Pitch Perfect: Mastering the Art of Startup Presentations w/ Neil Thompson

Neil Thompson, Founder of Teach the Geek, gives incredible advice to help founders hone their pitch deck and presentation style.

A critical component to the fundraising process is the pitch deck. Effective pitching is crucial for startup founders who often need to convey their ideas and products to investors, partners, and stakeholders.

Today’s guest is Neil Thompson, Founder of Teach the Geek, who gives incredible suggestions on how to improve the pitch deck and presentation style of the traditional technical founder. Neil emphasizes the need to highlight the benefits of their products rather than diving into technical features. He also provides practical tips, such as striking a balance between visuals and text, adapting to different audiences, and crafting a compelling narrative.

The conversation also dives into:

  • Focusing on Benefits over Features and how challenging this can be for the technical gurus
  • Overcoming blind spots of defensiveness
  • Utilizing empathy to adapt the pitch for different audiences
  • The importance of networking and the power of finding comradery in Founder groups

This discussion with Neil Thompson of Teach the Geek comes from our show Startup Success. Browse all Burkland podcasts and subscribe to the show on Apple podcasts.

Episode Transcript

Welcome to startup success, the podcast for startup founders and investors. Here you’ll find stories of success from others in the trenches as they work to scale some of the fastest growing startups in the world stories that will help you in your own journey. startup success starts now.

Kate 00:18
Welcome to Startup Success. Today, we have Neil Thompson in studio, who is the founder of Teach the Geek. Welcome, Neil.

Neil Thompson 00:28
Thanks for having me.

Kate 00:29
Yes. So tell us a little bit about your background and founding of Teach the Geek.

Neil Thompson 00:37
Well, it all started back when I was working as a product development engineer in the medical device industry, it was my second job actually out of school. The first one I was working mostly in a lab, I didn’t have to do a whole lot of talking to people. And that wasn’t something I was all upset about. It was that second job, where I had to start giving presentations in front of management. So we’re talking to CEO, CTO, COO, C fill in the blank, O, all the C’s that are in this meeting, and I had to get project status updates on a monthly basis. And those first few presentations were terrible. I did not know, it was possible to sweat that profusely. While awake, but thereI was doing exactly that. And I knew I wasn’t doing a good job, because I’d often get questions after the presentations that I thought I had answered during it. But looking back on it now, because I didn’t put things in a way that the people in the audience could understand. That’s likely why I was getting those questions. And it wasn’t until my project got cancelled, was the day I get that wake up call that preface is something I need to get better at just communicating with others more specifically, as a technical person and communicating better with non technical audiences. So it wasn’t until a few years after that I decided to go all in with Teach the Geek and what it is essentially is me working with technical people, so they can be better presenters, like they can have better presentation skills, especially for nontechnical audiences. So essentially, I now help people like myself,

Kate 01:59
That’s great. I do now, you know, especially in startup land, where a lot of the startup ideas are very technical. And it’s difficult to always explain all the technical nuances to people that aren’t deep in the industry, like the founder

Neil Thompson 02:19
100%. I mean, it really is I saw that in myself. And then when I started paying more attention, I saw it in others as well. And that’s what made me think, maybe I can make a business out of this.

Kate 02:29
Yes. And so how do you help startup founders, like go over some of the ways that you assist them?

Neil Thompson 02:37
Well, it comes down to helping them with their pitching, because oftentimes, they may participate in pitch competitions, or they may have pitches in front of angel investors or VC (venture capitalists). And I help them with developing the pitch where people actually want to listen to what they’re talking about. I mean, in so many instances, they are focused on things that perhaps the people in the audience aren’t. And when there’s that disconnect, what ends up happening is, there’s miscommunication. They’re saying one thing, that people in the audience are hearing another and it’s just you’re not getting the outcomes that you want. And so I help technical founders specifically, because that’s less where I come from, I’m a technical person, myself, and just making it so that their technical speak is more palatable or understandable by people in the audience.

Kate 03:26
That’s great, and especially around the pitch deck. That’s such a critical time. And if you lose your audience there, then they’re not many paths forward, if you aren’t speaking in a way that’s makes a lot of sense and captures the audience and tells your story. So one of the things that we talked about was something that I see a lot in the pitch decks that I look at. And that is, so many times founders focus on features and not benefits. And let’s talk about that. And if you could explain that to the audience, and why that can be a mistake.

Neil Thompson 04:10
I developed a product, I think it’s really cool. Here’s all the cool things it can do. But the people in the audience, do they care about the cool things they could do? Or the applicability to the people you’re actually trying to help? And that’s where the benefits comes in. I mean, if you want to talk about the features, certainly the people that are more technical in the audience, they might geek out over it. But for a lot of the people who aren’t technical, they’re more concerned with, well, what can this product do that could actually help people? What’s the story behind this product? There’s so many questions that those people in the audience may very well have just like the ones I mentioned, but technical founders aren’t really focused on that, they’re focused more on the technical features of the product. And if you’re trying to get funding, that’s certainly not the thing to focus on.

Kate 04:55
Right. Can you share an example?

Neil Thompson 04:59
Sure. I was in an audience once were technical founder was talking about a putty. So when I mentioned I worked in medical devices, and even more specifically, I worked in spinal implants. So this putty is used in spinal surgery. So when they were talking about it, it really piqued my interest because I come from that field. But what they were focused on is what the putty could do, which is interesting, but how could the putty actually help the patient, they weren’t really talking a whole lot about that. And that’s, that’s unfortunate, because ultimately, when you sell a product, we mean, we didn’t know how it worked, and why we should buy it. And the why is, based on what he can do for people. And that technical founder completely missed all of that. In fact, he spent a whole lot of time describing what the bone surgery, not bone surgery, but bone formation, and using terms that people in the eyes may not have understood, I understood it because I come from their field. But especially if you’re talking about non technical audience, you’re going to use a whole bunch of terms that they don’t understand, too. And you’re focusing on all these technical features, well, then you’re losing them. And ultimately, then the answer probably is going to be no to the funding.

Kate 06:07
I like how you phrase that – the Why. He didn’t go into the Why, which we see that a lot in pitch decks, why? Why does this matter? Why is this important? Why, why why. And that’s a great example that you shared, it really makes a lot of sense. And you also mentioned something in that example, that caught my attention. And that was, you said the founder used words that a non-technical person in that field, they wouldn’t understand. I’m guessing that happens a lot as well. And if you could talk us through that.

Neil Thompson 06:45
Sure. What’s an osteoblast? Do you know? Guess who else didn’t know? A lot of people in that audience when I was watching that technical founder gave his presentation. And if you’re gonna use a term like that, you have to explain what it means. Because a lot of people aren’t gonna know it’s not as if that’s a word that’s used in this regular English. But what an osteoblast actually uses the bone forming cell. So if you just explain simply that way, well, even if you were to use that word throughout the rest of the presentation, at least people would know what you’re talking about osteoblasts bone forming. All right, that makes sense. It is just something that simple, just using more commonly used words to describe technical jargon. And it goes a long way to having non-technical eyes actually pay attention to what you’re saying.

Kate 07:32
Yes, we see that with article placements. I mean, they say you need to write at a fifth grade level, which is sounds scary, but what I think they’re really trying to convey is you need to use words that are common, like you just explained, you know, there’s there’s a very technical word, or there’s a way of describing it that uses more common words.

Neil Thompson 07:59
100%. And the idea of presenting at a fifth grade level, I think, is a useful one. Although I probably wouldn’t say that I’m presenting to you at a fifth grade level to a group of adults.

Kate 08:12
No, I understand what you mean, people take offense to that. When you were working with founders in these areas, are they open to your suggestions? Or do they get frustrated? Because I understand that they’re in the weeds, they’re super passionate about the product or service that they’ve created. So sometimes there’s a blind spot there, if you know what I mean, right?

Neil Thompson 08:39
Oh I 100% know what you mean Kate. A lot of engineers are quite defensive, when it comes to any sort of criticism. They got through however many years of engineering education, typically one of the more difficult undergraduate degrees to get. So they’re really proud of that. And then they’ve worked for a number of years, likely, before they even started their own venture, then they had the confidence to start their own venture and to really make a go of it, then yeah, if you’re gonna give them any sort of constructive criticism that they’re not really interested in hearing, then yeah, you might get a bit of pushback. But ultimately, it comes down to the results. I mean, what do you want? I’m assuming you want to get funding, and if you want to get funding, well, you have to put your presentations in the way that the funders want to hear. And if you don’t do that, then you’re not going to get the funding. Next thing, you know, you’re back being an employee again.

Kate 09:26
Right. And have you seen that the work that you do just in those two areas alone, and then I want to, you know, get into some, some other ways that you mentioned how you help founders, that it makes the difference? And just the first, you know, output of their presentation?

Neil Thompson 09:46
Absolutely. I mean, you can see the difference. It can be night and day. So the first presentation could be chock full of text and the founder is reading the text and thinking that that’s going to help in engaging the audience and endearing that, that presenter to the to the to the audience, and it just doesn’t. What it does is well, we know you could read. That’s, that’s, that’s cool. But I mean, you want to get funding I’m assuming. So if you want to get funding, you have to engage people, you have to tell a story about your product, about your company, about the people who work with the company about the problem that you solve. And you have to be all done in this way that is compelling to an audience and after working with me, well, then the the change can be, well, we’re going to have less text on the slide, you’re actually going to have to know what you’re going to say, well, and what that also does is it eliminates the ability of the people in the audience to read. So either they’re going to listen or ignore you. So I like the one in two odds, as opposed to the one in three odds. And that’s definitely helpful. And then another thing I’m also big on is using images instead. Images paint 1000 words, and what it, as I mentioned, it forces you to know your material really well. And I think that also goes to shows that you’re you’re knowledgeable about your product as well, you’re knowledgeable about your company, you’re not just up there reading a bunch of slides,

Kate 11:09
I am so glad you brought this up, because I sit through a lot of presentations, not just pitches, but just in general leadership presentations. And so many people put everything they want to say on the slide. So I am a fast reader. So what I end up doing is the slide goes up, and I quickly read it. And then they’re slowly going through each bullet, and I’m bored, and my mind wanders. And I learned early on, put less words on the slide and talk through the points so that the audience has to listen to what you’re saying and engage with you.

Neil Thompson 11:53
Yeah, I mean, that’s really what it’s all about. And ultimately, it’s public speaking, not public reading.

Kate 12:00
Right, right. And that just on an aesthetic standpoint, alone, the deck looks better. And then the use of images. There’s so many copy heavy decks out there that are painful to look at. They’re supposed to be some visuals wouldn’t you agree?

Neil Thompson 12:20
Oh, absolutely there should be visuals. One thing about visuals, though is that you don’t want to go overboard with them, because people might get overwhelmed with them. A few months ago, well, actually, a few weeks ago, I was looking at well, I attended a webinar. And the person who was running the webinars showed a video of a presentation that they did. It wasn’t a founder, but it was a in-person presentation. And she had a lot of holographic images as part of the presentation is very impressive. But if you were to ask me now what she spoke about, I have no clue. I know she did have a lot of a holographic images, though. So you definitely want to balance the use of visuals.

Kate 13:01
That’s a good word of caution. Let me ask you this, because this is what always holds me back on the use of copy. Should a deck be able to tell the story if you email it to somebody and they flip through the deck? Or should you think of a deck as a tool that you speak along with? Because I think that’s what throws people off? You don’t always know how the audience is going to be consuming your deck? Are they going to be alone at the computer flipping through it because they get it later? Or will they be with you?

Neil Thompson 13:38
I’d say prepare two decks, one with the words and one without it. So the people that are consuming it at their own leisure, that’s the one that have the words on it, because obviously they’re not there. You’re not there to speak through the slides. So yeah, so you’re gonna have to have more than just a couple of words per point. But if you’re if you’re actually giving the presentation, then I’d say minimize the number of words. And as I mentioned earlier, then it forces people to either listen or ignore you.

Kate 14:04
I like that. So you could save one as your live presentation deck, and then the other as your follow up deck. That’s a great piece of advice. One of the things that you mentioned, when we spoke before the podcast was building empathy for your audience. You said, Oh, that’s really important. And I said, Well, let’s talk about that during our live conversation. What did you mean by that? And why is that important?

Neil Thompson 14:35
At one point, you were not a technical person. And that came later. So why would you give a presentation to non-technical people expecting them to be at the level of you as a technical person? And I think a lot of technical people forget this. Yes, we went through engineering school, or a STEM program, some kind and I worked in a technical role somewhere and now we’re a technical founder, but we weren’t always all these things. So you just have empathy for the people who are in the audience listening to your presentation and know that they’re not at the technical level that you are. So you have to meet them where they are, as opposed to them meeting you where you are. I mean, if getting funding is the name of the game after all.

Kate 15:14
Right, that makes sense. And so when you work with founders, are you working with them not just on pitch decks, but also just speaking style?

Neil Thompson 15:26
Oh, yeah, absolutely. So it all goes hand in hand. So we definitely want to make sure that the deck is in such a way that people will actually pay attention to it. And then we also want to make sure that the words that we’re saying make sense based on what the pitch deck is, and ultimately, it starts with the mind, of course, that you have to have the confidence to get up there and speak about your product and your company confidently. But then it also comes down to the persuasive piece that you also have to add, I mean, ultimately, you’re trying to get funding, and how do you get funding? Well, you got to persuade people, you got to have a compelling story. And we work on that as well.

Kate 16:05
How do you help with the compelling story? Because that is something that when you read about pitch deck prep, you know, the author always says make sure you tell a story for founder’s listening, what is that mean? Tell a story.

Neil Thompson 16:21
Yeah. Well, when it comes to telling a story, it starts with why you started the company in the first place. Who are you trying to help? I actually I was in a pitch competition, I was in the audience. And the person who ended up winning, he actually showed a video of a person who was affected by the product that was that this person was pitching. And so you don’t think that that could have went a long way to showing the people in the audience, especially the judges that pitch competition, this is actually something that should get investment. This is something that’s really important, because we’re actually hearing from the horse’s mouth, how this particular product actually helps people as opposed to the founder saying how it helps people of course, he or she’s gonna say how it helps people, they want the funding. But hearing a third party say it well, now it has way more credibility, so that definitely can lend itself to a compelling story.

Kate 17:18
I like that it adds credibility. Do you think that the use of video and things like that in a pitch come off as gimmicky or does it usually work like it did in that instance?

Neil Thompson 17:30
Certainly, I think it can work based on what the video is. And I certainly wouldn’t have a video that is too long. I’d say at most a minute, 90 seconds tops, you certainly don’t want it to be too long of video, because then people just looking at a video as opposed to listening to you. And ultimately, that’s what they’re there for.

Kate 17:46
Right? That makes sense. Do you ever prep founders on worst case scenarios, like something goes wrong with the deck? Or, you know, the video doesn’t load or somebody doesn’t show. Do you ever help them with that? Because I hear so many horror stories.

Neil Thompson 18:04
Certainly. I mean, you can prepare all the best you can and make sure that the deck works, make sure that all the tech works. But ultimately things happen during the presentation. And I really try to let people know that well, this is oftentimes inevitable. Oftentimes, when it does happen, you just need to remain calm during the situation, as opposed to going off the rails and just doing your best to get back on track. And apologizing if necessary ultimately. We know that mistakes happen, or they’re things happen, and what can we do to get back on track as best we can. And certainly I can help people with that.

Kate 18:42
I think that’s true. I think being genuine and just saying what’s going on. Once I had to give a speech, and the organizers promised me that a copy of my speech would be on the podium. And they assured me assured me over and over again, because I felt really strange about not bringing my own copy. And guess what when I got up there, it wasn’t there. Right? So I just calmly said, oh, you know, and then they ran it out to me, but everyone later at the reception said You handled that so well. But I think you summed it up perfectly, you’re calm, you just explain what’s going on and, and people understand.

Neil Thompson 19:21
Yeah, and another thing when it comes to that is if you’re a technical founder and you were to go off the rails, you get really upset. If you’re talking in front of angel investors or VCs who are looking to invest in you. You think they’re gonna want to invest in you after you have a hissy fit based on some tech, some tech hiccup.

Kate 19:38
Right. Exactly. Exactly. Or get very frustrated. Because we all know worse things are gonna happen as you’re founding your startup, right? Absolutely. Yes. It’s how you handle yourself. So we always wrap up the show with general advice for founders listening. I mean, you’ve shared so much around the pitch deck and presenting, but you also founded your own company. For those listening right now that are in the midst of this journey that has a lot of ups and downs, anything you can share that you haven’t already highlighted today.

Neil Thompson 20:18
Well, you can do what I didn’t do, don’t make the same mistake I made and that is not getting around people who are doing what you want to do. So do the opposite of that. Get around people who are doing what you want to do. It didn’t even occur to me at the time when I started Teach the Geek, to get around other people who have founded companies, and it slowed down my progress precipitously. So what I would suggest is joining groups, I’m here in San Diego, there’s a group here called San Diego Entrepreneurs Exchange, they hold events on a monthly basis, they have mixers, and also just events on topics that would be of interest to founders. Join groups like that. And you can learn a whole lot from people who have been where you are or people who are even going through what you’re going through currently. So if at all possible join that type of group. And then there are other resources that are available to you there is SCORE it is I believe, funded by the Small Business Administration. So it’s a federal, federal agency, or federal, at least federally backed program, they hold events, typically in various parts of the country, they have chapters, but a lot of their programs are offered virtually as well. So it doesn’t even matter where you are. And they hold all kinds of programs to help founders, if you are actually in a place, a location where there is a SCORE office, you can actually meet a SCORE mentor in person, and it’s all free. So you can definitely go to those people and ask your questions about founding a company. And then when it comes to the pitches, generally, you definitely want to practice them, you know, and you want to practice them amongst people who are open to giving you that constructive criticism, not in front of your mom who will tell you good job every time.

Kate 21:59
That’s true. That’s very true. I like that. And I also like how you brought up building a network, having people around you that are going through the same thing, because you’re so busy, as a founder, it’s really easy to get isolated, and just be around the people that you work with day after day. But to go network and, you know, founder community, founder circle with others that are going through it, that can shed perspective that can help you I mean, it sounds like it really has helped you.

Neil Thompson 22:34
100%. And what also it does is they can point you to resources, like SCORE, like I mentioned, or the San Diego Entrepreneurial Exchange, or any other group that can help you in pushing you forward. If you hang around mostly with people who still work at companies, anytime you come across any sort of difficulty, they may very well tell you, we’ll just go get a job.

Kate 22:54
Right? Exactly. Very true. Well you shared so much helpful information with us today about pitch decks and presenting. So if I’m listening, and I want to learn more about Teach the geek and the services you provide, tell us where to find you. And also just a quick overview of how you help founders, like the services you offer would be great.

Neil Thompson 23:18
Sure, so you can go to teachthegeek.com. Again, that’s teachthegeek.com. And then also, I am currently starting a membership for technical founders. And it’s based on helping them with their pitches. So essentially what will be offered is an online course that would help them in just developing what they’re the best pitch that they can have. And then it’d be an online community for all of them to interact with each other and share and learn from each other. And then also monthly calls where we can actually go over people’s pitches and offer feedback that way as well. You can learn more about that at TeachtheGeek.com/pitch

Kate 23:59
Sounds like some really helpful services. Thank you for being here today. Neil. I learned a lot as I’m sure the rest of the audience did.

Neil Thompson 24:07
Thanks for having me, Kate.

You’ve been listening to startup success. To make sure you don’t miss out on future episodes. Subscribe to the show and your favorite podcast player. Like what you hear. Tap the number of stars you think the show deserves and Apple podcasts. For more tools and resources for your own startup success. Check out berkland associates.com Thank you so much for listening. Until next time…