Sunday, 20 April 2008

The Art of Arm Waving

Last Thursday was our 15th wedding anniversary and so I did what any good husband would do. I arranged for my wife and I to go out together for the evening. However, being an entrepreneurial husband, I must confess that we actually went to a busness networking event where my wife had the thrilling experience of sitting in the audience and listening to me present for an hour to a group of businesspeople and entrepreneurs. The joys of being married to a entrepreneur, eh!

As CEO of Garlik, I do a fair amount of presenting (or arm-waving as it sometimes gets called), probably twice a month on average. Being able to stand on your hind legs and present to audiences of all shapes and sizes is an essential part of being a start-up guy and the more you practice the better you get. So I tend to seize most opportunities that come my way. For example, over the coming month or so I am talking at a large semantic web conference in San Jose, USA, a couple of identity related conference in the UK and a high level expert group meeting of a United Nations agency in Geneva.

Eacn one is different. Some are very "grown up", no jokes, all shirt and ties. Some are casual, relaxed, interactive. I tend to prefer the latter. However there are a few rules that I follow in all cases.

For example, my preparation time (and I always prepare - even my ad lib jokes!) tends to be inversely proportional to the length of the speech. It is really, really hard to give a good 5 minute pitch. The last time I did that to an audience of about 200 venture capital folk at Imax in London I practiced for about a day solid beforehand (actually all through the previous night). I just went over and over the pitch, timing it with a stop watch each time until it was drummed in to my head. It took 4 mins 32 seconds at home and it took 4 mins 32 seconds on the day. That forum was actually quite surreal. Take a look at this picture of the Imax theatre - imagine standing at the front with a 20 metre high image of your own head behind you. Very weird!

I have a pretty firm rule about powerpoint slides. One slide for every 4 minutes. People almost always have more slides than they need. If you lay out your story at a rate of 1 slide per 4 minutes, the pace will be about right. Then by all means slip in perhaps 1 extra slide, or 2 if it's a half hour slot, but that's it. 15 minute slot? That's 4 slides plus may be 1 extra. Half hour slot? 10 slides max. 5 minute pitch? Just put up a single background slide and leave it up there. Also you must know which slides you are going to drop if you are running short of time. I see people, when told that they are down to their last 5 minutes, flicking through the last 20 slides trying to figure out which ones to talk about. Make sure you know that up front. If the moderator says "Tom, 5 minutes left" I will always know which slide to flick to immediately.

Now to the tricky question of jokes. Did you here the one about the entrepreneur, the sheep, no stop it. You've got to be so careful with jokes. Sometimes they work, break the ice and the audience is with you. Sometimes they fall flat and you suddenly find you are staring out at a hostile audience who think you are not taking them seriously. I tend to start serious, deliver some insights of value (if I can) and try to sense whether I have any permission with this audience to relax a bit. If not, I stay serious. If I do, I might try an "aside" and see whether I get any response, before launching in to the whole pie-in-the-face, crazy unicycle riding, whoops-there-go-my-trousers routine.

Speaking of relaxing a bit, I am ALWAYS nervous before speaking to an audience. Always. I don't really know why given that I have done it hundreds of times to thousands of people. It can be a small group of students or a huge hall of business executives but for some reason my stomach will always do that knotty thing that they do when you are nervous and just as I am being introduced I can feel my heart pounding. Odd. I tend to deal with it by taking the first couple of slides really slowly and carefully, then I'm in my stride and I'm away.

Probably the most challenging presentation I have done was a few years ago when I shared the stage with Bill Gates at a conference in London. There were about a thousand people in the audience, hanging off every word. The plan was that Bill would talk, introduce me and hand over, I would talk hand back to him and that was it. I was given 6 minutes. Not 5. Not 7. 6 minutes exactly. Boy, did I practice for that one!

The most emotional presentation was when I had to stand up in front of my team at my previous start up and announce that I was leaving after running it for about 6 years. I choked up half way through (only time it has ever happened) and couldn't speak. They all stared at me with a mixture of horror and fascination until my co-founder and brother came to the rescue. A couple of months later they invited me back to the team's Xmas lunch and I was asked to stand up and say a few words. As I stood up a voice at the back said "Oi, you're not going to blub again, are you?".

So doing presentations is an essential part of an entrepreneurs kitbag and you need to seize any opportunity you can to stand up in front of people and practice, practice, practice - at least that's what I told my wife last week on our anniversay!

(Oh, in case you are concerned about whether we will make it to our 16th, we did go out afterwards to a lovely restaurant in Chelsea where we had a very pleasant evening).

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