Avoid Death by PowerPoint at J.P. Morgan

By David Spellmeyer, Ph.D.

I really enjoy talking with photographers about their work. It’s a great way to learn about the technical challenges of making great art. Every so often, however, the photographer will drone on and on about technical minutiae, from lenses to ink. When that happens, I feel trapped.

The annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference is fast approaching. Thousands of companies are preparing to pitch their ideas to investors at J.P. Morgan and the many other concurrent events in San Francisco, including Biotech Showcase, the Digital Medicine & Medtech Showcase and RESI. The second week of January will be, as it always is, a whirling dervish of tightly timed meetings, investor pitches and receptions — all dedicated to the business of life science.

Meetings are successful only if the company can present a compelling story about its products and commercial plans. These stories are more likely than not firmly trapped inside PowerPoint (or the less-common presentation platforms such as Keynote or Google Slides). And sadly, for most presentations, the audience feels trapped, too.

Telling good stories takes hard work, and that takes time. But let’s face it: Time is in short supply in our industry. And PowerPoint is a convenient way to share a lot of information in a short amount of time. Does this mean that we need to compromise the story we want to tell? Not necessarily. But we do need to think about storytelling differently and prepare rigorously.

To start, I recommend two major investments. First is speaker training for everyone involved in presentations or investor meetings. Second is to engage a corporate communications firm to help develop and support a consistent brand and message. Corporate communications editors make everyone look better, too.

Pity the audience

One of Kurt Vonnegut’s key recommendation for writers is to “pity the reader.” As presenters, we can also benefit from this advice by making our message easy to understand, from the words we choose to the images we use. It is amazing to think that we can take bits and pieces of visual information, compose that into sentences, figures and gestures and then use those to comprehend complex concepts. A few seemingly small things can add up to significantly higher comprehension levels.

As an experienced J.P. Morgan attendee, here are a few of my suggestions:

  1. Keep it simple. Stick to one or two key concepts in your presentation and build the story around those elements.
  2. Essentialize and cut. Take the time to provide only what is essential and be careful not to leave anything out. Rambling is a sure way to lose their attention.
  3. Use simple language to reach the widest audience. Simple doesn’t mean unsophisticated. It’s possible to be engaging without loading up on jargon and acronyms.
  4. Use proper grammar to increase comprehension. A carefully and correctly constructed message is absorbed more quickly.
  5. Find an effective presentation style for yourself. Make sure you’re comfortable with the flow and format. That helps with authenticity and storytelling.
  6. Dedicate time and energy to practice. Record your practice and be critical of your presentation. After all, if major sports stars use video to improve, why shouldn’t the rest of us?
  7. Research your audience. Investors often want a differentiated idea that addresses a documented need, backed by a solid business plan and the right team to move it forward. (Read about five pitch essentials.)

Avoid empty buzzwords

Scientists are a fickle group when it comes to communications. We are curious people by nature and captivated by learning about new science, so we love good stories of exploration. But we are also highly skeptical and quickly dismissive when buzzwords creep in. I’m talking about words like “next generation,” “unique” or “innovative.” Once that line is crossed, there is no return.

Yet, scientists seem to be very likely to use those same words when making their own presentations, much to the dismay of investors who hear this type of marketing-speak far too often — and not always with data to back up the claims. So, challenge yourself when you’re tempted to use a buzzword. Go deeper and explain the “why”: What makes you innovative? Why is your approach unique?

(If you’d like to dig deeper here, I recommend two recent books that shed light on what language works when presenting to a scientific audience and what can backfire: Hamid Ghanadan’s “Persuading Scientists: Marketing to the World’s Most Skeptical Audience,” and David Chapin’s “Making the Complex Compelling: Creating High-Performance Marketing in the Life Sciences.”)

Don’t let PowerPoint kill your passion

In the end, you are attending J.P. Morgan to convince others to believe in you and your mission. You are there to share your story and advocate for your idea. So, don’t use your presentation as a crutch — and definitely don’t let it sap your joy. Instead, use it as mechanism to remain focused as you tell your story with emotion, strong data and excitement.

The last thing you want to do is drone on and seem bored by your own story. Your goal is to leave the audience wanting more, not desperately wanting to leave.

David Spellmeyer, Ph.D., is a biotechnology executive with 25 years of broad experience in the life sciences industry. He is a founding executive-in-residence of Pandect Bioventures. Read full bio

10 Tips for More Effective PowerPoint Presentations (LifeHack)

14 PowerPoint Presentation Tips to Make More Creative Slideshows (HubSpot)

Using Emotion to Raise Capital: Upping the Game in Your Investor Presentation (CanaleComm)

When a Presentation Turns Into a Conversation (Decker)