Presenting and Pitching Remotely as a Team

Like many others in the Silicon Valley, we’ve been conducting business remotely most of the year.

By committing to more phone calls, email, messaging, and web-conferencing, we’ve been managing pretty well. But we’ve definitely noticed that 100% remote work can complicate many facets of business.

For example, we recently conducted a completely remote new business pitch and presentation.

We’ve presented to remote prospects before. And we’ve had a team member dial-in to participate in pitches in the past. But this time everything — from initial contact to opportunity assessment, team assembly, research, scheduling, creative development, pitch coordination, group presentation, and follow-up — was done at a distance.

remote presentation during COVID epidemic

Together apart

While many duties within a presentation development cycle are performed individually, the process as a whole requires group effort and layers of synchronization. In short, our entire methodology for preparation and delivery leans heavily on collaboration.

We’ve got the practice down to a fine art when we can walk across the office to ask a quick question or huddle in a conference room together to share knowledge, brainstorm, and strategize at any stage.

But take away our proximity to each other — and our conference room — and it becomes a very different experience.

Here are some things we learned about virtualizing the process.

It takes more time

You’ll need more time than usual for development when everyone is remote:

  • No tool or technology is as efficient as in-person communication. All the senses are engaged face to face. Things like body language and facial expression or changes in tone quickly impart volumes of information that just doesn’t translate well digitally. 
  • It’s harder to have quick confabs on-the-fly when everyone’s remote. You can’t just glance across the room to capture opportune moments.
  • Group banter and consensus building is more difficult via phone or web conference, where interruption causes audio glitches and background noise often makes muted microphones necessary. Remote group conversation tends to be more linear, and thus more time consuming.
  • Managing complexity via messaging and/or email is laborious. But those are often the best available tools. So a lot of communication is going to be asynchronous. And writing and reading simply eat more time than talking and listening. 
  • Unexpected delays or cancellations are harder to recover from remotely. Anyone who’s been on standby in a Zoom waiting room for 3 minutes can attest to the seemingly interminable drag of time when scheduled web meetings don’t start promptly. 
  • People are more likely to wander away mentally or leap ahead to some other phase of planning when key players are absent. That means more follow up will be required to keep everyone on the same page. 
  • Schedule padded blocks of time for team planning. Expect a few inevitable calendar conflicts. And assume there’s going to be a lot of review to stay synchronized.

Planning and preparation

Coordinating as a group involves more forethought than simply scheduling a web meeting and distributing an agenda:

  • Decide in advance how you are going to manage your shared documentation. We started with email and switched to Box Notes so the whole team could add information in a single living document. 
  • Shared notes evolve quickly. Use subheads, links, and bullets to make information easy to scan. 
  • Deleted items will have to be hunted down and retrieved from revision history if/when they become relevant again. Keep a repository of abandoned information at the end of your documentation so it’s easier to revisit.
  • Version management is essential. Designate one individual to build/manage the presentation deck. Store the most recent version on a shared database accessible to the whole team in case of emergency.
  • How and where you share material is important. If you’re using messaging apps like Slack to share news/images/research with other members of your team, create a Channel. Don’t default to direct messages — this will preserve team access and awareness. It’s also a good idea to save relevant images and resources to a shared folder online.
  • Rehearse. Just as when preparing to present as a team in person, everyone needs to know when they will have the floor and be able to anticipate cues and transitions to keep things flowing smoothly.

Presenting remotely together

Presenting as a team remotely requires attention to choreography and technical issues that might not ordinarily cross your mind. Here are a few considerations and tips:

  • Make sure your computer position, microphone, and camera adhere to web meeting best practices.
  • Remember that everything is being viewed on a screen (often a small one). Participants will spend most of their time visually focused on a slide deck. Don’t bore your viewers by just reading the text aloud (unless you’re presenting to kindergarteners). Instead, interpret what is written, supply context, guide participants through the information that’s being put before them.
  • Within the confines of a web meeting, participants will usually appear as tiny heads on a grid (à la The Brady Bunch) or as highlighted faces in the margin depending on the speaker. At such small scale, you cannot easily make eye contact or signal with a gesture. Verbalize transitions to pass attention to another participant and address each other by name (“My colleague is the expert on this. Pal, can you jump in?”)
  • Similarly, scan faces for signs someone wants to interject/ask a question. Pause often, look for raised hands, circle back when you’re finished speaking (“Joe, it looked like you wanted to comment on the timeline, did you have a question?”).
  • Tools don’t always play well with other tools. Test your conferencing environment and presentation materials for compatibility and display issues ahead of time (missing fonts, unsupported image or animation formats, etc.). For example, we found that Keynote slide decks just don’t work properly in Microsoft Teams environments, so PowerPoint is the better option for such venues.
  • Try not to move around a lot or walk away from your webcam even if you’re not the speaker — it’s distracting. Turn off your webcam if you have to step out of view for any reason.
  • Don’t start real-time side-conversations in other channels (such as Slack, chat apps, or DMs). Give the meeting your full attention.
  • Fill awkward delays or technical glitches with congenial conversation. Ask a question. Engage. Sometimes a participant gets bumped offline, or a software application needs to be restarted. These things happen, but you don’t have to leave everyone silently staring at a screen until the issue is fixed.
  • Be considerate of everyone’s time. If you promised a pitch that would take half an hour, make sure it’s completed in 30 minutes. You may have to truncate parts of your presentation to adjust for conversation that organically develops around particular points. If post-presentation discussion naturally extends beyond the appointed time, that’s perfectly OK (in fact, it’s probably a great sign that you made an impact).

It can be done — and done well

Our all-remote team pitch ultimately came off remarkably well. Even with a few technical issues, we managed to learn a lot in the process and pull together a unified, cogent, and visually appealing presentation highlighting a host of relevant expertise from each member of the team.

More importantly, the remote presentation experience was energizing and fun. It delivered lively conversation with engaged and appreciative participants — and prospective future clients.

Should you be mind mapping?

“Brain fog” is a common complaint these days. But there are techniques that can help organize thoughts and tasks to cut through the haze. Have you ever tried mind mapping?

The Sterling team recently experimented with collective mind mapping to exercise our mental muscles and recharge our creative batteries.

Basically, a mind map is a way to work with information that is more experiential and less linear than simply jotting down notes.

The term “mind map” was coined by the late BBC personality and author Tony Buzan in the 1970s. Buzan’s mind maps were based on the “abstracting” principles of general semantics developed by Alfred Korzybski.

The principal involves crafting diagrams representing ideas, tasks, actions, and relationships around a central concept by using lines and shapes and images and colors — instead of relying on text alone.

The process forms a more communicative, memorable, and impactful exploration of information. 

Mind Maps are fun

Mind Mapping Sterling Communications
Sterling interactive mind map exercise.

To create a mind map, start with a single idea or topic. Then “grow” relational branches radiating from it to create a graphical data visualization.

Mind maps can be created with online tools. (We used Miro for our remote interactive exercise, but there are a variety of others available.) They can also be drawn by hand on paper or a whiteboard.  

They’re engaging

Simple Mind Map Diagram
Image credit: Safety Professionals Chennai / CC BY-SA

Depending on the depth of exploration desired, a mind map can be a sophisticated and highly detailed study or a quick and rudimentary sketch.

They’re practical

Simple mind map doodle.

Regardless of scale, mind maps are more intuitive than outlines and more informative than lists.

They are great for brainstorming and tend to spark creativity, so they form an excellent framework for collaborative documentation.

They’re also handy for personal use in simplifying complex processes, uncovering buried insight, or establishing clear structure for ideas that seem unwieldy. 

And that makes them a great tool for clearing brain fog!

The next time you have to take notes or outline a project, try structuring your thoughts as a mind map.

Here are some tips:

On a large blank piece of paper or online whiteboard, write a central topic or question in the middle of the page (or select a representative image) and circle it.

  • Begin by writing down ideas or descriptions branching out from the center circle as spokes or branches that are related to the central topic. Use symbols, shorthand, acronyms, and/or drawings to capture concepts. Don’t worry if they’re obvious or silly, that’s part of the process.
  • Try to find related sub-ideas or descriptions for each spoke/branch. Some may generate a whole new cluster with its own branches and sub-ideas. Draw a shape around these satellite hubs to emphasize them. If possible, use color and line thickness for linking ideas or emphasis.
  • Keep going until you fill the page, completely run out of ideas, or your allotted time runs out.
  • When you’re finished, take a moment to assess the map. If you spot connections/similarities on separate branches, draw a dotted line or arrows connecting them.

Review what you’ve done: Did any directions surprise you? Could you explain how your thoughts moved in retrospect? Do you have greater clarity on the topic or question?

We’re betting the answers will all be yes!

We’re Suddenly All About Web Meetings

Since much of the world is working remotely at the moment and COVID-19 has put the kibosh on meeting in person, there’s been a surge in web conferencing to fill the communications void. All the tech events have gone virtual, the nightly talk show hosts now webcast from home, and Saturday Night Live even parodied the pitfalls of businesses adapting to Zoom togetherness. One startup cofounder is already publicly lamenting the uptick in meeting from home (MFH).

But like it or not, web meetings are here to stay for the duration.

We’ve always provided guidance for our clients on speaking with the media and appearing on camera, but MFH is a bit different. Taking the stress out of a now-common practice seems to be something everyone could use a few tips on these days. Here’s a brief overview on what you do and don’t need to web conference like a boss.

Equipment

Most modern PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones come with decent microphone and camera technology integrated into the device. 

Unless you’ll be broadcasting and recording for regular professional appearances on television or hosting your own podcast, you really don’t need to invest in purchasing a new webcam or XLR microphone. If you have the equipment, by all means use it, but it’s not essential for MFH. Microphone-equipped headphones or earbuds paired to your device are a nice accessory, especially if you’ll be participating from outdoors or anywhere with the potential for distracting background noise.

Setup

Make sure to test your web-conferencing app before the appointed time, and follow standard security/privacy guidelines.

Download any updates. If you’ll be screen-sharing documents, do a dry run to make sure you can launch and navigate through them in-app. Some web-meeting applications issue frequent background updates that may reset your preferences and permissions. That means you might be unable to pull up your PowerPoint slides at this week’s staff meeting without restarting, even though they worked fine last week.

Check microphone and video permissions and settings (make sure they’re enabled), and test sound and volume.

Position your computer or device so that the web camera is at eye level or slightly higher (stack your laptop on a couple of books if you have to) and make sure you aren’t backlit. Close the shades if you’re sitting in front of a window and dim any significant light sources coming from behind if you can — or position a lamp in front of you to illuminate your face.

web meeting tips
A backlit face (left) versus an illuminated face (right).

Virtual Meeting Tips

Try to look directly into the camera as much as possible. It’s the equivalent of maintaining eye-contact in person. 

If you’re in a large web conference or meeting, mute your microphone when you aren’t speaking. 

Try not to interrupt — wait until a speaker has finished before asking questions.

Unless you’re giving a presentation, don’t monopolize the conversation — give others a chance to participate.

If you are giving a presentation, make sure to pause frequently and ask if there are any questions before moving on.

Save the funny virtual backgrounds and filters for informal virtual gatherings. If you’re pitching a new client, MFH as the Cosmic Cat Head is not appropriate.

web meetings
Cosmic Cat web filter.

If your physical location is not something you want to broadcast on a web conference, a virtual standard office background is fine to use. 

web meetings
Generic office virtual background.

Be advised that virtual background function in Zoom and similar web meeting applications depends on specific bandwidth, processor, and/or green-screen requirements. But there are some free apps (like Snap Camera) that can help you workaround those limitations on many devices and operating systems.

And it may sound cliché but remember to be yourself and try to enjoy the opportunity to virtually leave your house. 

Gathering online for web meetings and conferences doesn’t have to be a chore. It can be a great way to stay engaged, connect with each other, and collectively keep our spirits up during these isolating times. 

Advice for tech entrepreneurs from top VCs

In the frequently misunderstood world of Silicon Valley tech PR, startup marketing programs often begin and end with getting a nod from TechCrunch. While worthy of notice, don’t be fooled into thinking that one shiny headline is enough to land your next customer or your next round of funding.

Truly making a mark for your company — and gaining traction — takes much more than just one earned media placement. 

Widely respected TechCrunch journalists recently held a startup conference in the heart of Silicon Valley. Dirsruptors driving the future of smart cities and autonomous vehicles gathered to explore the technology of today and tomorrow.

The TechCrunch panels also featured high-profile venture capitalists, including early Lime investor Sarah Smith from Bain Capital. (She left Facebook to become Bain’s FIRST female partner in 2018 — Sarah knew scooters would be cool way before they were unleashed on our streets!) VCs from Techstars and a Maniv Mobility also shared solid advice, with the goal of helping startups forge a successful path in today’s brutally competitive tech ecosystem. 

VC advice for startups
Silicon Valley tech investors and startups explored the tech of today and tomorrow together at TC Sessions: Mobility in Downtown San Jose on July 10, 2019.

Here’s some secret sauce for startups straight from Silicon Valley investors:

  1. Start with solving a real problem. Want to ensure fast growth and rapid scale as a startup? Investors are looking for startups that solve real, massively experienced problems in new and unique ways. Founders should critically analyze socioeconomics and be able to communicate how their innovative solutions will transform markets and/or life. 
  2. Distinguish where the money is, then get as close as you can in the supply chain. Promising high-profile companies have failed because they were unable to navigate the complexities of supply-chain management. Logistics are often overlooked by budding startups, so address supply management early on — duties and tariffs, regulatory requirements, and delivery details can be costly. 
  3. Consider partnerships that deliver operational and strategic advantages. From Boston FinTech disruptor Airfox partnering with a retail giant to bring financial services to the unbanked to local health tech startup Kenzen working with Gore to develop a precision health monitoring system, partnerships can provide incredible advantages ⁠— such as capital, traffic, marketing support, and mentoring ⁠— that help propel startups into the next stages of growth.
  4. Spend time with teens. According to Bain Capital Partner Sarah Smith, investors pay close attention to emerging trends and adoption activity among teenagers. Ideas are the currency of the future, and young digital natives accustomed to Instagram and Lyft bring different expectations and perspectives on how to connect with the world. Today’s teens will inspire and drive the next decade in Silicon Valley solutions. 

From seeking seed funding to gearing up for public launches: Startups are well-advised to continuously build relationships and reputation. Clearly communicating your vision and values helps establish credibility. Before building buzz, make sure your startup has a concrete mission and messaging that you can articulate. 

Do you need help fine tuning your VC pitch or prepping for a launch? Reach out to our Silicon Valley tech PR experts at go@sterlingpr.com

Failing to Prepare = Preparing to Fail

In the tech industry as in all things, disaster is always within the realm of possibility: Be it earthquake or flood, product malfunction or sudden stock slide. Measured and timely communications during crises are often key to mitigating damage and sustaining company mission.

Having an established crisis communications plan “in case of emergency” is simply sensible. It requires establishing situational awareness within your organization and outlining how your company is going to solve problems quickly as a team. Who needs to make decisions? What is the process for response or outreach? What will determine resolution? A crisis communications plan is like an emergency preparedness kit — you may never have to use it, but you’ll be glad you have it if disaster strikes.

Here are three tips excerpted from my PR Daily article on how to stock your crisis communications emergency kit.

1. Assemble the team.

Effective crisis communications hinge on activating the right team members. Response team documentation should clearly identify decision makers and supply contact information, note approval hierarchies (and back-ups), and assign spokespeople (and back-ups).

A typical enterprise critical response team may be comprised of the entire c-suite (CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, CMO), as well as legal counsel, the HR lead, head of corporate communications and product and/or regional leaders, as appropriate.

Back-ups are key. Remember you are planning for a crisis; it’s fair to assume some team members will be unreachable.

2. Appraise the response.

Communications audits are great preparation for crafting crisis plans. Trust departmental instincts to identify experts and knowledge bases within key groups and seek their input. Be sure to poll outside partners about their concerns in the event of a crisis and exchange emergency contact information.

Response time in a crisis can be crucial, so developing pre-drafted and pre-approved communication materials will give you a head start when you need it.

3. Plan of action.

Your course of action when dealing with a crisis event will address an issue spectrum (a list of between 6 and 20 areas where the company is potentially vulnerable). When developing an issue spectrum, always begin with the most likely and most potentially damaging.

For example, if you are a cybersecurity firm operating in Miami, your top two crises on the spectrum might be getting hacked and getting hit by a hurricane. Even something as simple as a pre-written online statement, such as “We’re aware of a problem and will keep everyone posted as we gather more information,” should be ready to launch.

More comprehensive action plans will include detailed messaging, an FAQ, holding statements, a press release or media alert draft, a landing page, customer/partner communications templates, and sample social media posts for each issue on the spectrum.

A word of caution: Companies tend to focus heavily on obvious dangers and overlook important, but less conspicuous, potential crises. For example, commercial airlines have well-developed crisis playbooks for responding to a plane crash, but some carriers seemed ill-prepared in the face of customer service calamities.

A great way to ensure you aren’t neglecting to prepare for a solid issue spectrum is to analyze what has happened in the past to other companies — particularly competitors — and model how you’d respond in similar instances. While most organizations won’t need to engage in exercises as drastic as The New York Times’ recent crisis simulation, it is helpful for response teams to periodically engage in a little role-playing. You can also monitor media coverage of how other organizations deal with a particular crisis, note things that help or hurt, and practice running through some scenarios.

No two companies are completely alike, but everyone can learn from others’ experiences.

Truth Matters

One of the simplest definitions of truth is “the property of being in accord with fact or reality.” Unfortunately, you can’t scan the headlines these days without noticing that there is no longer anything simple about the concept.

We have algorithms that amplify outrage over veracity, provocation via abuses in programmatic advertising, mistrust of science, charges of fake news and citations of “alternative” facts — even AI that can learn to falsify video. Reality seems a little less real and finding the truth gets trickier by the day.

In tech PR as in all professional communications, we all have a part to play in defending the truth. This isn’t a problem that will be sorted out in search engines or negotiated in newsrooms. It extends to what we all post on our blogs, share on social media, choose to include in OpEds, PowerPoints, whitepapers, press releases…you name it. Here are three tips excerpted from an article I wrote for MuckRack on standing up for truth —both in tech PR and in life.

1. Be honest
Authenticity is priceless. If your client hopes to do or be something, go ahead and say so. But be transparent about where they are in that pursuit. Don’t inflate or misrepresent the situation just to spice up a story, advance a brand objective, or win some pageviews. A bent toward hyperbole is an affront to truth and can easily snowball into catastrophe. (Theranos, anyone?) Conversely, feel free to tout real value and successes far and wide. Openly share vetted and verified data and hard-won experience. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with staking a claim, so long as you back it up with facts.

2. Check your sources
Pause before you cite or share “found” content on social media or search engines: Do the links trace to valid data? Who are the sources? Where did referenced statistics or images come from? Assertions from screamy red-faced radio hosts and Macedonian teenagers may be entertaining to some, but that doesn’t make their screeds true — and their pronouncements most certainly do not carry the same weight as analysis from Gartner or Gallup or Pew. We can no longer rely on the notion that if anything seems too weird to be true, it probably isn’t. But if you come across something astonishing that the international press corps has somehow overlooked, Snopes it before you share it.

3. Do your duty
If you are a subject matter expert, please stand up. And if you work with an expert, nudge them into the debate.
Our world would be poorer if Carl Sagan never eviscerated pseudoscience, Marc Andreessen never suggested that software is eating the world, or Clayton Christensen never asked how to measure a life’s work. We need real research, real expertise, real analysis, real discourse.

In the words of Louis Pasteur, “knowledge belongs to humanity and is the torch which illuminates the world.” Do not let the flow of information fall to trolls and bots and no-nothings. Contribute genuine knowledge to the conversation and you are contributing to the cause of truth.

Today’s “Not-So-Social” Networks

Not-So-Social-Networks

At the heart of every technological innovation is the desire to strengthen relationships between people and the hope that we can improve quality of life. However, lately I feel we have created “not-so-social” networks. The mechanics of connecting with others has changed dramatically over time, primarily due to visionary inventors, accomplished technologists, and the growing pressure to continuously do more in less time. (more…)

How to Be Heard When There Are More PR Pros Than Journalists

Reporters and editors are being laid off, publications are closing, and journalists are crossing over into PR. That’s the world we live in today.

It’s been reported that PR professionals currently outnumber journalists four to one, a gap twice as wide as it was in 1980. With this enormous gap between PR pros and journalists, it’s even harder for PR pros to get the story out.

That said, even though there are fewer and fewer journalists, there are still ways to ensure your story gets out there.

(more…)

My Journey to Sterling

Unlike my coworkers, I didn’t gracefully land into PR. Instead, I stumbled and landed (on my face) into the world of public relations.

sex-and-the-city-kim-cattrallAfter deciding that law school wasn’t for me, a friend suggested that public relations might be an industry that would make me happy. The only thing I knew about the industry was what I learned on Sex and the City (á la Samantha Jones) and thought that her life rocked, so why not give it a try. I had two things working for me in entering a new field: I was (1)willing to work for free and (2)put in long hours.

Six months later, I landed an entry-level position at a glitzy agency. It was fast-paced, aggressive, and in a fancy location, but I felt like a tiny cog in a very big wheel.

I was lucky to find Sterling, an integrated communications firm. What drew me in was Sterling’s commitment to its employees. There are ample opportunities to expand upon your skill set. Sterling empowers its employees and allows them to take ownership of their career trajectory. I’m excited to join the team and add to Sterling’s value!

Sarah Fraser can be reached at sfraser@sterlingpr.comFollow Sarah on Twitter @sarahafraser.