopter (as one of our current Founder Institute participants aspires to do), you have to cover safety and regulatory issues
  • if you’ve developed a process to cure cancer using simple microwaves, my number one question will be on your patents
  • if you want to sell marketing software to Fortune 500 companies, I’ll want to see who in your team can credibly make that sale
  • for an app to help people load and scrapbook their photo collection, and most apps, I’ll want to hear you can get people to sign up and use it (i.e., traction)

Your presentation needs to cover the primary concern for your business. In fact you often have to structure the presentation to address the important points first, because otherwise they will be stuck in people’s minds for the whole presentation, and they won’t hear what else you have to say.

For instance, for the personal helicopter guy, you don’t need to start with a hokey problem statement (“I was standing in my backyard and I said ‘what if I could fly'”). You simply say: ‘I’m building a personal helicopter’. That’s cool, you’ve got their interest.

Then follow up with a comment like “I know what you’re thinking, can I build it … and what about safety and regulatory issues”. Answer those points first, before you even dream of mentioning the market size or anything similar.

Tear up the formula, and structure the pitch to match your business, and to address the one key point that matters most for your business.

Just Do It

The tips above are pretty simple, based on solid psychology and are non-controversial with people experienced in this space. You may have known many of them already. Some may be new. Just do them. Good luck!