How to Deliver a Presentation Under Pressure

After watching business pitches at recent tech conferences, communications coach Carmine Gallo prepared tips for make-or-break situations

Last week, dozens of entrepreneurs pitched their startups and technologies to influential investors and members of the tech community in hopes of raising money and attracting attention at two different important conferences—TechCrunch 50 in San Francisco and DEMO fall in San Diego. After attending the TechCrunch event in person and watching a number of the DEMO presentations online, I tried to turn what I had observed into five tips for anyone making a business presentation under pressure. While you might not have plans to pitch your company to an investor anytime soon, the odds are likely that you will have to pitch to a potential partner, customer, employee, or lender who can make a big impact on your company in the near future.

1. Keep it brief. TechCrunch limited pitches to eight minutes. DEMO gave its startup presenters even less time—six minutes. DEMO also charged an $18,500 fee to present. That's a little over $3,000 per minute. Try this exercise. If you had to pay $3,000 a minute to pitch your idea, what would you keep, and what would you cut? It might seem like a difficult task but it is an important one. You see, our brains are wired to tune out after a short amount of time. Brain researcher John Medina says the typical audience member gets bored in 10 minutes (, 7/7/08). Venture capitalists have told me the same thing: If entrepreneurs cannot pitch their companies in 10 minutes or less, the message needs to be refined.

2. Don't override the memory buffer. Geoffrey Moore is the bestselling author of Crossing the Chasm and Dealing with Darwin and is a venture capitalist at Mohr Davidow Ventures. He has seen hundreds of presentations. He told me that entrepreneurs "try to squeeze a 2MB message into a pipe that carries 128kb per second." In other words, too many people overload their presentations. Remember, your brain can only absorb so much information at a time—keep your pitch simple and clear.

3. Set the stage for the conversation. According to Moore, most entrepreneurs fail to intrigue investors because they jump right into explaining their product without setting up the problem. "You need to create a new space in my brain to hold the information you're about to deliver," says Moore. "It turns me off when entrepreneurs offer a solution without setting up the problem. They have a pot of coffee—[their] idea—without a cup to pour it in."

I was thinking about Moore's advice when watching the DEMO pitch from Kevin Fliess, the founder of travel Web site TravelMuse. He began his presentation by setting the stage: "The largest and most mature online retail segment is travel, totaling more than $90 billion in the U.S. alone. We all know how to book a trip online. But booking is the final 5% of the process. The 95% that comes before booking—deciding where to go, building a plan—is where all the heavy lifting happens. At TravelMuse, we make planning easy by seamlessly integrating content with trip planning tools to provide a complete experience." By introducing the category before jumping into his product description, Fliess created the cup to pour the coffee into.

Once you have described the category, Moore recommends that you stake your "claim to fame" by clearly explaining why your company has the best chance to capture the opportunity you described.

4. Rehearse. Reading from notes is a sure way to lose your audience. You need to take the time to internalize your message so that it doesn't seem scripted (even though you might want to start with a script and reduce your message to bullet points for practice). Bear in mind that most presenters don't spend nearly enough time rehearsing the message (and responses to tough questions). In her new book, Slide:ology, presentation expert Nancy Duarte (, 4/10/07) estimates the preparation time for a 30-slide presentation should be in the range of 36 to 90 hours! That's right, 36 to 90 hours! If that amount is shocking, you probably don't spend enough time researching, collecting material, understanding the audience, organizing ideas, sketching the storyline, or rehearsing.

5. Don't sweat the small stuff. During some of the presentations at TechCrunch, presenters had to wait while their Web sites loaded, because of a spotty Internet connection. Often the presenters stopped speaking while everyone waited. It seems they forgot that even in the most carefully prepared presentation, a minor glitch or two is likely. It's better to quickly acknowledge the mistake and move on. Your audience is interested in what you have to say and what you have to teach them. It's not about the slides, it's about you.

Keep these five suggestions in mind as you prepare for your next big presentation. Remember, you might not get another chance to win over your audience.

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