Presenting To The D-Suite

Do you present to an audience? Odds are good that most of us have had to do it more than once in our life or career. Some of us do it rather often. And there’s no shortage of advice out there about how to present to an audience. A lot of it is aimed at people that are trying to speak to a general audience. Still more of it is designed as a primer on how to speak to executives, often from a sales pitch perspective. But, how do you present to the people that get stuff done? Instead of honing your skills for the C-Suite, let’s look at what it takes to present to the D-Suite.

1. No Problemo

If you’ve listened to a presentation aimed at execs any time recently, such as on Shark Tank or Dragon’s Den, you know all about The Problem. It’s a required part of every introduction. You need to present a huge problem that needs to be solved. You need to discuss why this problem is so important. Once you’ve got every head nodding, that’s when you jump in with your solution. You highlight why you are the only person that can do this. It’s a home run, right?

Except when it isn’t. Executives love to hear about problems. Because, often, that’s what they see. They don’t hear about technical details. They just see challenges. Or, if they don’t, then they are totally unaware of this particular issue. And problems tend to have lots of nuts and bolts. And the more you’re forced to summarize them the less impact they have:

Now, what happens when you try this approach with the Do-ers? Do they nod their heads? Or do they look bored because it’s a problem they’ve already seen a hundred times? Odds are good if you’re telling me that WANs are complicated or software is hard to write or the cloud is expensive I’m already going to know this. Instead of spending a quarter of your presentation painting the Perfect Problem Picture, just acknowledge there is a problem and get to your solution.

Hi, we’re Widgets Incorporated. We make widgets that fold spacetime. Why? Are you familiar with the massive distance between places? Well, our widget makes travel instantaneous.

With this approach, you tell me what you do and make sure that I know about the problem already. If I don’t, I can stop you and tell you I’m not familiar with it. Cue the exposition. Otherwise, you can get to the real benefits.

2. Why Should I Care?

Execs love to hear about Return on Investment (ROI). When will I make my investment back? How much time will this save me? Why will this pay off down the road? C-Suite presentations are heavy on the monetary aspects of things because that’s how execs think. Every problem is a resource problem. It costs something to make a thing happen. And if that resource is something other than money, it can quickly be quoted in those terms for reference (see also: man hours).

But what about the D-Suite? They don’t care about costs. Managers worry about blowing budgets. People that do the work care about time. They care about complexity. I once told a manager that the motivation to hit my budgeted time for a project was minimal at best. When they finished gasping at my frankness, I hit them with the uppercut: My only motivation for getting a project done quickly was going home. I didn’t care if it took me a day or a week. If I got the installation done and never had to come back I was happy.

Do-ers don’t want to hear about your 12% year-over-year return. They don’t want to hear about recurring investment paying off as people jump on board. Instead, they want to hear about how much time you’re going to save them. How you’re going to end repetitive tasks. Give them control of their lives back. And how you’re going to reduce the complexity of dealing with modern IT. That’s how you get the D-Suite to care.

3. Any Questions? No? Good!

Let me state the obvious here: if no one is asking questions about your topic, you’re not getting through to them. Take any course on active listening and they’ll tell you flat out that you need to rephrase. You need to reference what you’ve heard. Because if you’re just listening passively, you’re not going to get it.

Execs ask pointed questions. If they’re short, they are probably trying to get it. If they’re long winded, they probably stopped caring three slides ago. So most conventional wisdom says you need to leave a little time for questions at the end. And you need to have the answers at your fingertips. You need to anticipate everything that might get asked but not put it into your presentation for fear of boring people to tears.

But what about the Do-ers? You better be ready to get stopped. Practitioners don’t like to wait until the end to summarize. They don’t like to expend effort thinking through things only to find out they were wrong in the first place. They are very active listeners. They’re going to stop you. Reframe conversation. Explore tangent ideas quickly. Pick things apart at a detail level. Because that’s how Do-ers operate. They don’t truly understand something until they take it apart and put it back together again.

But Do-ers hate being lied to more than anything else. Don’t know the answer? Admit it. Can’t think of the right number? Tell them you’ll get it. But don’t make something up on the spot. Odds are good that if a D-Suite person asks you a leading question, they have an idea of the answer. And if your response is outside their parameters they’re going to pin you to the wall about it. That’s not a comfortable place to get grilled for precious minutes.

4. Data, Data, Data

Once you’re finished, how should you proceed? Summarize? Thank you? Go on about your life? If you’re talking to the C-Suite that’s generally the answer. You boil everything down to a memorable set of bullet points and then follow up in a week to make sure they still have it. Execs have data points streamed into the brains on a daily basis. They don’t have time to do much more than remember a few talking points. Why do you think elevator pitches are honed to an art?

Do-ers in the D-Suite are a different animal. They want all the data. They want to see how you came to your conclusions. Send them your deck. Give them reference points. They may even ask who your competitors are. Share that info. Let them figure out how you came to the place where you are.

Remember how I said that Do-ers love to disassemble things? Well, they really understand everything when they’re allow to put them back together again. If they can come to your conclusion independently of you then they know where you’re coming from. Give them that opportunity.


Tom’s Take

I’ve spent a lot of time in my career both presenting and being presented to. And one thing remains the same: You have to know your audience. If I know I’m presenting to executives I file off the rough edges and help them make conclusions. If I know I’m talking to practitioners I know I need to go a little deeper. Leave time for questions. Let them understand the process, not the problem. That’s why I love Tech Field Day. Even before I went to work there I enjoyed being a delegate. Because I got to ask questions and get real answers instead of sales pitches. People there understood my need to examine things from the perspective of a Do-er. And as I’ve grown with Tech Field Day, I’ve tried to help others understand why this approach is so important. Because the C-Suite may make the decisions, but it’s up the D-Suite to make things happen.

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Build Slides Are Evil

 

HammerAndSaw

PowerPoint is a necessary evil. No program allows us to convey as much information in a short amount of time. PowerPoint is almost a requirement for speaking in front of groups. Information can be shown in a very effective manner for audiences of five or five hundred. But PowerPoint also allows presenters to do some very silly things that impact our ability to learn.

Not Built In A Day

The biggest offense in the land of PowerPoint is the build slide. Build slides are those that have elements that must be layered together in order to show the complete picture. In some cases, build slides have complex graphic overlays with many different elements. They may have clip art overlays. But build slides can also be simple bullet points that appear one at a time in a list. The key is that all the parts of the slide must progress in series to “build” the whole thing.

Build slides look very awesome. They provide the appearance of motion and give a movie-like quality to a static presentation. And they often take up a large amount of time during the creation process. But they are almost always unnecessary.

When built properly, a slide conveys a single idea. It may have one or two supporting ideas, but overall it should be pared down to the minimum necessary to get the idea across. Having a page full of bullet points confuses and distracts the reader. It doesn’t matter whether those bullet points are unveiled all at once or sequentially. Each additional piece of information runs the risk of the entire message or idea being forgotten.

Worse yet, the elements of a build slide can be a mystery to everyone, even the presenter. How many times have you watched a presentation where a presenter gets ahead of themselves and reveals a bullet point before it’s on screen? Or perhaps the presenter lost track of how many points were on the slide?

Another strike against build slides is what happens when you’re forced to deal with them outside of presentation mode. Build slides break down when you can’t project them properly in a mode that simulates a projector. Like over a web presentation or screen sharing program. Build slides are also a bad idea when presenting on video. If your slide deck doesn’t come across well, there are options to insert slides into the video recording. But if you have build slides, those slides can’t be inserted without either using the completely built slide, which ruins the suspense of a build up, or looks crowded and complex in many cases.

One Slide At A Time

A build slide is needlessly complicated. If you have four bullet points on a slide, you have an opportunity to make each of those into a separate slide with different information conveying the idea. Like a single supporting fact or statement. Or a picture to help visual learners internalize the idea. There are a multitude of ways to make a slide stand out without pointless animation.

You’re probably thinking to yourself that adding slides to your presentation will make it longer than it needs to be. In fact, the opposite is true. By paring your deck down to a single idea per slide, you can effectively communicate that idea and move on to the next slide. If your original slide had five ideas and took five minutes to talk about, then it follows that one idea per slide spread over five slides should take the same amount of time. In a few cases, it may take less thanks to the reduction in tendency to wander through a long slide.

If you must have bullet points supporting an idea, make each of those bullet points a new slide. Just copy and paste the existing text into a new slide with a new bullet. That allows you to add to what you’ve said previously while still capturing the progression easily. You may also find that you’re adding unnecessary steps that can be removed along the way.


Tom’s Take

I don’t give presentations to amaze people with my PowerPoint skills. People come to hear me talk, not see what transitions I built between my deck. To that point, I don’t use a lot of bullets or make them fly in to wow the people reading my slides. Instead, I stick to the ideas of using lots of pictures and keeping the text short.

When you look at some of the most public presentations from well-regarded speakers, you find that they follow these same guidelines. They keep their presentations simple and focus on ideas and not text. They try to keep all members of the audience focused, but aural and visual learners. They realize that build slides don’t actually offer anything to the audience aside from showing mastery of esoteric aspects of PowerPoint wizardry. Keep it simple and build your audience’s knowledge, not your slides.

 

Just One More Slide

OneMoreSlideScreen

More than one presentation that I’ve been too has been a festival of slides.  People cycle through page after page of graphics and eye chart text.  The problem with those kinds of slides is that they tend to bore the audience.  When the audience gets bored, their attention span tends to wander.  And when it does, you get people asking to move through the presentation a bit faster.  They might even ask you to skip to the end.  That’s when you sometimes hear the trademark phrase of a marginal presenter:

“But, I just have one more slide.”

I really don’t like this phrase.  This smacks of a presentation that is more important than it needs to be.  I think back to a famous quote by Coco Chanel:

“Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take something off.”

Coco has a great point here.  No matter how beautiful you think something might be, something can almost always be removed.  In the same way, there’s almost always a slide that can be removed in any presentation.  Based on some presentations that I’ve been forced to sit through in a former life, there are usually many slides that can be removed.  The point is that no one slide should be that critical to your presentation.

One More Slide is the siren call of a nervous presenter.  When someone has spent all their free time practicing a presentation because they don’t feel totally comfortable speaking in front of people they tend to obsess over details.  They spend all their time practicing their delivery over and over again down to making the same jokes to be sure they don’t sound rehearsed.  That’s how they plan on making it through their presentation – by making sure that nothing can derail them.  When the time comes to present to the group they feel like they must go through every slide in the order that they were rehearsed otherwise they will fail.  They have absolutely no faith in their ability to ad lib if needed.

At any point during a presentation, you need to feel comfortable enough with your speaking ability to jettison the slide deck and just talk if needed.  Good speakers can work from a minimal slide deck.  The best speakers don’t need one at all.  Being able to give your presentation without your slide deck is the sign of a well prepared person.  But being able to move around in your presentation deck to different subjects shows an even greater ability.  If you get caught up in making sure that your audience sees everything that you’ve put on the screen you’ve made yourself no better than a boring presenter that reads the bullet points back to the audience.  Each slide should be a self contained unit unto itself that allows you to move on without it and not lose the whole point of the presentation.

Try this next time you want to practice: Do your presentation backwards.  Does is still make sense?  Does it still flow easily from slide to slide without a lot of exposition?  If so, you’ve reached the point where you can skip slides with no ill effects.  If you have slides that lead into other slides you should ask yourself what’s included on those first slides that can’t be included on the later ones.  In the event you have to ditch the last half of your presentation will thing still make sense even if you have to stop in the middle of a slide?  Slides that tease the audience by doing things like asking rhetorical questions or attempt to engage the audience usually fall into the category of Leave It Out.  If you have to ask the audience a question to get them engaged, you never had their full attention in the first place.


Tom’s Take

I have a rule of thumb when I present.  If I can’t do my presentation without a network connection, laptop, or even a projector then I’m not ready to do it yet.  My slides serve as much as my notecards as they do to keep the audience focused.  I need to be prepared to do my talk with just my voice and my hands.  That way if I’m forced to jettison my prepared notes to explore a discussion topic or I need to shorten my presentation to rush to the airport to beat a blizzard I’m more than ready.  When you can give a presentation without needing to rely on aids then you are truly ready to go without one more slide.

So? So, so-so.

By now, many of you have read my guidelines to presentations HERE and HERE.  I sit through enough presentations that I have my own opinions of how they should be done.  However, I also give presentations from time to time.  With the advent of my new Flip MinoPRO, I can now record my presentations and upload to whatever video service I choose to annoy this week.  As such, allow me to present you with the first Networking Nerd presentation:

47 minutes of me talking.  I think that’s outlawed by the Geneva Convention in some places.  So you can follow along, here’s a link to my presentation in PowerPoint format.

I don’t like looking at pictures of myself, and I don’t like hearing myself talk.  You can imagine how much fun it was for me to look at this.  I tried to give an IPv6 presentation to a group of K-12 technology directors that don’t spend  a lot of time dealing with routing and IP issues.  I wanted to give them some ideas about IPv6 and what they needed to watch out for in their networks in the coming months.  I have about a month to prepare for this, and I spent a good deal of that time practicing so my delivery was smooth.

What’s my opinion of my performance?  Well, as you can tell by the title of this post, I immediately picked up on my unconscious habit of saying “so”.  Seems I use that word to join sections of conversation.  I think if I put a little more conscious thought into things, I might be able to cut that part down a bit.  No sense putting words like “so”, “um”, and “uh” in places where they don’t belong.  They are crutches that need to be removed whenever possible.  That’s one of the reasons I like writing blog posts much more than spoken presentations: I can edit my writing if I think I’ve overused a word.  Plus, I don’t have to worry about not saying “um” while I type.

You’ll notice that I try to inject some humor into my presentation.  I feel that humor helps lighten the mood in presentations where the audience may not grasp everything all at once.  Humor has it’s place, so it’s best to leave it out of things like eulogies and announcing the starting lineup at a Yankees game.  But if you watch a lot of “serious” types of presentations, a little levity goes a long way toward making things feel a lot less formal and way more fun.

I also try to avoid standing behind a lectern or a podium when I speak.  I tend to use my hands quite a bit to illustrate points and having something sitting in front of me that blocks my range of motion tends to mess with my flow a little.  I also tend to pace and wander around a bit as I talk.  Having to be held to a physical object like a lectern would drive me nuts.  I would have preferred to have some kind of remote in my pocket that I could advance the slides with and use a laser pointer to illustrate things on the slides, but I lost mine some time ago and it has yet to turn up.  Luckily, I had someone in the room that was willing to advance my slide deck.  Otherwise, there would have been a lot of walking back and forth and out of frame.  Note to presenters, invest in a remote or two so you can keep the attention focused on you and your presentation without the distraction of walking back and forth or being forced to stay close to your laptop.

Let me know what you think, good or bad.  If you think I spaced out on my explanation of the content, corrections are always welcomed.  If you don’t like my gesticulations, I want to know.  Even tell me if you thought my Spinal Tap joke was a little too corny.  The only way I can get better as a presenter is to get feedback.  And since there were 8 people in the room, 7 of which I knew quite well, I don’t think I’m going to get any feedback forms.