Presentation Pitfalls Learned From Dragons' Den

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Most of us have experienced both extremes of the business presentation spectrum. We have been bored rigid through the mind-numbing, monotone ramblings of someone who would rather be anywhere but in the room with us. Likewise, we have been captivated by the eloquence and pizazz of a presenter who seems to have been born to deliver the perfect speech.

Nowhere are those extremes more pronounced than in the Dragons’ Den studio. This is the boiling pot where hundreds of budding entrepreneurs have pitted their presentation skills, good and bad, against the cold, hard stare of five wealthy Dragons. This white paper explores the eight most common presentation pitfalls seen on Dragons’ Den and shows you how to avoid them to deliver a professional, powerful presentation every time.

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#1 Failing to prepare, is preparing to fail

When it comes to sounding and looking confident in a presentation, it all comes down to one thing – rehearsal. Preparing for your big presentation should include plenty of practice on a willing and critical audience. Get them to throw you curveball questions and watch out for areas where your train of thought starts to stumble.

Too many presenters try to wing it. That’s great if you are King Charisma and can talk your way out of anything. Most people are in some way shy or insecure and need practice to draw on when things get strained. Nothing is more embarrassing, for the presenter and the audience, than that uncomfortable silence when the speaker forgets his lines or a crucial point. Dragons’ Den has witnessed many a pitcher look beseechingly at the Dragons for some kind of cue to get them out of a hole. Sometimes one of the Dragons will oblige to break the awkward silence, but in real-life presentations, your audience will sit and wait for you to gather yourself together and carry on. The problem is that once the flow is broken, the rest of the presentation tends to go downhill.

Part of your practice can include recovering your composure and delivering a winning rescue that impresses your audience as much as the pitch.

#2 Losing the numbers game

All fans of Dragons’ Den will be familiar with the teeth sucking and head shaking that begins when the presenter stumbles on the salient facts and figures. It is the easiest way to lose any potential investment on Dragons’ Den and in real life.

If you don’t have a good grasp of the numbers that underpin your business or idea in your presentation, you will lose credibility with your audience. Those numbers are the essence of your business. Even if your overall story is riveting, if your entire offering comes across as a work of fiction, you won’t get the audience response you are looking for. Your audience will also sense if you have simply memorised the figures or understand them in the context of your plan. Do not forget that your audience is buying into you as much as your product, idea or topic. If you don’t have your finger on the pulse and struggle to back your arguments or statements with tangible figures (or even forgot them completely!), your audience can become very disengaged, very quickly.

Never go into a presentation without knowing your numbers as well as you know your own birthday. There are memory skills you can learn to remember data when under pressure in presentation scenarios, so use your pre-presentation preparation to get to grips with some of those techniques.

#3 Going OTT with jargon

Contrary to popular belief, waffling and jargon in presentations, or any other kind of business communication, does not a clever person make. Big words, clichés and technical-talk are about as welcome in business presentations as swearing and rude jokes. Your audience is not attending your talk for a demonstration in linguistic yoga – they want a clear, succinct and understandable pitch that they can visualise and relate to. The quicker you get to the point, the better.

Buffling (that’s business waffling for those who don’t know the jargon), has no place in professional presentations. Leave out the ‘singing from the same song sheet’ and the ‘thinking outside the box’, or worse, invented jargon like Dragons’ Den’s infamous nervous Nick and his ‘disconcerning home professional’. Unlike more formal settings, Dragons will interrupt a stagnant or complicated pitch to get to the point. In real life, you are much more likely to lose your captive audience and your influence as they switch off mentally and remain politely silent.

#4 Underestimating the importance of body language

Perfecting your presentation is all well and good, but if you enter the room looking nervous or shifty, you can destabilise your offering before you even open your mouth. Body language can belie our words; an honest verbal request can be ruined by dishonest facial expressions and hand gestures. To build trust with your audience, body language must match the speech. Body language could account for as much as 55% of the impact of face-to-face communication, according to research1 and Dragons’ Den Pitch Coach Catherine Moonan.

The Dragons are sensitive to body language in the Den and will often tell a pitcher to calm their nerves before starting to get clearer picture of who they are dealing with. The entrepreneurs that come onto the stage with genuine enthusiasm, confidence and energy tend to enjoy a better rapport with the Dragons and are often more successful in securing funding.

Like all presentation skills, good body language can be learned and honed. Avoid going overboard on the hand gestures or you will look more like a politician than a serious business pitcher. The key things to remember are good eye contact, natural smiles, open gestures, deep breathing and good posture. Keep your arms relaxed by your side, never crossed and never behind your back and move around too. Good body language awareness is even more important in online meetings. Your hands may be outside the range of the camera, so if you gesticulate too wildly, the viewers may only see your shoulders moving and miss much of the information your hands are conveying.

Facial expressions are crucial too. Much of the nuance can be lost in transmission, so you need to make sure you avoid the steely gaze and relax your facial muscles so that they can better convey your message. Do not exaggerate facial expressions but do remember to use them! An enthusiastic smile or a raised eyebrow both go a long way to making everyone feel relaxed and part of the conversation.

Perhaps one of the least remembered but the most important: wear comfortable, professional clothing and make sure you are well groomed. Both of these increase comfort and confidence, and project a more professional appearance to your audience.

#5 Underselling yourself

Sometimes the most interesting aspect of your presentation is you. Dragons’ Den success Levi Roots was a big personality who believed in himself and his simple product. He had the Dragons on board from the moment he entered the room. Ling Valentine turned down funding from the Dragons because she believed so strongly in herself and her marketing ideas, that she felt she could do better on her own. In Ling’s case, she couldn’t even tell the Dragons anything about her business finances – yet so exuberant and confident was she that the Dragons believed in her and she received an offer.

Then there are the pitchers who went in and gave a lacklustre performance with monotone voices, extreme nerves and the feeling that they were hiding behind the product. In Dragons’ Den, the investors are buying into the person running the business as much as the product, as are real-life buyers and investors in the corporate world.

That’s why salespeople are usually charismatic and overly confident. Never be afraid to market yourself in your presentation. Be enthusiastic, be bold and connect with your audience. In turn, they will connect with you and help you achieve the results you want from the presentation.

#6 Being forgettable

Some of the worst pitches on Dragons’ Den have been anything but forgettable, but in real life, bad ideas and uncomfortable performances tend to be somewhat less entertaining. That is especially the case when you are taking up the valuable time of busy people.

A presentation gives you the opportunity to make maximum impact for the right reasons. You have everything else covered in steps 1 - 5 – being fluent, good body language, facts and figures in order and a winning personality. But what can you do that will make your presentation stand out from all the others that follow the rules too?

Have a theme: A theme is great for both the audience and presenter as it gives a thread on which everything else can hang. A theme is both a unique selling point and a structure for your talk. A theme prevents you going off on a tangent or bringing in irrelevant facts.

Tell a story: Great stories are easy to remember. In fact, the human brain responds to stories better than any other form of knowledge transfer. Steve Jobs was a master of this technique and is known as much for his captivating presentations as his amazing technology.

Appeal to your audience, not yourself: Find out exactly who you are presenting to, what kind of language they respond well to and what pain points you can appeal to during your talk.

Use images to make your point: Research shows that information delivered via a combination of sound and symbol stay in the memory up to six times longer than words alone. It also helps reach a deeper understanding of the core points.

Use slides to reinforce key points and salient figures: Avoid duplicating your entire presentation — just the most important points will do.

Add video: Animations and short videos can enhance your presentation by making it more interesting, memorable and relevant.

Provide a reference takeaway: Give out a small brochure with your key points illustrated so that your audience can reference what they heard later. Most presentation software allows you to create different kinds of hand-out materials. Online meetings can be recorded and shared via the company intranet, email or social media for easy access.

#7 Being caught off guard in Q&A

So many contestants fall down at the question stage on Dragons’ Den. As soon as the conversation goes off-script, composure leaves the room and a great pitch can quickly unravel, which is a surprise really, as many of those questions should have been comprehensively answered in a solid business plan. The Dragons rarely ask anything truly unexpected, and the same will be true in any presentation. Awkward questions are designed to root out the flaws in your plans.

This is due diligence on the part of the audience and not designed to catch you out. You should already know all of the flaws and weaknesses in your plan or product, so there is no reason you can’t prepare to answer those difficult questions beforehand. Before you go into any presentation, you should already know nine out of 10 of the questions likely to come your way, thanks to the time you spend in preparation.

  • Review your business plan and literature and get to grips with the key issues.
  • Be honest about the flaws and problems in your plan and products.
  • Ask your practice audience what they would ask you and prepare suitable answers.
  • Don’t lie if you don’t know the answer to a presentation question.
  • Don’t waffle if the answer is something unpleasant or shorter than you feel it needs to be.
  • Don’t be disingenuous – your body language will give you away

#8 Awkward moments

Almost every presenter has suffered one of those awkward moments when the spotlights turn on you just as something goes wrong. Dragons’ Den is infamous for awkward and embarrassing moments when things don’t quite go according to plan. Beyond the silences and panic attacks are the preventable problems that time spent in preparation can reduce or eliminate altogether.

Do your homework and know your audience: Don’t make the mistake that one set of Dragons’ Den pitchers did and openly insult your audience.

Check yourself before you wreck yourself: Make sure your equipment works, your slides are in order and all of your props are ready to go. You don’t want to leave big, uncomfortable silences while you try to get a projector/laptop connection going, connect to the online meeting space or shoot round the building looking for technical help

Keep it clean: If you must tell a joke in your presentation, make sure it can offend absolutely no one in the room. It cannot be in any way discriminatory, offensive, rude or in bad taste.

Check the mirror: Rule out any possible source of embarrassment, such as food on your clothes or stuck in your teeth. Are you camera-ready? Then you are presentation-ready.

Don’t be defensive: Never get aggressive or annoyed with your audience. If you can’t build rapport, remain professional.

Last, but by no means least

If something still goes wrong, pull it all back together. We are all only human and so as long as you retain your dignity, composure and sense of humour, you will avoid most of the pitfalls learned from Dragons’ Den. A good recovery is as impressive as a perfect pitch.

Almost all of the mistakes made in presentations on Dragons’ Den and in real-life boardrooms can be traced back to a lack of preparation and a lack of practice. You can learn great presentation skills; they do not have to come naturally. When you do master the art of public speaking, controlling your body language and all of the other key skills that proficient presenters have, you will find they serve you well in many other areas of your life.

If you follow the advice in this white paper, presentations may just become something that you enjoy rather than endure. And the same might be said for your audience, too.

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