Presenting with the X factor

Simon Cowell, the man behind the judging desk on Idol, X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, has spent the best part of the last decade sitting through some excruciatingly bad performances in the hope of spotting the next big thing in entertainment that would make money. Talking about his experience in a Billboard magazine interview he admitted “I get genuinely miserable”.

The same is probably true for many potential investors who sit through countless presentations looking, like Cowell, for that spark.

All too often when giving presentations people fail to consider what it’s like to be on the receiving end.  There are some common errors: we give our audience too many facts and figures, on too many slides, either too quickly or, worse still, too slowly. We haven’t agreed a specific outcome. We talk to the presentation, not to the people. We are so close to our own presentation we can’t see the inconsistencies, cracks and gaps.

There are two aspects to the presentation: the content and the delivery. Often, soft skills development focuses on the delivery skills and not the substance. In private equity, that substance counts.

First we need to be clear about our message and what we want the audience to do as a result of our presentation. Then we need to ruthlessly assess our presentation and whether it stands a chance of achieving that outcome. Are we giving our audience a load of data, or providing them with analysis and knowledge that aids their decision making? Are we exciting them or boring them? Is the reaction “tell me more” or “where’s the door…”? Have we explicitly told our audience (one person or many) what we want?

Rehearsals are essential. Get others to road test the presentation and kick its tyres. Ideally, get some tyre kickers who are at least a step or two removed from the presentation so they will be more open minded. Ask them what emotions they felt; what key message they took from the; and how they felt during the presentation.  Then use the feedback to build on the strengths and work on the weaknesses. Be prepared to ditch the presentation and start again.

Changing individual words can have enormous impact. Words like building on, improving, extending modifying all suggest minimal risk, though perhaps a little dull. Prototype, pilot, ground-breaking and untested suggest high risk but exciting. What risk appetite does your audience have, and if you are not sure, have you got enough balance to keep both types engaged?

Yes, the stand and deliver skills are important as well. Some people unfortunately focus on polishing their script, but forget to rehearse it and have no idea how long it will take to deliver. One of Simon Cowell’s feedback comments comes to mind: “You actually sing like a train going off the rails. You sort of start off in tune and then it goes completely off. And very, very fast”.  But there are dangers in an overly polished performance. If you are asking me to “trust you”, I want some authenticity. I want a sense of the individual and or company and how you are different from every other company I have seen.  Self awareness is essential.

Before your next round of presentations, create the opportunity for some in-house tyre kicking. You could create your own in-house X-factor or Dragon’s Den-style forum with a mixed panel of reviewers. You might prefer one-to-one feedback: why not video your presentation and go through it with a coach or colleague. Facilitated small group peer review can also work well for those who learn by watching others. Give yourself beginners eyes and ears: sit in on your colleagues presentations as a potential investor. Watch TV and internet channels critically.

Financial literacy and technical competency don’t automatically make you a good presenter. To stand out in a competitive market you need to work on it.

This article first appeared in the BVCA Journal, the magazine of the British Venture Capital Association.