Clarity: Your actions speak so loudly…

reflection of manakinRalph Waldo Emerson famously said “your actions speak so loudly, that I can’t hear what you’re saying.” I shared this with my son recently as one explanation for why effort matters. People can see your effort, or lack of. And in the end it shows in results.

But I think Emerson speaks to a broader theme about the games we play with ourselves and with others. I’m going to focus on the importance of being honest with yourself and others, as well as the importance of reading your environment.

Do you really see yourself clearly?

It is incredibly powerful to “know yourself”. It helps you make good choices about priorities, helps you be a strong teammate and in general makes for a happier existence. It’s also a journey, as we all change over time. I am both very much the same and very different today than 20 years ago.

For example, You say you really are committed or love something? Are you really? Continue reading

Finding Opportunity: Don’t Get Lost in Translation

It frustrates me how much opportunity is lost in failing to really understand what’s being said.  Failing to listen actively and/or clearly message about yourself can leave opportunities on the table. It’s largely because people focus on labels and don’t always listen carefully or probe to understand the meaning of what’s being said.

Look at the bottles to the right. Are you sure you know what’s in them? Probably wine (but maybe not). But even if it’s wine, what kind? From where? You get the idea.

This phenomenon works in two directions, both you misreading and others misunderstanding you. I’m focusing on a job/career search context to make the point, but it happens all over. Continue reading

Driving Results: Managing Stakeholders Effectively

It doesn’t matter that you’re right if no one cares what you have to say. I can’t emphasize this enough.

So often what is emphasized in school and management/professional training focuses on analytical clarity, technical skills and how to be “persuasive” in the context of presenting and telling your story clearly (and even this last part doesn’t get enough attention).

These are all valuable skills, worthy of developing. But if you want to consistently be successful in getting buy-in to your efforts, they aren’t enough.

You need to effectively manage relationships with relevant “stakeholders” if you expect consistently good outcomes.

A stakeholder is anyone who can affect or is affected by the decision you are trying to reach. So if you are trying to re-organize a business unit, stakeholders might include customers, staff, management, corporate officers etc.

Why should I care?

It’s simple. Do want to get things done? Here are few practical reasons why you need to bring people into your process (as appropriate). Continue reading


Not having quite the success you’ve envisioned for yourself? Wondered why the last promotion went to someone else when your numbers are better? Someone else just get that job offer when you had more experience?

Maybe you have a “presence” problem.

I’ve always hated this term because it’s so fuzzy, but keep coming back to it. Back when I ran recruiting for a corporate development group, many a candidate got bumped for “lack of presence”. I was never satisfied with this answer and made people articulate a more specific set of issues. They would look like: lack of confidence, goofy/nervous body language – even to the extent of awkward levels of sweat, talking too fast or slow etc. All symptoms or small things we roll up to “presence”. Well as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to terms with the term.

I was just reading an interesting executive interview with Robert Selander (retiring CEO of Mastercard) in the NYT business section where this comes up. After commenting on attributes he values, like leadership and results, he mentions presence and gets into what he means:

Presence is learning to deal with different audiences in a way that allows them to get what they need out of this interaction and ensures that the well-being of the company is looked after.

Q. Isn’t that what some people describe as just good communication skills?

A. I think you can be a good communicator and you still may not have presence. There may be someone who is very articulate on a subject and they know levels of detail. When you get with a particular audience, it may not be appropriate to go into those levels of detail, or you may create doubt by even going into the subject matter. There’s inside information in a company, for example. You never cross that bright line, but you can get varying degrees of proximity to that line, depending on your audience.

Some people are not very good communicators, but boy, when you get them into their subject matter they know exactly where to go and how far to go. Others are brilliant communicators, but because of the connection between their thoughts and the synapses firing and the words coming out, there isn’t enough time and introspection. Therefore they will brilliantly communicate something that they shouldn’t be talking about. Presence is knowing what to communicate, and how.

I thought this was an interesting and useful way to think about it. Effectively communicating at the right level of detail, in the right manner to a particular audience.

To do this, you can’t have all the problems I mentioned above.  You need to know your content and be able to communicate it confidently.

He also mentions points in his career where some talented people were not fully appreciated because of their lack.

I realized this was probably the best branch manager I’d seen, but it would have been very easy for me to think he wasn’t, because he couldn’t communicate as well as some of the others who were fluent in English.

I think that was an important lesson. It is too easy to let the person with great presentation or language skills buffalo you into thinking that they are better or more knowledgeable than someone else who might not necessarily have that particular set of skills. 

So that was something that sounds obvious in hindsight, but as I was sitting there, boy, for me this was a thunderbolt. I think that’s another thing that sort of served me well, not letting the veneer distract you from the substance.

So what can we take from this?

Presence matters.

Whether you call it that, or confidence, polish etc. It sure helps. It’s not the only thing but it can sure carry the day in iffy situations. Pure content/expertise sometimes wins, but at the margin in a competitive environment (sales, interviewing, venture capital, promotions etc.) small differences matter a lot.  It affects how quickly you get opportunities and how (or even if) your voice is heard.

You can be petulant and say it shouldn’t matter, but we all make “lizard brain” level decisions about people without even realizing it. Gladwell talks about this in Blink and Cialdini gets into it in Influence. We are what we are cognitively. So you need to do what you can to help youself be as effective as you can.

 So if you think your presence could use improvement, work on it. How?

  • Ask five colleagues how you come across to them in person, meetings and as a presenter. You may need to be blunt in asking. People are often reluctant to tell you what they really think.
  • Diagnose some potential opportunities for development from their descriptions. See this older post on seeking and accepting feedback.
  • Pick 1-2 things from what they observe to work on.
  • Take stretch opportunities to work on them. Examples: If you’re a terrible speaker, force yourself to take speaking opportunities like toastmasters. If you don’t interview well, get a coach or find friends who are good to run you through the ringer. Nothing like having to do to learn.
  • Get follow up feedback.
  • Pick new things to work on.

I am NOT saying that presence matters more than content, execution and other important attributes. I AM saying it makes delivering easier and the lack of it may hold you back.

So work on your presence to improve your impact.

Deceiving with Data

One of my pet peeves is when people misrepresent a situation using data that appears to support their case, but almost immediately begs huge questions (if you’re paying attention).

Here’s one that ticked me off (mildly) recently. In an article (Businessweek June 17, 2010 “The Other U.S. Energy Crisis: Lack of R&D” ) about chronic US under-spending on energy research, the author is trying to make appoint in support of their position that the US is chronically underinvested.

They had the following graph:

Professor moment: Why might I ask myself – “is this a fair picture of the data?” 

I think some (or many) people might look at that chart and say “holy cr$%&p, we spend 35% of what Japan does, and less than China, our emerging global competitor. What are we thinking???”

But does this paint a fair picture of the story, even just within the constraints of the example provided? Well, relative vs. absolute comparisons matter when you’re talking about spending.


Do you feel differently about the picture when you look at this chart?

Public energy research, development and deployment spending as a share of GDP
2007 $ BB
Japan 3.90
US 3.68
China 1.32
France 1.08
South Korea 0.54

Well that sure looks different. On this one I feel slightly vexed that we can’t beat the Japanese, but am hardly quaking about several other countries that seemed troubling above.

Where did these numbers come from? I went to Wikipedia and looked up 2007 GDP for each country and multiplied it by the % from the BW chart. Here’s their chart turned into a table with a little more context.

  Spending as % of GDP (2007) 2007 GDP
$ TT
Total Govt Energy Spend
$ BB
Japan 0.08% 4.88 3.90
South Korea 0.06% 0.90 0.54
France 0.05% 2.15 1.08
China 0.04% 3.30 1.32
US 0.03% 13.16 3.68

This wasn’t hard and didn’t take long. In my opinion it shows a much more realistic picture. Percentages don’t buy R&D. Dollars (or Yuan, Euros etc.) do. Take South Korea. In Businessweek’s chart, they appear to invest twice what we do. Really they invest at twice the RATE we do, but off a MUCH SMALLER base. On absolute spend, the US spends 7x as much as Korea. In this case, size matters.

Don’t get me wrong, the numbers above trouble me as an American, but don’t quite paint the same crisis picture. (And they are further challenged by huge spending cited in another article in the same issue).

This kind of sloppy data usage bugs me. It’s a sign of at least two potential root causes:

1 – Laziness/poor sense of numbers.

Much has been written about American’s generally poor understanding of numbers. (One of my favorites and a book I assign undergraduates is Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and It’s Consequences.) I’m sure this is part of the story, but in this case it’s a reporter for a prominent business magazine writing for executives. Bad math isn’t the issue (I don’t think).

I think it’s laziness. We all get busy, we haven’t necessarily had teachers or mentors really push us to be “correct” and dig deeper. We’ve seen so much bad, we forget or don’t know what good looks like. In the end we lose sight of taking the extra time to dig deeper.

2 – Trying to deceive

I want to note, I am NOT talking about making up data. I’m talking about DISTORTING actual data (simply lying is another matter).

This one is simpler. I want to make a case and I am going to show the numbers in a way that supports my position and diminishes opponents, regardless of the fairness of the representation. I see this happen for “good” reasons (e.g. I need to convince people to do the right thing by creating a burning platform) and for less kind reasons (e.g. I want to win this deal to make more $).

This is not just a news or political phenomenon. I see it in business on a weekly basis. Either new students aren’t getting data they are looking at (because they are learning) or someone is trying to dress up their pitch to win investment money. Whatever. It goes on everywhere.

In this case, I can’t tell which it is and to the reader it doesn’t much matter what the intent is. Just beware the impact.

What I do know is that if you want to be successful in a business career, you better develop a sense of the scale and direction of the numbers you deal with on a daily basis. This helps develop intuition about “hinky” numbers.

So my challenge to you: dig deeper. Don’t settle for crappy data poorly constructed, either from yourself or others. Always be skeptical (and bring a calculator).

Tell me about bad data you’ve seen.

Building Good PowerPoint – Part 2 (Building Clear Arguments)

 I know you’ve been waiting with bated breath for Part 2 of 3 on PowerPoint, so here goes…

In my last post I laid out my position that PowerPoint is perhaps not ideal, but isn’t quite as awful as many of its critics point out. I don’t intend to pick a straw man to tear down here. I agree that SmartArt and other PPT templates are brutal. Giving them to people who don’t know what they are doing can result in the embarrassing (and worse – unclear and/or deceptive) presentations that Edward Tufte brutalizes in his essay I mentioned last time..

 I don’t think I’m that far from many of them, but having lived in a corporate environment for many years, I guess I am willing to accept certain tools as given. I haven’t seen lots of situations where you get to control the format of your content. So what is the real problem and what can we do to be better? (as Teddy Roosevelt said: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”)

As I mentioned last time, it’s my observation that there is a cluster of more foundational problems many authors/presenters struggle with before PowerPoint even becomes an issue. PowerPoint may accentuate the problem, but it doesn’t cause it.

Problem 1 – People don’t know what the heck they are trying to say

When I teach classes or am coaching this subject, my first question is usually “what are you trying to say?” Too often this is followed by either “crickets chirping” (ie: awkward silence) or lots of words that don’t come to a single point.

To build a good (clear, concise and compelling) presentation you have to know what you are trying to say. As Mark Twain quipped “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

You can’t have 11 “main points”. It’s another way of saying you don’t have one. I love this line the Pixar movie The Incredibles that is (almost – humor me) related:

Helen: Everyone’s special, Dash.

Dash: [muttering] Which is another way of saying no one is.

Substitute “points” for people and you get the message.

Problem 2 – People don’t know the mechanics of crafting a clear and compelling communication

Even if someone knows more or less what they are trying to say, I see them struggle with understanding the steps to go through to set up and support their point. There is a clear set of steps to go through that will produce better content than the average result I see in industry.

I liken this to advice an art teacher offered dismissing peoples’ complaints that they weren’t good artists. His comment was something to the effect that “not everyone can be an ‘artist’, but everyone can be a ‘drawer’.” My takeaway from this is that we can all get better and at a minimum strive for clarity.

My goal

In my mind, the goal here is to get better and perhaps get very good. At a minimum, however, we want to be “competent”. I assume we all want people to understand what you are trying to say, see your argument/support and be able to respond intelligently to it. Hopefully they’ll agree, but even if they don’t they’ll understand why they don’t.

I am NOT trying to make this a post on true “storytelling” or advanced presentation development. There are shelves in the library on this (some of which I reference later). I’m also not trying to comment on presenting the story. The point here is on the basic construction of the logic/message – and then rendering it in PowerPoint.

I will walk through a simple process, using a Storyline Template I use with my students and clients.

Step 1 – Determine message (What’s my point?”)

It’s as simple as “knowing what you’re trying to say”.

I know this will sound snarky, but really this is just a matter of sitting down and understanding your material and your audience. I ask my consultants to explicitly work through the template above. It’s remarkably simple. Having said that, it’s hard to have the discipline to do it. (Many of us want to lose weight and I know what I need to do. Still, I ate dessert last night and (not) shockingly!… I didn’t lose weight yesterday.)

Aside: It’s so simple (as is my overall message) that a faculty colleague teased me about it several years ago. The discussion went something like:

Colleague: “These are MBAs, this is too simple for them.”

Me:  “How many well constructed and delivered presentations have you seen?”

Colleague: (pausing, thinking) “Maybe it’s worth sharing…”

We still joke about it and he’s become a “true believer” in the power of simplicity.

So how do you do it?

I’m going to take a “base case” that assumes you are making some sort of presentation on content you have worked on extensively, have good knowledge of and that you are trying to persuade. (Note: These are important assumptions, as goals and context will vary extensively.)

You can work “bottom up” (what’s all the information you have, how does it group and what conclusions does that lead to?) or “top down” (what’s your point, how do you support with data). Most people tend to use both methods as they work through their story.

Either way, I STRONGLY recommend you put in print what you are trying to say before you get into PowerPoint. People tend to become slide jockeys and miss their point. Forcing yourself to articulate your points in and of itself brings clarity by forcing you to articulate complete thoughts. It also exposes logic gaps.

Step 2 – Analyze audience (or “how should I say it”?)

Understanding who you are talking to is critical in both crafting your content and delivering it. I’ll focus on building it. Key questions include:

  • Who are you trying to convince? Be clear in your own mind, because it will shape your content. For example – asking investors for money is different than training a group on a new process. Different goals, motivations and thought processes.
  • How do they think? Be clear on cognitive style and basic assumptions. This plays into both what you choose to say and how you say it. For example – Large companies have clear styles and expectations around delivery. Professionals from different functions have different concerns and interests based on their training. The controller wants different content and evidence than the marketer etc.  
  • What motivates them? This isn’t about their mental models; this is about “what’s in it for them?” You need to understand the political context into which you are offering your material.

Step 3 – Build outline (storyboard)

Once you have a sense of what you’re trying to say and to whom, you need to flesh out your argument. I am a big believer in doing this in complete sentences. The template I provide shouldn’t have 3 word thought fragments in it.

There’s a great Harvard Business Review article a former professor of mine co-authored and taught from when I was in school. “Strategic Stories: How 3M Is Rewriting Business Planning” emphasizes the power of being specific and laying out complete thoughts. I was fortunate to get this point early and have taken it to heart.

Step 4 – Flesh out storyboard & support with evidence

This effectively means “build out your slides”, but I want to comment on the importance of clear and validated evidence. A great story with no evidence is a waste of time and may yield a really painful meeting as vultures circle.

The evidence you need is completely dependent on your context and story. I see too many people settle for or try to propagate weak or non-existent evidence. It’s my sense that this is typically more driven by lack of experience or laziness more than cynicism. But the end result is the same. Poorly supported proposals.

Let me ask you this: If you don’t have good evidence to support your business plan pitch, then why are you presenting and do you really want to commit to the numbers you’re putting forward???

Good and clear evidence does several things:

  • Builds confidence in your audience. You are more credible and they’ll believe you.
  • Eliminates/reduces wasted time in the presentation. If you anticipate questions and have addressed them you are better controlling the interaction.
  • Makes your material readable. One thing I don’t see people talk enough about is how often the “deck” intended as a presentation becomes a written document. It gets emailed around and you aren’t there to “speak to it”. So it better “speak for itself” and be clear. This doesn’t mean your slides should be insanely text heavy. It just means you need clear take-aways, good charts/data and clear citations/sourcing.

I will delve into this more next time when talking strictly about slide production, but I see people struggle to even understand what their evidence means in some situations.

Step 5 – Test your content and revise

It is critical that you review content with as many stakeholders as much as possible before calling your presentation “done”. There are no “good surprises” in this context. I’m all about eliminating drama.

I have worked with folks who saw this as “stealing thunder” or sapping energy from the pitch. I don’t get it. I suppose there are times when you want to surprise, but not in most business communication. Particularly when making complex arguments that require buy-in, you need to get people on board, integrate their feedback into your content and give everyone time to process in advance. This also makes the meeting more efficient and gives you insight on people’s positions. Think of it as late stage stakeholder management.


This basic logic structure is pretty foundational and not at all original. I always joke that we’re just putting more color commentary around the basic 5 paragraph essay I was drilled on in grade school. The challenge isn’t the concept, it’s actually doing it.

I also think these basic concepts “scale” very effectively. By this I mean they can work on a cocktail napkin outlining something at the bar or for building out basic logic on a very complex story. There are myriad different contexts, but I find these principles apply universally.

Tell me some stories or ask me a question.


Garr Reynolds – presentationzen &

Chip & Dan Heath – Made to Stick &

Barbara Minto – The Minto Pyramid Principle

Next time I’ll focus on Part 3, building better slides.

Building Good PowerPoint – Part 1

I’m going to go off on a clear communication and PowerPoint harangue for at least the next few posts. Hopefully it will be interesting. At a minimum it will make me feel better.

A big part of my day job is spent teaching, helping construct, reviewing and delivering presentations to either classes or clients. I have helped build or witnessed hundreds of presentations over the last decade, so I see a lot of PowerPoint and have developed a strong opinion about what works and doesn’t work.

I just taught an executive education session on Critical Thinking & Communication that I’ve been offering for several years now. As attendance has steadily grown, I continue to be surprised at how much help people want with the basics of clear communication. I started with the class being largely about problem formulation and research design, as people struggle with that as well. But I’ll likely be breaking out the presentation component as its own class in the future because of the demand for help building well structured communication.

It re-enforced for me how few of us are ever really exposed to serious critical thinking training and feedback. I was fortunate to get beaten down for poor thinking from an early age in a good school system and had difficult teachers who actually wanted evidence. My business communication perspective emerged from this background. “So what?” and “Prove it!” are base concepts I took away. So how can we think about this in getting better at management/business communications?

I plan to post on three sub-themes over the next few weeks:

1)     Commenting on the “PowerPoint is lame/sucks talk”. My biggest argument here is (again) “so what?”. It’s the de-facto presentation format, so use it well rather than just railing against it.

2)     Building a useful and compelling story. The focus will be on structuring the communication vehicle, NOT on how to present.

3)     Building a good PowerPoint slide. Too much bad PowerPoint has been perpetuated on the world already.

Part 1: PowerPoint isn’t the biggest problem…

…it’s how simplistically people use it. It’s the thinking more than the tool.

A recent New York Times article “We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint” offered up as an example of this tension as currently experienced in the US military.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti.

Here’s a graphic of that slide.

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.

My thought: That’s exactly right. It’s not a terrible slide if the takeaway is “this is immensely complex.” It is terrible if the author intended to actually go through it as a template for discussing causality in the conflict.

Later in the article, another officer, Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster likened PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

In General McMaster’s view, PowerPoint’s worst offense is not a chart like the spaghetti graphic, which was first uncovered by NBC’s Richard Engel, but rigid lists of bullet points (in, say, a presentation on a conflict’s causes) that take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces. “If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise,” General McMaster said.

I agree. But would a 1 page word document be better? Maybe – I am an advocate of prose forcing you to actually articulate the thought. But crummy logic and weak analysis is what it is.

In this case, military officers are presenting in a format that is approved by management and allowing sloppy thinking to be passed along. I am confident that the presenters didn’t think “I’m going to show my bosses (the generals) something that represents my views in a format that has worked for me in the past” rather than “let’s show the boss junk and see what he says!”.

If I’m right, this means the material McChrystal and McMaster tear apart represents what their chain of command deemed appropriate. They didn’t come to that conclusion on their own. It’s been inculcated. That makes them just like thousands of other organizations.

So what’s a soul to do? We have to present our content and most of us reside in organizations that assume PowerPoint usage.

It’s not very practical to say “PowerPoint sucks, so don’t use it.” Many of us live in a PowerPoint world. As an executive at 3M and a large consulting firm, I didn’t have the luxury of saying “I think PPT is inelegant, so here’s my clever rendering of data in a form you are unaccustomed to. Please be impressed by my clear thinking and originality as I ask you for phase gate approval in a format completely different from the other 10 proposals you saw today.”

Edward Tufte is a thought leader in information design that I respect highly. I would echo his sentiment from this old article in Wired magazine:

“PowerPoint is a competent slide manager and projector. But rather than supplementing a presentation, it has become a substitute for it. Such misuse ignores the most important rule of speaking: Respect your audience.”

He decimates PowerPoint in a pamphlet he published several years ago (The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint). I agree with his assessment of how he sees it applied and how its templates drive you to appearing shallower than you might like. (As an example, I mock my students who use “SmartArt” templates or stupid clip art as substitutes for actual thinking.The tool’s name is an oxymoron.)

Never-the-less, I think we are stuck with PowerPoint. So how do we make an admittedly challenged tool as useful as possible? We’ll explore that in several coming posts. The keys are actually having a point, a story to communicate it and then building specific slides that represent your thinking.

In parting, I saw this hilarious video of Don McMillan offering funny, but sound, advice on using PowerPoint on David Airey’s thoughtful blog on design and branding.

It’s important to laugh or you’d cry. Let me know your thoughts…

Part 2 can be found here.

Pre-selling Ideas

A big part of any professional’s success is the ability to get buy-in for their ideas. The ideas could be big investments, changes to internal process that require significant change, making a major hire…anything really. In situations where a group will weigh in on a decision it is particularly important to “pre-sell” your idea.

What do I mean by “pre-sell”? Simply allowing other stakeholders or decision-makers sufficient prior input so that you can factor it into your ultimate presentation and delivery.

Reasons for doing it include:

Understanding. You want to be clear on the politics and decision making process. Who in the room gets along with whom? What are everyone’s pet projects or interests? Etc.

Testing. Running your material by people in advance allows you to understand what specific elements of your story and analysis are or are not working. You can iterate your work to better tune it to your audience’s interests and biases. An example can be as simple as using the right language or concept. The same idea may be sold on “profit growth” or “revenue growth”. Which is a better tack given the culture? In a past life, I went through having to describe everything as a Six Sigma initiative. So be it.

Quality Assurance. In “testing” I mean more pre-flighting the content. QA means making sure your math and assumptions are correct. If a key number or assumption is wrong in a public/decision making forum, your idea will die a painful and public death. This is particularly important on very technical or detail oriented topics.

Efficiency. Having more intimate 1:1 conversations allows for fuller explanation of ideas relative to a particular stakeholder’s concerns. For example, the CFO may have much more detailed financial concerns than others. If you can walk her through all your spreadsheets in advance and she knows they are in the appendix, you have her on board and don’t need to dwell on the details in a large group.

Anticipating. You want to make sure you understand who doesn’t agree with you. This allows you to plan the presentation accordingly and either directly address concerns through adapting your material or planning your rebuttal. This is particularly important in meetings where you need a decision and the group meets infrequently. Examples include quarterly gate review teams. If you miss a window, you can’t revisit for 3 months. Not good.

Inclusiveness. If an idea is “yours” it may or may not sell based on your reputation. If many or most of the people in the room listening have their fingerprints on it and can see their interests being met, it will be much more consensus driven process. The best examples are when someone challenges a number in you presentation and someone else can explain and defend the value.

Avoiding. Often politics are involved. You never want a big debate or fight to break out when your idea is up for discussion (unless you have consciously set it up that way). If several stakeholders actively disagree, get that out before the meeting and figure out how to best satisfy all parties if you can.

So some simple rules for pre-selling:

  • Show your work in advance
  • Listen
  • Give people opportunities to provide meaningful input
  • Take advice
  • Offer credit where credit is due
  • Understand stakeholder’s perspectives
  • Get work done early enough to be able to share
  • Construct content that it is clear and professional

Some obvious “don’ts”:

  • Ambush people
  • Surprise people
  • Avoid feedback
  • Go it alone

If your idea doesn’t fly, you don’t want it to be for lack of planning or effort.

Putting a Stake in the Ground

Sometimes you just have to take a position to move things forward. I see many teams and organizations get paralyzed by indecision, conscious stalling and/or lack of clarity.

I am certainly the king of “it depends” and “context matters” and am a serial deferrer to buy time for more data to come in. I also would stipulate that sometimes, waiting is the most effective strategy. But sometimes, you have to force the issue.

Let’s first discuss how we can force the issue and then get into when and why.

Universal Answer- How

In almost all of these cases, the “answer” is proposing a straw model(s) for people to debate. The point is to put something reasonable in print for people to respond to. In can be high-level and conceptual, or very detailed and well thought out. Whatever works for the context you are in. The point is to commit it to a form that people can understand and meaningfully debate.

You are doing several things in this process.

1 – Summarizing what you believe to be “the current understanding”. This requires synthesis and thought on your part.

2 – Framing clear discussion points for stakeholders. Whether in the form of a proposal, documented assumptions, alternate scenarios etc., you are allowing others to get the “digested” thinking. This advances discussion more quickly.

3 – Controlling the agenda. Remember that he/she who commits thoughts to print first frames the discussion.

4 – Increasing communication efficiency – The discussion will much more quickly move to clarification and debate when people understand what you are saying. No need to waste time on multiple rounds of clarification if you are clear.

You can position the straw model as your thinking, or distance yourself from it as appropriate. (You still need to e politically astute). Either way, you are driving discussion and action.

The key is often to embed a failsafe trigger that will “go off” if someone doesn’t respond. From a negotiations standpoint the idea is to create a sense of urgency. So document your idea/position and publish it. Could be an email to group, a power point proposal or clear position on white board in a meeting.

Now let’s explore a few times when forcing the issue makes sense. What follows is an unscientific list of situations that I see a need for “stakes in the ground”.

When to apply 

You are on a timeline

In this situation, you often have no other choice. Whether the issue is major or minor, there isn’t time to waste. This is particularly true for consultants. We are always “on the clock”, with time equaling either billable hours or engagement profitability. For better or for worse, clients also know you will be gone by a certain date. Often the issue is as much attention from relevant stakeholders as it is resistance. You are competing for their attention and mental bandwidth.

Example – A team of mine recently did a nice job of managing a client situation by writing a very detailed list of assumptions and actions they were going to take in conducting quantitative analysis of a large and complicated data set based on those assumptions with a due date. They also pointed out the cost if their assumptions were wrong and a timeline for responding.

The result was important (and timely) clarifications, as well as enhanced team credibility due to the detail and rigor of their efforts. Any less effort and we all would have been spinning our wheels for weeks more. They had been struggling to get clarity and finally realized that pe

You want to expose potential disconnects/create a shared understanding

What does this even mean? Here, you think that everyone is not on the same page and the point is to take a position to reveal others’ understanding of the issue. This can be particularly important in cross-functional or cross-organizational discussions.

 One example is that people may not mean the same thing even when they are using the same terms. “Terms of Art” is a phrase used to describe the actual definition of a technical or functionally specific term. For example, organizations often differ from classical functional boundaries. What does “supply chain” mean at your firm? What’s in “operations”? It’s crucial that you reach common operational definitions for these terms to ensure common understanding.

Other examples include:

  • Surfacing assumptions that are so deep, no one even thought to discuss them.
  • Highlighting areas believed to be commonly agreed, but more detail or specificity reveals that the devil is in the details and maybe there wasn’t as much agreement as thought.

You need to make people publicly take a position

This one is more political. Often people are trying to avoid taking a position on politically difficult topics. If you can maneuver them into a position where they have to be specific in their objections, then you can document their issues and potentially push them into a corner if you can address all their objections. You then expose their motivations if they continue to resist/object when their concerns have been addressed.

As always, I struggle with being MECE, but these are the big ones I can think of off the top of my head. Let me know if you can think of others.

Performing When the Lights Come On

This week we began our cycle of final client presentations and I was reminded of the importance of performing well in the meeting. This is another “obvious point from Phil”, but let me elaborate.

You can have the most dynamic, data driven and compelling story in the world. But if you don’t sell it and respond credibly to questioning in the meeting then you’re dead. Don’t forget that your audience is not just buying into your content. They are deciding whether they buy you.

So what can we do to improve our likelihood of success? Let’s break it down into components:

The Presentation

I won’t spend too much time here as I think this is an entire multi-post series. However, a few important points are worth making.

1)     Make sure it looks professional – If you couldn’t take the time to make it appear decent, why should I take time to listen? 

2)     Be sure to have run it by stakeholders for vetting and input (as appropriate) – You don’t want to be surfacing “new” or controversial information in most cases. You want people to be saying “I agree” and “that will work” etc. Particularly if you are looking for a decision in the meeting you need all “Ts” crossed and “I’s” dotted. Any doubts will send you to “take another look at that and we’ll re-consider this…” hell.

3)     Have organized it logically to tell the story you want to convey based on your audience – Make sure the story flows and builds sensibly. Your audience won’t all be at the same place, so be careful to ensure you’ve given enough context or background. If you are building to one conclusion you organize differently than if you have a series of decisions etc. Never jam up your material with lots of junk slides. Feel free to use your appendix liberally. A general rule of thumb on slides is that if you don’t have 2-3 minutes of discussion per slide (on average) then you should push it to the back.  I’ll write more on this in the future.

4)     Don’t fall in love with your research/data. There is a phenomenon called “the curse of knowledge”. It essentially states when you know something too well you have a hard time summarizing it simply for novices. Never forget you have spent hours, weeks or months thinking about some of your material. Your audience has 30-60 minutes. Bring it up to an understandable level of summary. Also exclude unnecessary charts or data that are “cool” but not relevant to your central story. The appendix can be huge and is great for this content. You certainly want people to understand how much work has been done, but don’t want to distract.

The Delivery

As I mention above, if you deliver your content poorly it will die. You may not get eaten up, more likely you will just be ignored. Your ability to “stand and deliver” will have a big influence on your effectiveness.

1)     Be confident. Lack of confidence is a killer. It makes everyone in the room less sure of what you are telling them and raises unnecessary doubts. If you are not in fact confident, figure out how to seem so. As they say, “fake it ‘til you make it”.  The more you do it, the more comfortable you are.

2)     Understand your goals and be disciplined in what you do/don’t say. You can’t be trying to make 26 points. Pick your 2-3 major storyline elements and hammer them. You should not get to the end and have people say “that was great” and not know what they need to do.

3)     Pace your content appropriately for the level of thought and discussion required. If you have 63 slides and need several contentious decisions made then 60 minutes isn’t enough. Sometimes you are asked to recommend, sometimes to facilitate discussion. These are very different goals and require different structure of content and delivery of material. Plan accordingly.

4)     Be prepared for challenges. It’s important to have thought through who will be in the room (stakeholders) and what each person’s likely interests and objections are. Ideally you’re on top of this enough to have adjusted your slides to address this, but either way you need to be able to respond in real time.

5)     Plan potential responses. For the top likely challenges you can build well formulated responses, even including specific appendix slides. It’s very compelling when you can specifically address these types of challenges. First, you demonstrate that you thought of the issue. Second, you carried the thought through to analysis and built content around it. Third, it potentially allows you to show respect to opposing points of view. The act of building content can convey open-mindedness.

My experience is that if you are well prepared for key lines of questioning then you will receive fewer challenges as the presentation progresses. Basically, they’ve bought that you know your stuff and allow you to proceed. If you can’t address the first several challenges…ouch. It’s going to be a long day.

6)     Understand the room & setting you are in. You need to be prepared for all the little details of staging. Are we around a table, are there 5 or 50 people etc.? There isn’t a universal rule for “what’s best” . But you do need to understand the environment you’ll be in to effectively plan your delivery.

7)     Be respectful in responding. If you lose your temper or are casually dismissive of any audience member you severely limit your effectiveness.

8)     Practice. If the first time you’re going through your material is in the moment then you won’t have anticipated many of the pitfalls inherent in your content. Several dry runs turn up both flaws in logic, as well as slide/content mistakes.

9)     Manage your nerves/Have fun! I personally enjoy the “joust” of presenting and persuading, but I still get nervous. Practice helps this. In addition, I’d encourage you to take the attitude that this is your opportunity to show all your work.

There are many other subtle tips to offer, but if you actually work at the advice above you’ll have less pain and more success. A disproportionate amount of career success comes from how well you deliver in these key situations. You want to be building a positive reputation.

Let me know if you have questions or would like me to dig into any of these areas more.