Does anybody enjoy presentations?

18 August 2008

Theresa Shafer for SK Murphy has posted five mistakes that CEOs make when giving demos. I assume we're talking startup CEOs here but when I looked at the list I saw much of what is wrong with many press briefings. Most of them are adapted from sales presentations and, it seems, the same structure gets applied when CEOs go out for venture capital.

Is there some kind of dread Dale Carnegie template that gets used to construct all of these presentations? Is it the one entitled: "Bore your prospects to tears"? Because it's the only explanation I can think of.

Basically, all these presentations are done backwards. Point three in the SK Murphy list is the most important one for me:

"'Why I should care about your product' is left to the end of the presentation."

Many briefings are like some ghastly cross between company brochure and time-share sales. Most presentations make you feel like you're being set up for a con. There is slide after slide of selective evidence, all meant to make you think that the thing to be unveiled at the end is the answer.

There are two problems with this. Until I got bored with doing it, I could happily chip away at the setup slides to the extent that some presentations simply ran out of time. And it doesn't help get a story written because all the information is coming in reverse order.

The problem with the time-share pitch is that it is designed to sell. Unless you're selling pens, it's pretty unlikely that the hack is going to buy one. (OK, it's different for gadget makers but the launches I've seen for those have largely been "look, shiny stuff").

At regular intervals in a briefing, I will be thinking: "What's my best possible introduction for a story?" And, most of the time, the answer will be: "I wish I knew."

People really need to think about the thought processes that their intended audience are likely to use. A journalist is, in the case of a briefing, looking for a story. They may well not take away the story you presented but if you start off with what you think the story is, things might at least unfold in the right order.

So, make the claim early. And then provide the background for why this claim might be true. And then you can move onto the background. Why this way round? Because it's a structure that fits the inverted pyramid of news; it fits the thought processes that journalists are most likely to use: what's happened; how it happened; evidence to back it all up.

Readers of news stories do the same thing: they want to know what happened. And, if they are still interested, they stick around to find out about the hows and the whys.

Ideally, I'd ditch the slides and go straight for an interview in which the questions follow this rough sequence and expressed in their most brutal form: what have you done that you think is so great; how is this different to what has gone before; how did you set about doing this; why should people think you have experience here/what's your background?

I suspect it's a structure that will work just as well for VCs and sales prospects in the technology business.


It's funny but I hadn't considered that the press briefing suffers from many of the same problems that Theresa identified in the customer presentation. I liked your decomposition of the standard demo process and will definitely steal recycle a few of your choice phrases:

  • Too many demos are the ghastly offspring of a company backgrounder and a time shares sales presentation.

  • Make the claim, provide the background: follow the inverted pyramid structure that a journalist will need to tell the story.

  • Consider your presentation as an interview, what's a logical sequence of questions you should answer after your opening statement.

Certainly this fits much better with a Cluetrain "markets are conversations" model and gives us another lens to use when critiquing a presentation during dry runs. Thanks.

Recycle away. I'd really like the "time share" phrase to spread. I look upon it as aversion therapy.

Now I have crossed over to the journalists' side of the briefing screen, it has been fascinating to see how poor so many pitches are, particularly at trade shows where you have scheduled a thirty minute slot.

It is interesting to see the reaction when you ask the presenter to skip the company history and positioning stuff and instead move directly to the product news. One marketing guy was so thrown that he never fully recovered. It wasn't even a particularly strong news story!

"It wasn't even a particularly strong news story"

I find the two are often connected. There seems to be this belief that, if the story isn't strong, do everything you can to delay the moment of truth. The problem with this is that they fill the time up with nonsense, making it impossible to find out if they are doing something more interesting or relevant.

Having said, that, the press pack flying into the bin makes a more satisfying thud.

It has come down to this, for me. I no longer do press meetings for clients at trade shows. Period. It's a waste of my time, the client's time and the editors' time. The tech industry has locked into the paradigm that their entire marketing program revolves around the trade show. They require their PR reps, internal and external, to set up as many meetings as possible with press and analysts. There is not reason for the meeting other than that the VP of marketing and CEO can say that they were talking to this editor and that. They produce lists of meetings they will have and had that they can show to their directors and give the illusion that something is being done. They produce press releases on regular intervals to show the directors they have put out x number of releases each month.

No one asks what it is the execs are saying and no one thinks about what the press needs or even wants to hear, so they recycle the sales presentations.

Most of my work today revolves around in teaching people what the press does, and how to say something in such a way that it makes sense to the press. I have turned away more business in the past two years trying to get this across, but it isn't making much headway, because there are still PR pros out there who will measure their worth by how many meetings they put out, how many phone calls and emails they make and how many press releases they distribute. Until my brethren learn that is not PR but publicity only, it's going to be hard to get any real value out of the service

This is all damn good nail-on-the-head stuff, but let us not also forget Sarbanes-Oxley soup. Poured on by lawyers, it rapidly hardens and locks the presentation into an immutable form, 'safe' to present to clients, journalists, and any other unfortunate sod the presenter can lassoo. Not only that but SOX has also burdened the language with yet more utterly meaningless phrases so that any decent game of Bullshit Bingo requires a card that's at least 20x20.
But you know what the really funny thing is - half the companies that do SOX their presentations are not even publicly quoted. YCNMIU.

Coming from the product marketing side of the house I have to agree with your post Chris.

An important point however - those presentations that don't work for the press do not work for prospects either.

When talking to the press the presenter is talking to the prospect by proxy. The majority of journalists are ex-engineers, and even if they're not, it's their jobs to be up on the latest and greatest on both sides of the vendor-user divide. They are busy and they're looking for something that will be interesting and can help their readers (the marketeers prospects).

The presentations you're struggling through are just bad presentations. Plain and simple.

I think someone read in a sales book somewhere that the first 3 slides had to get the audience nodding. (Maybe it was taken from the telemarketing rule book of "get the prospect to say "Yes" three times".) This is the seemingly never ending "set up" you refer to and is the marketeers equivalent of the lazy hacks "for decades the semiconductor industry has been following Moore's Law, stating that....."

It's useless information at best and condescending at worst.

Get to the value proposition, understand it (not just the buzz words) and be enthusiastic about your technology and your customers. Make the slides a back drop to a conversation rather than a surrogate.

And that old chestnut - know your audience!