Sunday, December 6, 2009


Last week, one of my students shared the pitch deck for his startup. His ideas were great – he’d come a long way in a couple of months – but I was also struck by the quality of his presentation. The text was sparse, the fonts and colors were attractive, and the design was simple and elegant without drawing attention to itself. I was surprised, because most of my students — trained at consulting firms and investment banks before arriving at Harvard Business School — produce over-complicated and unappealing PowerPoint decks. Unfortunately, at HBS, we teach our students nothing about how to create and deliver a great presentation.

I said, “You did this on Keynote, right?” He acknowledged using Apple’s presentation software. I said, “This is very good, but you can make it even better. Track down the presentation that Matthew Prince and Michelle Zatlyn delivered when their startup, CloudFlare, won last year’s HBS Business Plan Contest. It’s the best I’ve ever seen, and I think it was a big factor behind their success. You can learn from it.”

Matthew shared the presentation, along with some good advice. Here’s his email to my student:

I've attached the printed version of our Business Plan Contest presentation. This is the version that judges had in their hands while we presented. It is a reflection of, but different than, what we actually projected on the big screen while we talked. A few points:

1. The presentation itself is important, but energy and comfort are the real keys. What I think really came across in our presentation for the Business Plan Contest was that Michelle and I were having fun, we were comfortable public speakers, and we had a real enthusiasm for what we were doing. Great slides help, but they can’t replace these crucial ingredients.

2. Recognize that the printed page and projected screen are different media and should be treated as such. For our presentation for the Business Plan Contest we only had 20 slides in the printed version and maybe 60+ in the projected version. For example, the printed deck may have a list with 6 bullet points where the projected version would have a slide for each bullet. While not everyone will agree, for a projected presentation to an audience, I'm a big believer in a lot of slides, with little content on each slide, big fonts, and the whole thing rolling by almost as fast as I can advance my remote. If I use transitions at all, I turn down their play time to a fraction of a second — significantly below the default. I think this all helps ramp up the energy and excitement levels.

3. You want your audience watching you, not your slides. Your presentation is what you’re saying, your slides are there to help emphasize the key points and make sure your audience is following you. For example, my favorite slides often have one word on them, like "MARKET." They serve primarily as a cue to you and your audience as to what’s coming next. Slides should never be so complicated that someone is squinting to decipher them. Instead, they should serve as chapter headings to help the audience focus on what you're saying.

4. PowerPoint makes ugly presentations. Period. If you want great slides get a Mac and buy Keynote. We actually had a VC at the Business Plan Contest say, "Well, I'm not sure about the business, but I'm 100% convinced that I need to get a Mac before I ever do another presentation." At CloudFlare we use PowerPoint for things that will primarily be printed. Anything that’s going to be displayed on a screen to an audience of more than 6 people we build in Keynote.

5. Use the technology to look smooth. For example, both Keynote and Powerpoint let the display on your laptop — but not on the main screen — show both the slide you're on and what’s coming next. I’m amazed that everyone doesn’t use this because it is so helpful. Being able to see what is next up and talk to a transition that makes sense really helps the flow. It helps you look extremely practiced even when you just finished the presentation a few second before you’re giving it.

6. Watch great presenters, especially great product demos, TED talks, and Steve Jobs's keynotes. I like this Larry Lessig talk on copyright:

In that video you don't see Larry speaking but you do see how he uses very simple slides to help signpost the complicated concepts he’s talking about. What you don't see are any bullet-point lists with tons of text.

7. Finally, know your audience and be careful about going too far. You can take this advice and put together a terrible presentation that will come across as gimmicky. For example, while I think the Lessig talk linked to above is great, I watched him give it at a highly technical conference where it just didn’t work. The audience grumbled about how thin the slides were and how the talk contained almost no real information. A presentation has got to be aware of its purpose, which is defined by its audience, and it must clearly serve that purpose. It has to feel comfortable. And, most of all, you have to feel really comfortable when you're giving it.

Good luck!

I’m no expert in this area — I have a lot to learn myself about designing and delivering presentations. Books that have proved helpful include Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds, Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki, and Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun. I hope that readers will share other recommendations.

Addendum, Dec. 23: Phil Michaelson, founder/CEO of KartMe offers a terrific set of pitch tips. He makes the case for presenting without Powerpoint and building energy by featuring the product.

Jan 3: Carmine Gallo's slide show on the Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs is also superb.