Next slide please: how to avoid ‘number theatre’​ in investor presentations

If you can’t convince them, confuse them. If you watched the Government’s briefing to announce a second England-wide lockdown on Saturday 31 October, you might have been reminded of this quote by Harry S. Truman.

With a next slide please overdose, there was bemusement on the way nationally important statistics were being relayed to the public. The presentation of data rapidly became a parody of mathematical precision in what can only be described as ‘number theatre’, an elegant phrase coined by David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University

Seeking mathematical precision informed by expert analysis, it failed, simply confirming the poor communication that is offered up regularly by the Government for public consumption. Though we have become used to lots of graphs and next slide please, nobody expected a prime-time masterclass in how not to present critical information, when trying to inform the nation. Of course, there has also been retrospective correction of the data too, but how did they get a piece of nationally important and sensitive communication so wrong? It is almost as if the faux precision of the numbers and graphs is intended to dazzle and distract from the lack of clarity elsewhere.

The broadcast was a signal that the Government wanted us to alter our behaviour, but the befuddlement from the graphs was compounded by Johnson’s inability to be authentic and coherent, caveats littering his exhortations. While a set of confusing slides won’t alone dictate how people behave, these things add up. Perhaps the biggest betrayal to an audience eager to understand is the phrase as you can see. It’s repeated many times at these briefings, and it’s too quickly followed by next slide please. The information shown is complex and takes a moment to digest. Actually, it takes a good few minutes to decipher, as the graphs are so dense and challenging to interpret on the screen.

Fundamentally, the presenters need to slow down, share their thinking and not talk to us, and help us understand how they’ve got to their findings, conclusions and recommendations. This is a complicated slide said Sir Patrick Vallance as he drew things to a close – forgive me Patrick for not fully understanding – but the heat map slide was crucial. It was the climax to the case for lockdown. The sixteen maps and graphics that came before were just preamble. The graphs on this slide told us that the NHS would likely run out of capacity to treat the sickest patients in only a few weeks if we didn’t act. It was all he needed to show.

I want to be clear that I have tremendous respect for the teams of people involved in creating these maps and graphics. I also have sympathy with the scientific advisers themselves, who are treading the increasingly strained tightrope between science and politics. The fact that they are showing such a rich array of data in some quite interesting ways is a really good thing, and we need more of it. But data visualisation and communication is different to epidemiological modelling. There is also the question of how far the politicians are actually understanding the data, as none have a scientific background.

It’s bewildering. They don’t seem prepared. Johnson blusters and says nothing of substance. Coronavirus is the hardest communications challenge anyone of this generation has faced. This stage of the messaging is enormously complicated, yet it seems to me that they’ve been adopting a strategy that is suited to a campaign but less to governing. It’s just led to confusion and muddle, and having built it up to be this big thing, that was the worst possible outcome.

So what can we learn for startup investor presentations from this primetime masterclass is how to disconnect from your audience, showcasing the Truman quote above? Let’s reflect and put it into context for fundraising pitching and messaging to investors. Let me share you some of the key principles in investor presentations and conversations which have served me well over the years.

1.        Grab the attention from the outset

The best startup founders will use the first five minutes of a pitch meeting to earn the investor’s attention for the next fifteen minutes, which in turn will interest the investor enough to listen for another thirty minutes.

Think of it as being similar to a James Bond movie – we all love the opening sequence, before the titles come on. There’s suspense, action, and unbelievable stunts. These first five minutes bring home why you love Bond, and that keeps you going through the next two hours of nonsensical plot twists.

Takeaway: Don’t do a Johnson and let the data kill the room from the outset, take the lead and get people’s attention immediately with your presence, energy, gravitas and conviction, create a personal connection.

2.        Turn your pitch into a story

Storytelling is proven to capture listener’s attention and make your pitch memorable. Dense spreadsheets and graphs do not excite, instead present via your story, giving the information by way of narrative.

Investors are quickly bored with numbers, it makes the pitch content generic, they can get that information after the presentation. What you can convey in the moment is your story and pathos. That’s why it’s important to step away from the data and focus on the bigger picture you’re trying to tell. Good stories are easy to understand, instil emotion and keep it simple,

Think about your journey. What problems inspired you in the first place? What successes have you had since then? What setbacks have defined or changed your venture? Most importantly: where are you heading now?

Takeaway: Johnson has had COVID, he could tell us his story of illness, care and recovery. Make it personal, share things in your pitch to pique your investor’s interest and keep them engaged.

3.        Reduce the clutter and noise

Great presenters use fewer slides and fewer words. Great writers and speakers are succinct – some of the most memorable speeches and documents in history are among the shortest. The Gettysburg Address is 272 words, and John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech was under fifteen minutes.

Bullet points are the least effective way to get your point across. People read the slides, they don’t listen to you. Steve Jobs was one of the most extraordinary presenters of his time. He rarely showed slides with just text and bullets. He used photos and text instead.

Takeaway: After five minutes of the Government presentation, we were all lost with the repetition of graphs and data battering our sensibilities. Avoid this ‘chart junk’ approach, complement text and data on slides with photos and videos.

4.        It’s not what, but how you say it

Speakers who vary the pace, pitch, and volume of their voices are more effective persuaders, modulating their voice, and by doing so, appear to be more confident in their argument. For example, if they raise their voice when emphasising a key message, or they pause after delivering an important point, your presentation will be more influential, persuasive, and impactful.

Albert Mehrabian’s famous communication model should be born in mind here too, concerning the communication of emotions. His rule states that 7% of meaning is communicated through spoken word, 38% through tone of voice, and 55% through body language

Takeaway: Don’t underestimate the power and tone of voice to make a positive impression on your audience, but it’s also the non-verbal aspects of communication that are important too, and the congruence of the three elements identified by Mehrabian. Johnson makes no personal impact, make sure people know you are in the room, and earn their respect and attention.

5.        Create ‘wow’ moments

People don’t remember every slide and word of a presentation, they remember moments, as Bill Gates exemplified back in his famous TED talk. Giving a presentation on The Gates Foundation’s efforts to reduce the spread of malaria, Gates stated Now, malaria is, of course, transmitted by mosquitos. I brought some here just so you could experience this. And with that, he opened the lid from a small jar containing non-infected mosquitoes. We’ll let those roam around the auditorium a little.

This moment captured his audience because it was a surprise, they’d been expecting a standard PowerPoint presentation with graphs and data. But what they got instead was a visceral introduction to the subject, an immersive experience that played on their emotions.

Takeaway: Give your audience something extra. Johnson’s delivery is frequently bluster, stumble and lacks any conviction or memorable moments of personal inspiration.

6.        Rehearse – but be prepared for improvisation

We don’t practice our presentation nearly as much as we should. Yes, we review their slides ahead of time, but neglect to put in the hours of deliberate practice that will make them shine. Consider Martin Luther King. His most famous speech came after years of practice, and it was his level of mastery that gave him the awareness to pull off an advanced speaking technique: improvisation.

King improvised the memorable section of what is now known as the Dream Speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. When he launched into the I have a dream refrain, the words were not included in his written script. King read the mood of his audience and, in the moment, combined words and ideas to truly inspire.

Takeaway: Put time in to know your stuff, but be inspired to speak from the heart.

7.        Go Beyond Next Slide Please

PowerPoints are linear, and broadcast from one side of the table. They have a tendency to discourage interactivity, and as Johnson showed, have a latency to obfuscate rather than clarify. The best presenters tend to show rather than tell, creating engagement and persuasion. By helping listeners identify with the ideas under discussion, they inspire audiences and create a bond with them. Using as many slides as Johnson did, you risk the audience accidentally or intentionally becoming suffocated by data and ‘chart junk’.

Takeaway: Johnson’s presentation was complex content delivered by fixed messaging, slides were ‘telling’ rather than ‘informing’. There appeared to be no thought on sitting in the audience as a listener, thinking about what reaction the slides would evoke. Always sit on your audience’s side of the table.

8.        It’s all about influence

In investor pitches, your experience and mastery of facts are essential and must be demonstrated quickly. Yet, and I can say from personal experience, data doesn’t necessarily win the day. The reason is often that those pitching have the mastery of facts, but it is just the price of entry, the low-hanging fruit – everyone can replay facts, It’s paying attention to other factors that makes the difference.

The difference between pitch winners and losers, is the chemistry with your audience. It is your empathy for them, your passion for meeting a challenge, your ability to listen, and create an impact. It is the tone you create in the room, knowing how to engage with your unique version of relevant expertise and problem-solving, live, to create influence.

Takeaway: The critical thing is connecting your conversation in a calm, confident and assured manner. People listen when they’re engaged. It’s about the nuts and bolts of your delivery, making your content credible and informative, and not trying to be the smartest person in the room.

The anatomy of being memorable in an investor pitch means it’s important to bust your own biases. Investors are simply asking ‘Make me believe by showing me you know what you’re talking about’. Give yourself the best opportunity by considering the above approach, and most of all, be well prepared.

During a public health crisis, communication is one of the most vital aspects of the strategy itself. There is a simple metric to judge the success or failure of the past week’s communications strategy: whether people’s behaviours change, and as a result, the reproduction rate of the virus falls and remains below 1. Let’s see what happens.

get in touch today

Contact us