Presenting at DEMO: 12 Do’s. 5 Don’ts.

Founder Ben Yoskovitz, publishes the terrific Instigatorblog. Ben has shared several posts with us on leadership, funding, and building the ‘perfect company blog’. Today’s pick is on the dreaded topic of public speaking.

Next week Ben will launch his startup Standout Jobs at DEMO 2008. Debuting at such a conference is a big decision for any founder — especially when you have to give your pitch in 6 minutes, on stage, in front of hundreds, like at DEMO. Ben notes that for many founders, “it will be the most important, most stressful, and biggest presentation they’ve ever given in their lives.”

The prospect prompted Ben to write about how to prepare for presentations of all kinds, including team meetings and VC presentations.

Ben’s first piece of advice: Commit to memory 5 phrases you should NEVER utter in a presentation:

* Um…
* Did That Make Sense?
* What Else Can I Show You?
* I Guess That’s It.
… here is why if you need further explanation.

Now you’re ready for Ben’s 12 Tips for How to Improve Your Presentation better.

1. Start with your key talking points. There’s no point writing a full script or presentation until you know what points you want to hammer home. Then, you can stick with a standard format: (a) tell them what you’re going to show them; (b) show them; and, (c) tell them what you just showed them.

2. Write a script. I think this is a good idea. It lets you write everything out and start massaging the words the way you want. It also gives you a benchmark against which you can practice and refine things.

3. Don’t get hung up on specific words. It’s unlikely that missing or changing any one word will totally ruin your presentation, so don’t worry about perfection. The only person that knows you “screwed up” is you…

4. Find your speaking style. Over time with enough practice you can learn to speak and present in any style, but if you’re in crunch mode and don’t have enough time, just try and find your own speaking style. Find your groove. Some people are ultra-enthusiastic. Some are much calmer. For DEMO, I’m aiming for calm confidence. I’m not a flashy guy. I want people to see the practice I’m putting in, my enthusiasm and my confidence – but I’m not going “Tony Robbins” on them.

5. Practice in front of people. I haven’t done this yet, but I’ll be doing it soon. If you haven’t given a lot of presentations this will feel awkward but it’s better to get over those feelings now rather than when you’re on stage. So practice in front of others. But be careful about taking their advice, especially if the presentation is fast approaching. The risk is that you try to incorporate changes you’re not really comfortable with, whether it’s in the actual script or in your presentation style, and you end up causing more damage than good. Given the opportunity you should seek expert help with your presentation, but be careful about how you take any advice, especially late in the game.

6. Practice with distractions. It’s great to sit in a bubble with no distractions whatsoever and practice. You need the quiet time to memorize things and get a feel for what you’re doing. But I’m also practicing while distracted – be it by other sounds or visually (people walking by my office door, for example) because it makes me feel more confident that I can pull it off. On the DEMO stage there will be distractions. One person told me there’s a huge clock facing you counting the seconds menacingly. There are big lights, TV screens and oh ya … the people. I have to be prepared for anything, and practicing with distractions is helpful.

7. Practice piece by piece. I’ve found it quite helpful to practice each section of my presentation in pieces. I’ll focus on one part, memorize the core elements, run through it till I’m comfortable and then move to the next piece. Then it’s just a matter of stringing the pieces together, which is easier.

8. Think ahead. While practicing my DEMO presentation I’ve found my comfort zone when I can think of the next 1 or 2 sentences while speaking. So I’m on sentence #5 but my mind is already bringing up sentence #6 and #7. I don’t have to think too far ahead but just enough that the transition from sentence-to-sentence is ultra-smooth and simple. Each sentence triggers a reminder for the next one.

9. Practice hand gestures. If you’re giving a “naked” presentation (with nothing in front of you like a table, etc.) then you need to be aware of what you’re doing with your hands. And your feet. So think about your hand gestures and how they relate to what you’re saying. If you plan to move around, pace in sync with your words. I’ve been practicing this for a few days with great success. The hand gestures and where I’m walking are triggers cuing what I should be saying.

10. Find your comfort zone.
All the advice in the world won’t help if you can’t get comfortable with your preparation, practice techniques and ultimately, the presentation itself. Do whatever makes you feel comfortable. The more comfortable you feel, the more confident you feel, and the better things will go.

Now you’re ready. And fear not, it’ll be worth it.
For more on why you should present at a big confab like DEMO or CES see:
7 Conference Tips for Startups (scroll midway down).

And for more tips on presenting at big conferences see:
CES after 2AM. Diary of a founder’s ‘first time.’
When demos go bad.