I've noticed a trend over the past year: More grad students and postdocs are asking me about their chances as entrepreneurs. It seems that the always-tricky transition to industry jobs, combined with the current economic condition, has led more than a few scientists and engineers to consider options outside the main career tracks, including starting their own company.
In this month's Tooling Up, I'd like to help those budding entrepreneurs master a skill that's crucial to having even a shot at success. No matter whether you're presenting your abilities as a mass spectrometry expert to local clients or soliciting potential multimillion-dollar investors for a new biotech company, you'll need to be able to clearly and effectively talk about technology in front of an audience of people who you want to invest in you and your idea.
The importance of this skill isn't limited to an entrepreneurial context. Any presentation you give will be far more successful if you accurately assess what your audience is seeking from you and deliver it successfully.
Some time ago, I attended an investor conference that included a series of presentations on emerging southern California biotechnology companies. Meetings like this give the investor, analyst, and press an opportunity to learn more about what start-up companies are working on. Each company is usually given 10 to 20 minutes to present its case. It's sort of a "coming out" affair for new companies. They are there to impress.
As I watched these presentations, the first thing I noticed was that the launched-from-academia companies consistently did a "technology push" presentation--in stark contrast to the "market pull" presentations typical of experienced companies. Despite all that has been written about making the most out of a short business presentation, most academic scientists still think that their job is to convince the audience of how elegant and cool the science is behind their idea.
The "market pull" presenters knew that they needed to deliver an answer to the fundamental question potential investors and partners in the audience had: How can your idea or technology solve my problem? How can it help me make money?
Everyone who makes it to the company launch pad has smart technology. Yes, some people in your audience are likely to be impressed with your cool science. But that's not really what they're there for. The key for this audience is the market potential. That's what you need to sell them on. The audience wants to see how your idea will be pulled along by the market. In short, successful entrepreneurs should avoid the technology push in favor of the market pull.
Another factor that separated the winners from the also-rans at this event was their visuals. Everyone reading this column should know that there is no excuse for poor-quality, impossible-to-see-from-the-back-row graphics. You've been hearing this since your undergrad days. Yet many presenters seem to forget how important good visuals are to winning over your audience.
Examples of poor visuals that I've seen in the past year:
- Charts or data with text so small that it couldn't be seen even halfway back in the hall.
- Slides with the company name spelled and capitalized differently in different places.
- Goofy cartoons or graphics that were totally at odds with the professional message of the presenter.
-PowerPoint special effects that distracted from a clean, professional presentation. Even fancy slide transitions should be avoided.
You can find specific advice on giving presentations in Science Careers articles such as "Mastering Your Ph.D.: Giving a Great Presentation " and "Transferably Yours: Powerful Presentations ." But the point I'm making here is don't underestimate the importance of the visuals. Put thought into how the slides will look from the back of the room. Don't use distracting animations. And make sure the computer is working well before you start your presentation; there's nothing more boring to an audience than sitting through a Windows boot-up screen.
The best presenters at the California conference did not require the shelter of the podium. My favorite two speakers did not use a computer or extensive notes. Instead, they spoke in front of the audience, engaging us with their body language and moving across the room to emphasize certain points.
Opening yourself up to an audience in this way inspires confidence. Many have said that the impression you make--your personal and visual cues--are more effective than your words in getting the audience on your side. I think there's a lot of truth in that statement. Even when your subject is complicated and technical, the audience needs to feel confident that you can do what you promise.
A few years ago, I worked with two academic scientists to help them find a CEO to drive their fledgling business forward. The scientist-manager I found appeared at first to be a great fit; his expertise in making technical concepts into products had been honed at two large pharmaceutical companies.
But then it became clear that the CEO wasn't a good fit at all. The company needed someone to pitch its ideas to partner companies and high-level investors, and that was not a talent that fellow had in spades. How could an experienced pharmaceutical executive fail at selling his company's technology? In my opinion, this CEO's problems were the same reason that a good 50% of the presenters fumbled the ball at that San Diego conference: Salesmanship is not a part of a scientist's training.
Mentors still tell their graduate students, "Good science will sell itself." There's reason to doubt this even in a strictly scientific context, but, as this CEO found out the hard way, it definitely doesn't sell itself to potential investors and partners. Scientists often have a hard time greasing the wheels of their science with emotion and persuasiveness--which is essential to getting out in front of the competition in a market already crowded with elegant science.
Although many can learn how to do this (just like my CEO friend, who eventually came around), some scientists just can't do self-promotion--and that limits their success as the company "pitch person." If you are having trouble being persuasive, don't continue to trot out your science as you would in a thesis defense. Learn to focus on the needs of the audience, or find a consultant who can help you add some fire to your idea.
For budding entrepreneurs, the freedom to call your own shots as an independent businessperson can be invigorating, and it comes with a bonus: Companies respect and admire those who go through the process. Even if your venture fails (and let's face it, most do), you'll find that many hiring managers consider the experience a plus. If you can hone your presentation skills in the process, that's all the better.
The ability to give an effective presentation that's tailored to a specific audience, and for a specific purpose, is an invaluable skill whether you're a grad student giving your first job-interview seminar or an experienced principal investigator trying to launch a new company. There are parallel questions that any audience wants, or needs, answers to. Your presentation will be far more compelling if you figure out how to meet these needs as specifically and concretely as possible. Don't make your audience work too much to figure out why what you're saying matters to them.
Photo (top): Drew Herron 
A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, David Jensen is the founder and managing director of CareerTrax Inc. , a biotechnology and pharmaceutical consulting firm in Sedona, Arizona.