At the Ivey Venture fair, held in Toronto on Nov. 4, I watched six entrepreneurs tell their stories to an audience of potential investors and other supporters. Most were actually good presenters, but I noticed a few mistakes that could have been easily corrected if the presenters had simply been more aware of the audience’s needs.

  1. Assume your audience doesn’t understand your industry. Dump the jargon that people in your sector think is so cool. It’s just a barrier to communicating with anyone outside your industry sector.

  2. If your product/service is complex, use anecdotes and stories to explain how it works. If it’s still hard to understand, stop telling us what your product or service does and explain how it helps people. If there are features you are particularly proud of, don’t just list them; explain why we should care about them. Specifically, how are these features superior to your competitors’?
  3. If you have a significant edge over your competition, tell us early and clearly. Be sure to quantify your advantage: are you 20% cheaper, 30% faster, or 40% more effective than the competition? And please, explain why you have this advantage. Most markets today are pretty efficient—product improvements are usually measured in inches, not miles. If you don’t provide a convincing reason why you’re so much better, you’re raising questions that will leave your audience increasingly skeptical the longer you go on.
  4. Don’t be too casual. People will listen only to speakers they respect. Maintain a professional and authoritative air. If you’re too informal in tone, or overly modest, you invite the audience to tune you out.
  5. Having said that, do whatever you can to keep your audience’s attention. (Once they start checking their BlackBerries, you’re lost.) One presenter started out with some funny observations about his home province. Another company used two presenters, taking turns, to tell their story. The constant switching could have been distracting, but because it was well rehearsed it kept our interest. 
  6. Use slides sparingly. A few pictures or diagrams can help tell your story, and some calculations may be helpful to show why your margins are higher than industry norms. But don’t use slides to repeat all your main points (it’s hard to read and listen at the same time). And don’t cram your slides full of essay-like paragraphs in tiny type that no one can read. If you do have such a slide in you deck, don’t apologize for it—just take it out before someone sees it.
  7. Review your slides closely before your presentation to make sure they’re up to date. One presenter offered a slide that said the company was hoping to complete a transaction “by early 2010.” That pretty much suggested that either he’s not good with details, or he doesn’t know what month it is. Neither of those is a good impression to leave with your audience.

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