Presenting to Win

by Richard Dale, Managing Director at Big Data Boston Ventures

Whether you are presenting your startup to win an investment or win a startup competition, you are facing a tough battle. Much as you think you are fighting to win through force of facts and vision, you are also fighting to win a battle for attention and belief.

Unfortunately, you are most likely stuck with presenting a slide deck. PowerPoint gets all the opprobrium[1], but all the different options are equally problematic (even Prezi). However, the slide deck is the lingua franca of presenting your business, and showing up without a deck would probably make your audience as uncomfortable as if you showed up in scuba gear.

If you are ever presenting to me personally, I prefer to see a business model canvas of some kind[2]. This is not an option most of the time, although I do think the clarity of these tools helps you as you begin constructing your presentation. With a business model in mind, you are well placed to highlight the important elements of your business, describe the key assumptions, and tell a compelling story.

Whether you are presenting to investors or to startup competition judges, you are faced with some amount of random behavior. Your audience in either case is made up of people with strong opinions, a propensity to look for patterns with which they are familiar, prejudices about market segments, and no small amount of ego. When you present, they may have any number of irrelevant reactions prompted by indigestion from lunch, a deal that just went south, a recent argument with a colleague, or a new pet theme (robots that tweet about population health). Your job is to get your presentation across clearly, completely, and with enough momentum to keep them following the story with interest.

The Intel Global Challenge website is clear about the criteria used for looking for winners[3].

I       Attractiveness of business model

II      Quality of product(s), service(s), and/or solution(s)

III     Market opportunities and competitive positioning

IV    Team qualifications and experience

V     Overall attractiveness of the venture

Well, clear, but clearly subjective…attractiveness, quality, opportunities, positioning, qualifications…these are all characteristics that are subjectively determined. The long list of resources provided[4] for helping you work on your business model and its presentation represent differing opinions on the same topic, and may not represent the views of any of the judges. However, this list and others like it are very useful in providing a series of examples of how it could be done, and you need to then decide how to apply the most relevant approaches to your unique business.

In order to be successful with your presentation you need the right underlying story, the right content about that story, and the right style to share the content.

The underlying story is the business model itself and the context for the model. The content to present needs to include team, market trends, competitive environment, intellectual property, go-to-market strategy and so on, similar to the list of judging criteria.

The style of the presentation is even more subjective to judge. In order to win, your presentation has to both tell your story highlighting its intrinsic strengths and honestly communicating any weaknesses, but it also has to be pitched in a way the audience can hear it and appreciate it.

The clapperboard is more than just an iconic image from Hollywood. Its purpose is to allow filmmakers to synchronize soundtrack with the video. I suggest that your first slide perform a similar trick. In order to get your audience to focus on what you are saying, you want the slide and the voice-over (the actual words that you speak) to be the same.

So if the slide looks like this…


Free Bed and Breakfast search,

with an advertising revenue stream,

for the booming 50+ demographic

Sergei Zuckerberg, CEO

…I suggest that what you say is “Thanks everyone. My name is Sergei Zuckerberg, and I’m here today to talk about my company, GoogBnB, which delivers free bed and breakfast search, with an advertising revenue stream, for the booming 50+ demographic.” Like the clapperboard, this performs the trick of synchronizing multiple sensory inputs for your audience and is more likely to focus their attention on you and your slides. You can pull the same trick at the end — use the same slide (maybe with your contact info on there) and say “Again, my name is Sergei. Thanks for your time. My company is GoogBnB, delivering free bed and breakfast search, with an advertising revenue stream, for the booming 50+ demographic.”

Other than that you should NOT fall into the trap of just reading your slides, but you do need to keep the content of the slides well aligned with what you are saying. One test is to rehearse the pitch with friends and get them to note when you say something important which is not on the slide, or omit to say something important which is alluded to on the slide. You will be surprised how often this happens.

Be sure not to overload a single slide. Don’t put up the title slide and tell the whole story of your life or the company formation while everyone is staring at your logo. If it is important enough to say in depth, it deserves some slide backup. Also, try to use graphics and tables rather than just page after page of bullets. In order to free yourself from PowerPoint hell, you could bring non-PowerPoint handouts where the information per square inch is so much higher.

In designing your presentation, work from two primary goals:

  1. What points do I want to get across?
  2. What beliefs does my audience hold that I want to reinforce or change, so that their beliefs will align with the key assumptions about the success of my business?

It is easy to make a presentation that answers the first, but not the second. Your audience may believe academics make bad founders, or consumer apps are dead, selling to hospitals is impossible, or if it doesn’t tweet it doesn’t matter. You can guess some of the beliefs from the conventional views of the industry or sector. Try to get to the individuals’ beliefs by looking at their conference speeches, blogs, or twitter feeds, and at the kind of businesses where they advise, invest, or are otherwise involved. The strength of your startup is based on the key assumptions in your business model. Try to focus on understanding what beliefs your audience will have about those key assumptions, and ignore the more marginal issues. Whether there are twenty thousand developers or a million for the software platform you use is less relevant than whether it is well tested, proven, and appropriate for the job.

In a related matter, don’t pick irrelevant arguments with your audience. These are fights you don’t even know are happening. You put up a slide with some numbers — maybe market size or pricing assumptions — and someone (or everyone) in your audience winces inwardly and thinks: that’s bullshit. At that moment you have lost some credibility, and certainly you’ve lost your audience’s attention for a few minutes. If you are lucky, they will ask you about the number. If it is irrelevant, you should answer that the number is there for illustration, but that even if it is a completely different number, the business model isn’t sensitive to that. If that would be your answer, don’t put the number up in the first place. If it is relevant and important, be prepared to defend it with internal and external evidence. Ideally, if you guess in advance that it might be contrary to your audience’s beliefs, preempt the argument and devote some slide space or time to back it up.

Finally, keep your eyes on the prize. For a startup competition, you may have a single presentation opportunity with fixed time parameters. Paint in broad strokes — don’t dive into details that will clog up your time, but refer to the fact you have those details: “We can achieve world domination within 17 weeks of launch, and our detailed sales plans have all those calculations.”

For most other situations, even demo day opportunities with very short pitch times, the goal is a follow-on meeting. In this case you can even leave out key areas of your business model that need more time to explain. You can sometimes get away with just being silent on those things, and sometimes you should just hit the headline and focus on the vision (and the beliefs you want to reinforce or change). In Q&A, you can say that of course you have a sales plan, revenue plan, product plan, and financing plan, and that you would be glad to present it in a one-on-one meeting any time.

Presenting to win is not about bluster. It’s about the facts and vision of your startup and winning the attention and belief of your audience. It needs preparation and thoughtfulness, and more than a fancy PowerPoint template.

Richard Dale is Managing Director of Big Data Boston Ventures, a new VC fund that invests in early stage big data companies. Richard’s proven leadership abilities combined with deep technical and operational expertise provide a platform to advise entrepreneurs in building solid technology companies. Richard is a well-regarded mentor to founders of early stage startups in the Big Data Boston and Sigma portfolios, as well as other startups including many from TechStars Boston, MassChallenge, and HealthBox Boston.

Previously Richard was a Principal at Sigma Partners and before that was a co-founder at Phase Forward, a provider of software services for pharmaceutical clinical trials, which went public and later was sold to Oracle.  Prior to that Richard worked in a series of management and technical roles at leading technology startups in the Boston area.

Richard blogs at