Presenting a business idea can be a challenging task. Keeping the attention of your audience is no easy feat.

We spoke to Phil Waknell, founder and Chief Inspiration Officer, and Joe Ross, Chief Strategy Officer at Ideas on Stage. Phil co-founded Ideas on Stage in 2010, after realising there was a huge market for people to learn how to present better. Joe has been involved with the IVC for a couple of years, supporting competition participants with presenting their business ideas.

Ideas on Stage is a niche communication firm based in Paris, with offices in Milan, Barcelona, Los Angeles, and the UK, specialising in helping people to present. They work with various entrepreneurs and incubators, focusing on the three key areas for communications: ideation, visual support and delivery.

During your time coaching people, what do you find people struggle with most when presenting?

One of the mistakes people frequently fall into is the idea that a presentation is about informing their audience. They tend to do a data dump and provide an overload of information. We call this “Death by PowerPoint”. If you want to inform them, it is much better to create a brochure and give it to them to read.

People often have trouble understanding their objectives. You need to have transformational objectives before you start thinking about the presentation. You’re giving a live presentation with the hope of making a fundamental change in your audience – from where they were before the presentation to where they are after. You want the audience to get excited about the project, invest in or join the company, and buy your product.

At times, people might say that they just want to relay information to their audience. However, that does not always work very well, since we tend to forget what we hear rather quickly. It’s not about the information – it’s about transformation.

A second universal mistake is to believe that the presentation is all about you when it is about the audience. Consider who your audience is and what they expect from you. If you are presenting to investors, you need to think about their needs. They need to know why it is a good idea, whether people are interested in buying it, and where you are in the timeline. Some start-ups get so excited about their idea, they spend most of their time on technicalities, and not on why their idea is going to work.

In online meetings, people struggle with attention. An online meeting should not be a monologue. You should design your meeting to keep the attendees’ attention and encourage interaction. Drawing the storyline of the meeting can be quite useful. Use one colour for where others should be speaking, black when the meeting is led by the organiser, orange for interactions, etc. You shouldn’t have a time where there is only a black line, therefore you should plan for regular interactions to take place during the meeting time. A moment of interaction can be as simple as asking a question or asking the participants to type an exclamation mark in the chat. It is such a small task, but it helps to keep their attention.

What is essential to remember when presenting a new business idea?

It is key to remember the problem that you are solving. As an entrepreneur, you’re working day and night on your project. You just want to tell people your solution – sometimes even before you tell them what the problem is. If your audience understands the problem you aim to solve, they will get excited about the solution.

With venture competitions, like the IVC, still online, how does that change the pitching dynamic?

We’ve been coaching speakers for events like TEDx around the world, from Bhutan to Brazil, ever since we began. For a lot of our clients, moving online was a complete change. They didn’t really know how to handle online meetings. In online meetings your camera can be off, so you don’t know what your audience is doing. Their camera could be on, but they might be catching up on emails, reading the news, etc. People didn’t know how to manage this environment where attention is harder to come by. Designing meetings and presentations to keep your audiences’ attention is key.

Here are some things to keep in mind when presenting online:

  1. Make sure your tech setup is decent. Have a good microphone or headset and a stable internet connection.
  2. Always look into your camera. To practise this, someone could stand behind the camera, or you could stick a photograph to your screen. When coaching TED talks, we put up several sticky notes with smiley faces to remind people to turn and address each side of their audience.
  3. You have to be aware of what you are going to present. If you want to present a demo or slide show, keep in mind that not everyone has the same equipment. What might look good on your desktop, won’t necessarily look as good on a mobile phone.

What is important when it comes to the visual aspects of a presentation?

When using visual components, like PowerPoint slides, make sure that it complies with “SCORE”. We have five key success criteria for presentations.

  1. Simple: You should have one message per slide. If there is a lot of text on your slides, your audience will try to read it, and stop listening. Most PowerPoint slides fail because they are not designed with human behaviour in mind. Give them something they can understand in five seconds, and then they can continue listening to you.
  2. Clear: Everyone needs to be able to see what you are presenting, whether it is from the back of a room, a laptop or Zoom. Always consider how your slide would look on a smartphone. Would everything be big enough to read? If not, it’s not big enough.
  3. Original: Make sure your slides are original. We forget most of what we see and we forget most of what we hear. But we pay attention to new things. If you show them a PowerPoint, which is just another white slide with some text, bullet points and a title, your audience will switch off. Use original slides: people should wonder what’s coming next.
  4. Related: Only show something on the screen if it is related to what you’re saying at that time. There’s no point putting a pretty picture up there just to make your slide look prettier. If people are wondering why there is a picture of a nice building on the screen, they’re not listening to you.
  5. Enjoyable: If your slides are enjoyable to look at, then the audience will feel that you’ve respected them by showing them something that looks good. They will be impressed, and they will enjoy watching those slides so much more.

What are small things that you can change that will have a positive impact on your presentation?

Always prepare your story before your slides. When preparing a presentation, people often start by opening PowerPoint and typing out their slides. They connect their screen to the computer, show their slides, read the bullet points and improvise. It does not make for a good presentation. Your slides are just a visual aid to illustrate what you have chosen to say. If you work out a storyline, you can take the points that would benefit from a visual aid, and help the audience to understand and to remember it.

Sometimes the most powerful slide is the one that has nothing on it – just a pure black slide. I wouldn’t suggest this tip for an online meeting, because it might look like you are experiencing technical issues. If you’re doing a face-to-face presentation, using a blank slide means there’s nothing on the screen, and it appears switched off. This gets the audience’s attention back to you. If you’re telling a story and giving examples, you won’t need a slide. It also saves time in preparing your presentation.

Rehearse your presentation. You can always get by without slides. You can’t get by without rehearsing. The first time you deliver your presentation, it probably won’t be great. The second time, it’ll be better, the third even better. Make sure that the first time you present is not in front of your audience. Film yourself while rehearsing and play it back. It helps you to understand what the audience sees and what you could do differently.

Smile when presenting. The default position of the human mouth is downwards. If you look negative, you’ll sound negative. To appear neutral, you have to make an effort to half-smile. You might feel like you’re smiling, but your mouth is not pointing upwards or in a full grin. It takes some practice, but by doing this, you can sound and look more positive.

When presenting in teams, what do people need to remember?

Presenting in teams is a very specific exercise.

Firstly, structure the presentation so that each person delivers a clear part of the storyline. For example, if you are pitching a startup, you might have one person who does the introduction and talks about your client’s problem. Another person will talk about the solution that you offer, and then a third person will talk about the business aspects. When pitching to investors, one person will present the investment value proposition, talking about how much you need, why you need it, and when you can give some money back, because that’s what investors are interested in. You care about them entering the capital; they care about exiting.

Try to split the presentation structure into logical parts so you do not end up switching speakers every two sentences. When you hand over, do it like a relay race. You’ve got four people running very fast, handing the baton on to the next. They don’t just let it fall on the ground, leaving the next person to pick it up. This happens in presentations: one person will stop speaking, there will be an awkward pause and the next person will start. Address the next person when moving on to the next part, for example: “Peter, why don’t you tell us about our target market?”. The audience knows Peter will be speaking next and it also makes for a good handover.

It is important to be aware of what to do when you’re not speaking. You might have four people presenting, but only one speaking at a time. If you’re in a room, the three people who are not speaking should move out of the way. The audience should only see the slide and the person speaking, not the three others checking their watch and scratching their nose.

Lastly, you should rehearse as a team. Make sure your handovers are smooth and that the presentation sounds cohesive. Help your team members. If three out of four team members speak loud and clear, and the fourth person speaks very quickly, it will be difficult to understand them and it will be noticeable. The team should help them to slow down to be more clear.

What can people learn from your book, “Business Presentation Revolution”?

Business Presentation Revolution” is a book based on our best-selling training course. There are many great presentation books out there, but what was missing was a method. In our training courses, we teach our Presentation SCORE method for preparing any kind of presentation or pitch: this is the method we use with our own clients. By putting this five-stage process into a book, with a step-by-step practical approach and many examples, we aimed to make this proven method available to anyone. We’ve received feedback from people all over the world, telling us how Business Presentation Revolution has helped them. At Ideas on Stage, we want to make a positive contribution to the world. If we can help good people to get ahead by being able to communicate better, that is something that will make us happy.