Weve all been there. An important customer meeting has finally been scheduled, and a presentation is needed. As usual, you feel theres a lot of information to be communicated. The outline is rote. You have files upon files of other similar presentations. Simply pick a few charts from here, and a few more from there. Pretty soon, a deck of more than 30 slides is in place. The title chart just needs to be updated, and a bit of shuffling is required. The deck is dense with some graphics, an awful lot of words, and too-small font size. Theres not a prayer of fitting into the 60 minute slot. But, youve briefed the material umpteen times before, so you somehow convince yourself you can shave the metric to 45 seconds per chart, leaving plenty of time for discussion. Save, copy it to the memory stick, and off you go. Its called Death by PowerPoint and weve all been guilty of it.
The meeting time arrives and after a few introductory comments, you turn the fire hose on the customer. The 45 seconds reverts to 90 seconds per slide. The hour is almost up by the time you reach your final slide. A mere two minutes remains for discussion, and that time evaporates. You shake hands and depart. As you get into your vehicle, you spend a few minutes to do a post-mortem on the meeting. You jot down some additional notes, and realize that you did not glean very much real information from the customer. You believe they were interested, but you have little evidence. Was the meeting successful? It checked a box, but no, it was not successful.
Sound familiar? This same scenario applies in many respects to other types of meetings. A review meeting with internal stakeholders regarding a key development project. A request for a green light on a new piece of enterprise software. A company status update to your direct reports. We can do better, cant we?
The recent passing of Dr. Amar Bose reminded me of the great lesson on presentations and meetings that I learned from him more than 25 years ago. In this article, I highlight a few of the key ways we can all improve when it comes to any meeting, internal or external, in which we present information to stakeholders or customers. A couple of those insights come directly from Dr. Bose. A few others are drawn from my own experience and from the bevvy of information and guidance out there regarding presentation best practices.
Before You Reach for the PowerPoint Icon, Pull Out a Pad of Paper
We are all inclined to immediately dive into PowerPoint when preparing for a meeting. Fight this instinct, and instead storyboard your presentation on a piece of paper. What are the key messages you need to communicate? Whats important to the audience? Why should they care? How do you want the presentation to flow? What is your ask?
Nancy Duarte has some excellent articles on the topic that are available on the Harvard Business Review blog (blogs.hbr.org ). Duarte talks about crafting a story in which you oscillate between what it is and what it could be. The first section of the story is key. It is the why should I care? piece. If you delay this, like many of us do (i.e., the obligatory corporate background charts), you seriously risk losing the audience. The presentation should lead to a concluding call to action. That call to action should fold in emotion as you describe what nirvana or bliss looks like for them.
Tell a Story, Dont Just Rely On Facts and Statistics
Stories are memorable. Statistics fade quickly. You want to communicate information that sticks. Stories stick. In Chip and Dan Heaths book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, they describe an exercise where students give one minute persuasive speeches on the same topic. Fellow students rate and jot down important points made by each speaker. Most everyone cites statistics (on average, 2.5 statistics per speech). Analysis of the peer review comments is eye-opening: only 5% of audience members remember the statistics that were shared, but more than 60% of audience members remember details from the speeches that included personal stories to make a point. Unfortunately, only about 10% of the students tend to employ personal stories in their speech. So, as you determine the introductory why should I care? piece or the concluding call to action, weave in a personal story.
Fewer Words Mean More Listening
Your audience can either read or listen. They cannot do both. And when given the option, theyll read and not listen. Become so familiar with your material that words are not packed onto charts as crutches for you. Leave-behind information is one thing, but your presentation materials should augment and enhance, not overwhelm your presence in the room. The old saying goes, If I had more time I would write a shorter letter. Yes, it takes time to prune words from charts. But the time spent pruning to bare minimum is incredibly well worth it. If a graphic can be used to convey the same information as a set of words, use the graphic. If it requires a bit of work to create the right graphic, spend the time. It will pay off.
Fewer Charts Mean More Time for Discussion
Pare down the number of charts. Please. Think back on the past three years and the various presentations you have either given or been in the audience for. How many times would you say to yourself, Boy, I wish there were more charts in that presentation.? I dare say zero.
Figure 1: Given the choice, your audience will read and not listen.
You Know Your Stuff: Have a Conversation
A commonly-cited rule of thumb is that a top-notch 60 minute presentation requires 90 hours of preparation. The breakdown is 30 hours to craft the story, 30 hours to build the slides, and 30 hours to practice. This may seem extraordinary, and indeed it is really targeted at stage presentations (e.g., a TED Talk). However, the important metric is the split. Split your time equally between story crafting, slide construction, and rehearsal. If you only have time for two of them, drop slide construction. Why? Because you want to get into the habit of having conversations with your audience. The conversation may be tilted a little toward monologue, but it is a far, far cry from a one-way fire hose of PowerPoint charts. Lacing that conversation with stories makes the messages stick. The rehearsal time is spent focusing on the key messages and will enable you to burn the messages and material into your subconscious.
Amplifying the Point via Dr. Bose
Dr. Amar Bose passed away on July 12. He founded Bose Corporation and was a transformational figure in the history of audio engineering. I recall an evening talk he gave at MIT in the late 1980s during my graduate school days. A portion of that talk focused on preparing lectures and speaking to students about technical topics. His message was that we should be so familiar with our subject matter that we can simply have a conversation. We do it all the time in non-technical matters. For example, if asked, most of us could talk at length about the local sports teams or the local restaurant scene. A small amount of preparation would help structure the talk, but wed be able to chat at length about the matter based on what we already know.
Professor Bose cited an example in his own college career that etched this into his memory. He spoke of a Greek mythology professor he had as an undergraduate. This professor gave engrossing, engaging lectures. They were not to be missed. One lecture was particularly amazing. The then student Bose approached the professor after the lecture and asked if he could get a copy of his notes. The professor said, Certainly. Here you go. He handed student Bose a sheet of paper. On the piece of paper were just three words: Zeus, Agamemnon, Zeus.
Bose was stunned, but also transformed. He learned a valuable lesson that day and applied it through the rest of his career. His guidance was for us all to become so familiar with our material that we could talk at length extemporaneously. Dr. Bose told us a story that day. As you can see, that story was pretty sticky.
Your story may have something to do with another customers experience. It may be the ah ha moment you had that clarified a key product feature. Cast a wide net and be creative when you think about incorporating a story or two in your next briefing.
Figure 2: Dr. Amar Boses sticky story about a Greek mythology lecture.
Were all guilty of not paying close enough attention to these suggestions and not embedding them into our own woodwork. Some meetings are geared to convey dense information, and theres not as much leeway. But it is far too easy to fall back on old habits and take the easier way out. I know I too often do this myself. So, on behalf of your customers, your stakeholders, your employees, and Dr. Bose, please endeavor to take these guiding principles to heart. Youll find your effectiveness improves.
Dr. Stephen Hannon is the principal and founder of Mind the Gap, LLC (MindtheGapLLC.com) where he advises startups and small companies across a range of business and technical issues. Steve was previously with Lockheed Martin Corporation, Coherent Technologies, Inc., and SRI International. He is best known for his founding role establishing the WindTracer Doppler Lidar product, in use at airports and other facilities around the world. Steve received his Electrical Engineering education at MIT and the University of Illinois. His blog can be found at MindtheGapLLC.com/steves-blog.html.