Before start-ups make the pitch he gets them ready

Before start-ups make the pitch he gets them ready

By Scott Duke Harris / Mercury News
Article Launched: 09/02/2007 01:50:48 AM PDT


Jerry Weisman speaks to a group of social entrepreneurs gathered at Santa Clara… ( Gary Reyes )

Everybody knows the condition. And now Jerry Weissman asked his audience of entrepreneurs: What makes you go into MEGO?

"When it’s too technical." "Too much jargon." "I go into MEGO," one man said, "any time anybody reads from the slide."

Cardinal sins, all. Reading from a graphic displayed for everyone to
see, Weissman said, is a sign of poor preparation. And if executives do
that, what does it say about their competency? Why would investors
trust their money with them? That’s why a presentation can be, as
Weissman put it, "mission critical."

Jerry Weissman, an energetic 72, practices what he preaches. That’s why
the former television producer has been able to craft a distinctive
19-year career in Silicon Valley, coaching executives at such companies
as Cisco Systems, Intel, Yahoo and Microsoft, as well as hundreds of
start-ups.

He is a guru to the geeks and bean counters, paid handsomely to guide
them from the comfort zone of algorithms and balance sheets into the
frightful realm of speaking. Others train public speakers. Weissman’s
specialty is to apply the art of storytelling to win over investors.

The fees at Foster City-based Power Presentations – just Weissman and
two assistants – range from $8,000 to $10,000 a day. Private companies
planning an initial public offering pay $40,000 for the four-day course
to gear up for the "road show" to showcase the company to institutional
investors. The IPO action is definitely heating up,
Weissman says. Four valley companies – their identities are
confidential – are booked for training in September, he says. Also on
tap is a Florida company, with two more start-ups in the wings.

"An IPO road show is the ultimate mission-critical presentation," he said.

Network Appliance founder and Chief Executive Dan Warmenhoven says
Weissman is worth it. NetApp Chairman Don Valentine, a founder of
Sequoia Capital, "said going to the Weissman charm school is worth 10
percent on a company’s stock," Warmenhoven recalled.

On a recent day at Santa Clara University, Weissman was giving it away,
providing a two-hour condensed version of his program to participants
in the university’s Global Social Benefit Incubator. The SCU program,
funded by the Noyce Foundation, is designed to help developers of
non-profit programs and businesses in poor nations learn Silicon Valley lessons in how to grow and sustain their enterprises.

Seventeen organizations participated, representing countries that
include Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Lebanon, Mali, Nigeria, Sri
Lanka, Surinam and Zimbabwe. The two-week program is capped by a
session in which participants make their own 15-minutes pitches to a
crowd of valley executives and venture capitalists. It’s supposed to be
just practice, but there lurks the possibility of a grant or venture
funding.

Weissman peppered his talk with brief anecdotes and pointers. He cited
former students such as Intuit founder Scott Cook in describing how to
deliver the crux of a message in the first 90 seconds – the honed
"elevator pitch" of valley culture.

Don’t try to tell a joke, Weissman advised. Jokes can flop. Instead,
find an opening "gambit" that gets attention – a question, a quotation,
an anecdote, an aphorism, an analogy. With three snaps of his fingers
he emphasized directness: "What’s the point? What do you need? Why are
you here?"

 

`Eye on New York’
The opening gambit to the story of Weissman’s career could be a
quotation: "No one knows how to tell a story. And no one knows they
don’t know how to tell the story."

That, Weissman says, is what
Valentine told him nearly two decades ago when he first came to Silicon
Valley, seeking a new start. As a young man working for CBS, Weissman
crafted questions for "Eye on New York" host Mike Wallace, long before
"60 Minutes."

After trying his luck in Hollywood, his college friend Ben Rosen of
Sevin-Rosen Ventures arranged for him to meet Valentine. The venture
capitalist figured that the valley, filled with computer scientists and
engineers who could talk to each other but hardly anyone else, could
profit from a guy like Weissman.

Cisco Systems hired Weissman to train its executive for its IPO. The
launch was so successful that Valentine raved that Weissman’s work
added $3 to its offering price, representing millions of dollars to the
company. Sequoia, Warmenhoven says, always puts Weissman to work on its
companies.

In a typical program, Weissman puts executives through the paces,
emphasizing the story structure itself, the use of graphics, verbal
delivery, body language and how to handle questions. He’ll advise
showboating salesman to tone it down from a performance to a
conversational style, and encourage shy, dry accountants to perk up. He
videotapes his charges to show what they are doing wrong, and how to
make it right.

During the dot-com boom, Weissman said, he was overbooked, declining
two clients for each he took on. During the bust, he went two years
without coaching an IPO. But he says he always had clients who needed
to make other presentations.

"I’m a very lucky guy," he said in an interview. "My dance card’s been full the whole time."

Along the way, he’s put his lessons into two books, "Presenting to Win:
The Art of Telling Your Story" and "In the Line of Fire: How to Handle
Tough Questions . . . When It Counts." Wallace wrote a jacket blurb for
the latter.

Weissman said he has no interest in retirement, and a third book is the
works. That, he said, could lead to another entrepreneurial venture of
his own, but it’s too soon to discuss in detail. In the meantime, "I
have something in common with bakers and bricklayers: I see results at
the end of the day. . . . I make people be more conversational.
Conversation is the magic word here."

That’s why he had the entrepreneurs from Africa, India, Europe and
America watch a videotape of Ronald Reagan, "the Great Communicator."
He contrasted it with clips showcasing the great oratory of Winston
Churchill, John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The average person can’t strive to speak from on high like a Churchill,
JFK or MLK. Then he showed how Reagan developed his own natural style
in the 1950s as a spokesman for General Electric.

Be Reaganesque, he told the students. Make it a conversation, not a speech.

Not a performance "What if you lose track of your story?" a social entrepreneur asked, as if bewildered by the prospect.

Her classmates laughed. Weissman told her it was OK to make mistakes –
that audiences are forgiving. Just makes corrections as you go. It’s
not a performance, but a conversation.

Her question perhaps belied a sense of pressure. One day later, they’d
be making their presentations before valley VCs and executives. Thank
goodness it was only practice, said Ravi Krishna, director of a
grant-funded ambulance service in India. "I think we’d all freeze up
and drop dead if our funding depends on this presentation," Krishna
said.

Weissman asked for volunteers to rehearse in front of their peers.

Kristina Shafer of Cleangold Mining in Surinam stood and, stumbling
over her words, struggled to explain how her company promoted
mercury-free mining techniques that keep people healthy. Later she said
she felt like she was shouting.

"That was the adrenaline kicking in," Weissman told her.

He offered a few tips and asked Shafer to try again. She was calmer
this time, and more effective. Weissman advised her to move her "call
to action" – the request for an investment – to within the 90-second
opening.

"Next year," she told Weissman, "you should come about a week earlier."

A classmate agreed. Wayan Vota of IESC Geekcorps – "the Peace Corps for geeks" – was the man who knew better than to read from his PowerPoint visuals. But he figured he had learned a lot.

"Most of my presentation was done," Vota, whose agency works in Mali
and Lebanon, said glumly. "Now I need to or redo it in the next six
hours."

>BackTrack

Leave a Reply

RSS Daily Search Trends