Making Presentations That Stick – It’s About Credibility

When was the last time you sat through a presentation and once it was over, you weren't really sure what was expected, or even worse, still trying to figure out what the heck it was all about? Perhaps you were still mulling over slide #4 when the presenter had long since moved on. I have written about this topic before – I have received a lot of feedback on my 2009 post “Stop Death By Powerpoint – Make Your Presentations Suck Less” which I just reposted on this blog. I think the topic is worth bringing up again, in particular in the context of the perception of IT outside of IT – i.e. by the business, functional leaders and broad organization.   In a recent article on CIO.COM, the discussion revolves around Five Ways to Build IT's Credibility and it was encouraging to see 2 of the ways directly relate to the ability of IT to effectively partner and communicate in ways the business, your customers can both relate to and understand.  Unfortunately, IT technologists as a group, are not recognized for their prowess as compelling and articulate story tellers and communicators.  In far too many cases, the scenario I described in Death By Powerpoint is often anecdotally framed in the context of IT and technical presentations gone wrong. This is a perception, while not reality, all of us in IT leadership roles need to change.  Even as an accomplished presenter, communicator and group facilitator, my best outcomes are still those where I have been able to take the time to consider factors ranging from the purpose, messaging, and audience to location, time of day and room layout.  Making great presentations takes work, and no matter how good you are, you can always get better – and even if you are used to hitting home runs every time you step up to the podium, past performance, though often a good predictor, is no guarantee of future success. 
 Making Your Presentations Stick
In case you haven't heard me talk about it before, if you haven't yet had the opportunity to read Made To Stick:Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip & Dan Heath, you need to do yourself a favour and go out and either buy, borrow or rent this book from your local library.  The lessons and examples of how to weave a compelling story, appealing to your audience's emotional side and not just logical are precisely the techniques that we as IT professionals need to ensure we are working on and putting into practice as we work to transform our IT teams from being considered a cost center to a strategic enabler of business strategy and growth.  I first listened to this book in audio format thanks to (which by the way, if you love reading and spend time in your car is a great way to get through an incredible number of books without having to carve out additional time that isn't there) – and have since read the book in print and after almost a year am reading it for a third time.  I have successfully used the techniques in the Made To Stick success model to compliment my approach in messaging in a variety of settings – whether pitching a presentation in front of a boardroom, in an interview with a prospective employer or putting together a communications strategy to support change management efforts.  Your credibility as an IT leader, technology strategist and business partner takes a hit whenever you stand up in front of the room and deliver a presentation mired in techno-babble and concepts that just aren't important for your customers to understand.  That's your job – as CIO, Senior Director and IT Leader. 
 I'll take a page from personal experience and paint the picture for you: 
Mini Case Study: Addressing The Need For Improved Business Intelligence
The Background
Imagine if you will, an organization looking to improve the effectiveness of it's Business Intelligence and enterprise Information Delivery deployment.  On paper, significant capability has been built over the years.  A highly developed and capable BI organization is now in place, with a robust regional data warehouse that is well integrated with not just the corporate global Data Warehouse solution but also with 3rd Party and market sourced data.  Data governance, master data management policies and procedures are in place to ensure that information is delivered on time, with the highest integrity possible, and consistent across process and application domains.  A core set of relational reports, multi-dimensional cubes and self-service capabilities have been enabled, all in an effort to maximize data velocity, a key CTQ and KPI to ensure the right data is available at the right place, at the right time to enable decision making.   
The Problem (A.K.A the Opportunity
Despite ongoing investment in world class enterprise reporting tools and regional BI capabilities recognized as being best in class within the global IT organization, many businesses and functional areas were looking for more advanced reporting and analytical capabilities than were being delivered by the AS-IS information delivery ecosystem.  Sales teams were struggling to understand what was happening in the field, unable in many cases to measure key account sales activity and understand the impact of how their marketing campaigns were effecting consumption and buying patterns.  Many key reports, once accurate, now no longer provided the right information needed.  A number of adhoc reporting processes had been initiated by analysts that, while in some cases providing accurate performance dashboards, were extremely time consuming and manual to create and was not a sustainable activity within the available resource models.  The BI team is trying to get their collective arms around the entire situation, with pressure from business leads to automate the manual processes they have put in place and a desire by IT resources to instead perform root cause analysis and ideally leverage the huge investment made into highly customized sales performance reporting that only last year were delivered as customer delighter's.   As IT leader, you are on deck to address these issues and provide your customers with the comfort and confidence that there is light at the end of a “relatively” short tunnel.  You've been given 90 minutes on the leadership team agenda to make that happen…
The Back Story 
Well, on the topic of sticky, this would certainly be considered a “sticky situation”. The back story on this scenario is that as stated, significant time and focus had been placed on the “process” and “technology side” to ensure that a best-in-class BI deployment was in place.  There was nothing technically wrong and, from a classic IT perspective, this wasn't even an IT issue necessarily.  The core issue was more one of people and governance – and had been a result of significant changes both with our customers, from a merger, acquisition and buying group realignment perspective as well as internally with how performance and compensation programs had been re-engineered.  In effect, there were now key disconnects between business rules and customer aggregation hierarchies that were represented within our internal reporting systems, compared to the realities of our customer and sales performance ecosystems.  There were also some talent/competency gaps within the analyst group that likely needed to be addressed in order to ensure we were better utilizing the data assets we had, in order to meet the voice of customer desire for improved analytics and “market intelligence”.
In short, the needed “fix” was not to implement a new set of “manual reports” but rather to address in a systematic and priority fashion, the gaps in business and aggregation rules that were resulting in the most pressing issues.  Medium term, better definitions around roles and responsibilities as well as governance around master data maintenance needed to be refined to ensure future market or compensation changes would result in corresponding internal processes to keep critical master data and hierarchy elements in check.  Longer term, talent and competency models would be needed to ensure the business and their analyst resources would be able to not only sustain but also maximize benefit realization possible from advanced analytic and market intelligence support functions.
Back To “The Presentation”  
Ah yes, back to “The Presentation”.  It would have been easy to take a “defensive” position and demonstrate through a series of powerpoint slides, the reality of how effective our reporting environment was reporting based on the series and metrics and KPI's that were in place.  One could also have played the governance card, to show how this was was an IT issue but rather a lack of business leadership in fulfilling their end of the “solution bargain”.  We could have spoken to the analytical capabilities that were available and not yet utilized by the super user or data steward and analyst capabilities.  I could have pulled the six sigma card, and framed our situation as a classic transactional six sigma opportunity, and gone into details around how we would step through a systematic and disciplined DMAIC process to bring this process back under control, this time for good!
Of course I did none of that – and I am sure most of you would not have either.  This was a time to demonstrate that:
1) IT understood the voice of the customer (VOC)
2) IT would take responsibility to solve the issues of most concern and immediacy
3) IT would partner with the business to ensure a sustainable solution was put in place
4) IT could effectively communicate this to the audience in a method that was both understood and accepted 
Though these events occurred prior to my digesting of the Heath brothers' text, in retrospect, many of the techniques were at play.  Using the Made To Stick success model as a guide, I'll provide an overview of the approach:
Principle 1: Simple 
In Made To Stick, Simple doesn't refer to “presenting to dummies” but rather focusing on the core of the message – in this case, I thought it was important to “state the obvious”.  We need information to make decisions and take action when needed, and right now you're not getting it.  Not because my customers needed to hear it – in fact they were shouting it from the rooftops.  But it was important for them to have both the comfort and confidence that “IT” had heard and understood.  In the slide above, notice a lack of detail – and in fact an image that serves to paint a picture of what having the right information means – agility, speed.  One dog has the stick, the other dog wants it.  Information is power, and in speaking to this slide it was important to ensure the audience knew that IT was going to take ownership of making sure that “you'll have that stick when you need it”.
Principle 2: Unexpected 
I love the term used in the text about “breaking your audience's schemain this case, it was important to articulate that we knew what caused the problem, we knew how to fix the problem, and that we would have the immediate issues resolved prior to the next forecasting cycle.  An audience that was used to sitting through a presentation to the end to find out “the dates” was not accustomed to finding out in the initial minutes of the presentation when a solution was to be delivered.  The reality was that many were actually unclear of what “the next forecasting cycle” meant – in reality it was 60 days away, but some likely thought it to mean the end of the current month.  The fact is the language used was direct, simple and powerful – of course the technical IT team had discussed this ahead of time, and were confident, that if the right business resources were provided, the solution could be implemented.  In fact, most of the work was really all on the business side.  But this was not important to discuss at this point – key was to continue to move quickly through the presentation.  Key messages in hand, this was not the time to open the floor for discussion…or running down those “rabbit holes” that can pop up…
Principle 3: Concrete 

Now it was important to ensure it was understood that the issues we were having were all around governance and compliance to process – and that the solution would include both a short term fix and a longer term governance/process re-engineering piece.  The imagery of water bottles was used here as a way of trying to anchor this concept in a concrete, sensory driven manner. Right now we have bundles of information there that claim to represent something that they really don't.  This is a quality issue – like bottles of water coming off a filling line, we need to ensure the contents of each of those bottles match what is inside and for that we will need to partner with the respective businesses and subject matter experts because you are the ones who can tell us which bottles are good and which need retooling.  And once we are done with the initial fix, IT will work with you to ensure you are enabled with the right tools, training and governance processes to keep those bottles (our information) consistent.
Principle 4: Credible
In this case we've been working to establish credibility – one could have mentioned here to remind the audience, of similar change management and process re-engineering activities that we had partnered in and been successful – if necessary.
Principle 5: Emotional 
To provide a sense of ownership and to brand this “new initiative” appropriately in a way that would connect not just with the minds, but also the hearts of the community was this idea of an IQ logo. Initially created to represent “Information Quality”, we decided to put on our marketing hats (yes, we in IT wear many hats don't we) and used a play on iQ to instead refer to the more commonly recognized “Intelligence Quotient” – So with a tagline of How Smart Is Your Data? a rebranding of all reporting artifacts would accompany this effort as an indication that this report, cube, data set was a result of this new focus and initiative.  People like the idea of “being smart” – and this simple messaging and branding campaign just made sense.  Of course we would do that – how better to distinguish and represent the new, sustainable information delivery model we were working towards…
Principle 6: Stories
This entire presentation was told in storyboard format – slides were clean and uncluttered.  The audience had to listen to what I was saying – after all, there wasn't much to read on the slides.  Nice big, bright colourful pictures.  So unlike a typical IT presentation.  In fact, so unlike any presentation many of them had seen.  And delivery time? Under 15 minutes.  Of course, there was plenty of dialogue afterwards – but the core messages had been delivered.  It was important to stay on message and relate follow-up discussions to the key messages and themes of the presentation, but the stage had been set.  
Credibility was sustained, if not improved – a complex situation was decomposed down to key messages that were communicated in a clear and articulate manner.  What needs to be kept in mind is that this slide deck and approach did not just magically appear.  It took significant time and effort to plan out the key messages that were important to convey – it was key to understand who would be in the room and what both their needs and expectations were relative to the situation at hand.  It took time to refine the messaging and talking points so they could be delivered to be as clear and simple as possible.  The identification of some “key stakeholders” to which to provide a “preview” of the deck and solicit feedback and support was also instrumental in ensuring some support from within the room was available – if needed.
A longer than average post – for those who stuck around to the end (I thank you and applaud your patience!) I would love to hear your stories from the trenches – of presentations gone bad or where you hit it out of the park.  What works for you, and what doesn't? What are IT presentations like in your organization? Are there speakers you love to listen to? What makes them engaging – and others not.  Have you read Made To Stick? What did you learn (or re-learn) in the process?
If anyone is ever looking for feedback on a presentation they are preparing, or simply need a sounding board around how to handle a “communications situation” in the workplace, feel free to drop me a line either on Twitter, LinkedIn or via my email at [email protected].  Would love to engage with you!

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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