The art of the technical presentation – 5 lessons from Gary Fong

The Technical presentation

As an analytics professional, you often have to show your work to select audiences. This could be a demonstration of a new corporate dashboard at the monthly townhall meeting. It might also be a training class for the operations team or a 1:1 session with the CEO. Regardless of the occasion, you have to make sure that your technical presentation gets the audience excited about your analytics solution. Unfortunately, too many technical presentations go bad. It’s really easy to loose the attention of your audience, if you don’t prepare carefully. The other day I watched a superb technical demo by the famous entrepreneur and photographer Gary Fong. It exhibits a lot of characteristics that you and I should incorporate in our next technical presentation.

The Gary Fong Factor

Take a look at the short video. Gary Fong demonstrates one of his new photo products. Even if you don’t know anything about photography, you will immediately get the idea of his product. Just watch 1-2 minutes.

5 lessons

What’s so special about Gary’s demo. It exhibits a lot of qualities you and I need to incorporate in every technical presentation:

  1. Be enthusiastic: Gary is extremely enthusiastic about his products and it shows. Enthusiasm is contagious. Most photographers want to buy his products after watching one of his demos. However, too many technical presentations are just plain boring. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience: why should you use that analytics solution if your technical leader isn’t excited about it? Show your passion!
  2. Avoid technical language: Notice how simple this short demo is. There are no buzzwords, there is hardly any jargon. Even non-photographers understand his product. Jargon and buzzwords are an excellent way to confuse people. It probably scares the CFO to hear about the configuration of the ODBC connection. Neither does he care about the latest in-memory technology. Make it easy for people to follow you!
  3. Explain the problem: When you deliver a technical presentation, it is critical to explain your audience why they need to change. People don’t like to change. Don’t just jump in and show your shiny technology. Set the background and explain what the problem is that you are trying to combat. Gary does that marvelously. He clearly shows that the current state (i.e. without his products) is problematic. Try to do the same in your next technical presentation.
  4. Show the benefits: Gary doesn’t stop right there. He goes further and stops at certain points to show the benefits of the new approach. He compares the old with the new. He leaves no doubt that the change is worth the effort. This helps the audience make up their mind. Too many demos leave it to the audience to identify the benefits. That’s a risky strategy.
  5. Be quick: Demos are often long and boring. Gary Fong, on the other hand, is quick. He jumps right in and he uses engaging language. There are no slow or boring parts. This is actually one of his longer demos. Most of his video demos run less than 2-3 minutes. This pays off tremendously – you won’t loose your audience.

Practice your technical presentation

Delivering an awesome technical presentation can be extremely rewarding – not only for yourself but also for your audience. Technical excellence of a solution does not automatically translate into enthusiasm by the end users. You have to help them with accepting the new solution. Spend some time to learn and practice these lessons.

If you are interested in this topic, check out one of my earlier posts.

How to improve your presentations – a simple lesson

Presentation advice

A friend recently challenged me to provide him with my number one tip for improving his presentations. He was looking for that famous ‘low-hanging fruit’ that wouldn’t require too much effort and energy. I didn’t have to think long and hard about that question. In my past job role, I attended many conferences and sat through hundreds of presentations. Unfortunately, a majority of the presentations did not reach their full potential. It wasn’t the content. The speakers were ok in many cases. It was the slides that lowered the impact of those speeches.

Death to Bullets

Around 75% of all the slides you and I get to absorb everyday contain tons of text. Take a look at the example below. And trust me, this is a gentle case.

 

Ugly Powerpoint
The classic Powerpoint slide. Lot’s of bullets and lot’s of reading material

There is a huge problem with this type of slide design: The minute you bring it up on the screen, people will start reading. You immediately loose the attention of your audience. The more words on the screen, the longer the attention gap. It’s a natural human reaction to be drawn to the text. There is nothing you can do. I have seen really good and charismatic speakers struggle to hold the attention of their audience with these type of Powerpoints. And it get’s worse. Once you have read the text, you tend to drift off. Hey….you know the content anyway. Let’s face it – listening is for longer periods of time is hard. Your brain is constantly searching for an easy escape. Don’t believe me? Observe yourself next time you attend a presentation.

The alternative

There is the famous saying: A picture says more than a thousand words. It’s true. Instead of sticking lot’s of text on your slides, try to simplify. Reduce the text. You can try something really simple like this:

Better Powerpoint
It takes less than a minute to create a slide like this.

Or even better – use a simple picture. I am talking about tasteful photographs or graphics. But stay away from cheap cliparts.

eBook Reader
Granted this is nothing fancy. But this slide allows you to grab and hold people’s attention.

Why is this a better approach? There are several reasons why you should consider this:

  • People tend to remember pictures much better than words. You can do a test….see if you can remember the last slide.
  • Your audience doesn’t loose focus. You are the star. They need to listen to you to understand what the presentation is all about.
  • If you use beautiful and meaningful slides, people often look forward to the next set of slides. It literally keeps them engage.
  • You cannot read your slides. Reading a slide is the best way to loose the attention of your audience. Simple Powerpoints on the other hand force you to have a conversation with your audience. You sound natural and you can easily inject stories.

Easier said than done? You can purchase awesome looking stockphotos for less than a dollar today. Services like iStockphoto or Fotolia have amazing collections and their prices are very decent. Even better: Few people know that Microsoft actually offers a huge collection of awesome pictures on their Powerpoint website – for free. Check it out.

Drop those bullets

Want to improve your presentations? Drop your bullets then and develop simple slides. It’s not that difficult.

If you want some advice about how build beautiful slides that have an impact, I highly recommend the following two books:

slide:ology by Nancy Duarte – This book is probably the best one about presentation design. It’s gorgeous and there are lot’s of amazing ideas for designing awesome presentations. This is not necessarily a book that you read from the first page to the last. It’s rather an amazing compendium. I use it when I’m stuck and I need some creative ideas.

Presentation Zen Design by Garr Reynolds – Excellent advice about designing slides. This book is concise and provides the basics for proper and elegant presentation design.

 

Why blog? 13 reasons to love blogging

Why blog?

Blogging is fun! Yes, it is. I started the Performance Ideas Blog almost two years ago and I would not want to miss that. There were certainly some stretches where I thought about just dropping the project. Blogging regularly requires a lot of discipline and focus. This is especially true when you write the majority of the posts planes, trains, airline lounges and random hotel rooms. Some friend recently asked why I still went ahead and kept on growing this blog. Here are some of my top reasons. If you have asked yourself the question ‘Why blog?’, you might find some inspiration here in this post. Blogging

Why blog? 13 reasons

  1. You need to stay fresh & agile. Blogging frequently requires you to constantly search for topics. This keeps you fresh and agile. Also, you tend to know more than others who don’t put in that effort.
  2. You get to learn many new things. Writing about something requires you to have a deeper understanding about a topic. A successful post looks at various different angles. I therefore often invest time researching ideas. That includes following other blogs, reading more books, attending more conferences. That allows me to learn.
  3. You conquer some fears. Writing about certain topics can be scary. There are some posts where you are not quite sure how people will react. Sometimes there is criticism. But at the end of the day, you just post the stuff and you feel good about not letting your fear stop you.
  4. You get rewarded. Certain posts often generate tons of feedback. It feels awesome to see people sharing your content. It feels even better to receive emails, tweets or comments.
  5. You create new relationships. The Performance Ideas blog has dramatically increased my network. I have met a bunch of fantastic analytics professionals and other bloggers. And these relationships pay off.
  6. You actively build your own brand. Blogging allows you to share your ideas and to actively shape your own brand. Your brand is no longer just determined by who you really are but also by what Google says about you. Blog posts feed and shape your online persona.
  7. You let your creativity flow. Blogging allows me to combine my passion for business, photography and design. I love taking photos for the different posts. Developing posts is definitely a great way to get creative.
  8. You develop (potentially) valuable skills. Running your own blog requires you to learn new and unexpected skills. I use the self-hosted version of WordPress and have taught myself a ton about that platform and social media. While I don’t have any use for those skills in my job, I was able to build my wife a new website for her recent business launch. We developed her presence within half a day. It was fun and Jen was able to save a ton of money (hmmm…she does owe me a dinner!)
  9. You get to do something geeky. Running your blog in a self-hosted environment allows to get really geeky sometimes. You get to configure plug-ins, tune databases and test new functionality. Well, I sometimes enjoy that type of thing.
  10. You stay current with social media and web x.0. Running a successful blog without being involved in social media is almost not possible. This has forced me to dig a lot deeper than I ever thought.
  11. You get market insights. Performance Ideas is a business blog. As such it is an interesting measure of what people are interested in. Some posts receive virtually no traffic whereas others go viral. And that is an excellent indicator of what people care about. I have often used these insights to develop new presentations or to prepare for customer meetings.
  12. You get to feel like a rockstar…sort of. On more than several occasions, people have approached me at conferences and wanted to know if I was ‘the guy from the Performance Ideas blog’….oh man….those moments make you feel like a rockstar….and then reality sets back in….
  13. You develop an valuable repository. In the past, I often lost good ideas. But having a blog allows you to capture everything. You build up a repository of your own thoughts. And that is extremely valuable.

Why blog?

Well, those are just thirteen reasons. I could go on and easily find another twenty or thirty. If you are considering to write your own blog, just get started. Give it a try. Some of my former colleagues and friends also recently started their own blogs and I think they really enjoy it, too.

What are your experiences?

A few thoughts about gauge charts

Gauge charts

A few days ago, I had a discussion about gauge charts. A colleague and I had reviewed a collection of operational dashboards. Some of them contained large sets of gauge charts. Those dashboards were the most ineffective. At the risk of repeating myself, here are some thoughts about gauge charts.

  • Gauge charts are not necessarily very effective at communicating information. Other chart types such as bar or bullet graphs are usually easier to read.
  • Gauge charts waste a lot of space. Dashboards should not require a user to scroll through its content. That would require them to use more working memory than we have. We therefore need to utilize the limited space we have in the most effective manner. Given the fact the gauges are not superior to other charts, why waste so much space.

Take a look at this example. Three of those bar charts fit into the space that is occupied by the gauge. Is the gauge more effective than the bar? I don’t think so. (By the way, the yellow lines indicate the range of the value.)

gauge chart
Two charts. Both convey the same information. Which one do you prefer?

Why then?

Most analytics professionals would probably agree with me that gauges are not that great. But why do we see them in so many dashboards then? I think the answer is pretty simple: People want to see them! The general level of knowledge about data visualization is still relatively low. Managers are therefore inclined to pick the chart types that look cool. Unfortunately, too many analytics professionals still shy away from pushing back on those requirements or they also lack knowledge. The lack of knowledge is also responsible that most software vendors feature gauges in their marketing materials (customers are asking for them).

Education

It’s up to us analytics professionals to educate business users about gauge charts. Let’s start that process today! Also, look at your dashboards. Where do you have the ability to clean them up?

 

Guest Post: Become the topic of conversation with content marketing

PR and Social Media Expert Bernhard Lermann

Content Marketing

If Dr. Johann August Unzer would have had a company website, it would have been a very lively place. The practicing physician from Altona, Germany, was the publisher of the well-known medical weekly journal “Der Arzt” („The Physician”) as well as the author of numerous medical, philosophical and early psychological essays. His home was a central point for society in Altona. On the painting of Johann Jacob Tischbein, which caught my attention during a visit at the  German Museum of Medical History in Ingolstadt, he portrayed himself as a well-connected, scholarly medical scientist and author. He is surrounded by letters from colleagues and his hand rests on his best-seller: “Der Arzt” (“The Physician”), published 1759 to 1764 also as a set of 12 books.

Dr. Johann August Unzer, physician and networker

Unzer dedicated himself to topics that were discussed intensively in the medical world of the 18th century. He wrote for example “De sternutatione”, a discussion about sneezing. And he wrote down his “Gedancken vom Einfluß der Seele in ihren Körper” (“Thoughts on the influence of the soul on its body”). Burning questions that wanted to be answered.

Since the invention of a search engine, however, one must no longer consult experts nor call nor mail a letter in order to find answers; the answer appears on the computer screen within milliseconds – delivery free of charge.

Google prefers high-quality content

Sophisticated content marketing for companies utilizes the new possibilities of searching for answers. A company website is no longer optimized towards products but rather towards topics. One of the reasons for this is that Google prefers “high-quality” content that supplies answers and currently neglects outdated methods like keyword frequency.

But the one-time creation of content is not enough. The up-to-datedness of content is important; users and search engines prefer fresh content, whether that’s text, images, informative graphics, or video clips. An interaction with a graphically pleasing interface will, for example, offer easy entry into a topic, which is particularly recommended for complex matters and generates a long user session.

Know-how generates topics

If one focuses on the customer‘s needs, the customer’s trust in that brand increases immensely, which will automatically result in higher sales volumes. Schwarzkopf’s story of success is often told: the internal website was completely revamped, and since early 2011 presents itself like a thematic portal in the style of Vogue or Madame. Complete with topics regarding hair – and since then with fantastic hit-rates.

The engineering blogs of Indium, a developer and producer of special alloys for component production show how to create high-quality content in the B2B segment. Indium recognized that company’s content capital is made up of the Know-How of its staff and its network.

In order to create high-quality content it is necessary for marketing, PR, and distribution to work together on a daily basis. Distribution staffs are familiar with their customer’s needs, the PR department develops topics in alignment with these needs, and marketing prepares the content according to the various formats and knows the best distribution channels.

Once content is placed, it works “round the clock“, on the web

Many companies balk at the high expenditure of time for the production of content. It’s not for impatient people: such measures don’t have immediate effects but they improve the reputation of the company bit by bit. However, since content works round the clock for the company once its placed, success can be seen faster and is effective for a much longer time than in printed customer magazines, for example.

For as long as he was alive, Dr. Johann August Unzer refused offers to teach as a professor in Copenhagen or Goettingen. His publications were highly recognized and solidified his reputation as an expert in his field. He surely had enough well-paying patients.

In this context, content marketing is nothing new. For a company it is today much easier to connect with its target group. Once upon a time one placed its message exclusively into commercial breaks, which interrupted customer discussions, but today it’s possible to participate in the discussion. Once this is understood, one can use content marketing to provide suggestions regarding the direction into which the discussion may go.

Bernhard Lermann supports customers from the semiconductor, industrial electronics, logistics and IT industries and small to medium size businesses for Lermann Public Relations. He designs story lines for content marketing strategies and for company videos and regularly writes specialized contributions for companies from his core segments.

5 lessons for using dashboard colors appropriately – Part 2

Selecting dashboard colors

Last week, I wrote about the role of colors in photographs. A lot of the insights apply to the design of solid management dashboards and reports. Color choice does make a huge difference. So, let’s apply the ideas from the prior post and apply them to your performance dashboards, charts and reports:

Lesson 1 – Do we need colour?

Colors are nice. But do we really need them all the time? Many photographs are even more powerful in black and white. The lack of colors helps with accentuating the important things. Why not apply this to our dashboards and reports? Take a look at the example below. It works quite well without colors. (Keep in mind that color blind people would prefer this version.)

Cognos 10 Dashboard
Simple, concise, focused, uncluttered….I love this Cognos 10 sales dashboard

Lesson 2 – Avoid unintended messaging

Colors do send a signal. Red, for example, indicates something powerful or a potential danger. However, too many dashboards are designed without this basic idea in mind. Colors are often applied carelessly.  Take a look at the example below. I showed this basic chart to several controllers. Guess what they said: “Something must be wrong with the Northern region.” The red bars seem to indicate that there is something wrong here (red). And wait…there is also some good news (green).

Is there something wrong with the North?

If we apply lesson 1, we get the following chart. The new version is a lot easier to digest and it does not send signals that it shouldn’t.

No, just the usual revenue reporting.

So, make sure to use colors with the right intent. Reserve colors like red, green and yellow to indicate important items.

LESSON 3 – USE PALETTES

A dashboard or a report should be pleasing to the eye. People don’t like working with ugly things. Design matters. If you want to use colors, think about using pre-configured color palettes. Most BI packages have a bunch of pre-configured options (heck…we can even use the super-ugly Excel 97 scheme).  That is usually better than creating your own color scheme. You might want to stay away from some of the brighter options. These are quite distracting.

A few Cognos 10 palettes

LESSON 4 – AVOID SENSORY OVERLOAD

Too much color is not good. Look at this simple example below. Everything is color-coded. This is too much. I personally find it very hard to look at these types of tables.

Colorful dashboard

We can reduce the colors to deliver a better experience. Let’s just highlight those items that require our attention. Much better, huh? Keep in mind – this is just a simple example. Imagine a larger color-explosion dashboard. Not pretty. When designing a report or dashboard we should think about the rule ‘Less is more’.

Color coded table

LESSON 5 – People do like colors

Much has been written about the use of colors in dashboards. Many people argue that the simple black and white approach is the most effective one (see the example above). I personally like that style as it helps me focus on the content. However, experience has shown that inexperienced business users do not necessarily go for that style. I have worked with various executives who demanded ‘something more colorful’. From a change management perspective, I am therefore no longer opposed to using color carefully in those cases. But that does not mean we should go crazy. Over time, people typically learn to appreciate the simpler style.

Cognos Active Report Dashboard

Your reports and dashboards

Pay attention to colors! It makes a big difference. It’s not all that difficult.So, why don’t you look at some of your reports and dashboard today. Assess whether the color choices are good. Have fun!

Dashboard color – Yes, it does matter! The basics – Part 1

 

Dashboard color?

Have you ever paid much attention to dashboard color and its effect on people? Colors are very powerful but very few of us actively leverage that to create awesome performance dashboards and reports. Just take a look at some examples that are floating around many organizations. Screens often induce headaches and are more colorful than a David Hockney painting. The result? Business people either do not effectively find the information that they need or they simply disregard an object because it looks terrible. Let’s face it – Dashboard color does matter!A bad dashboard!

Lessons from photography

Business analytics professionals need to have a basic understanding of colors. At a very minimum, we all need to be aware of the fact that dashboard color plays a huge role in user acceptance. Honestly, I never paid much attention to this until I got serious about photography. To shoot better photographs you need to understand colors and their effect on eyes and mind. The purpose of this post is to share some of the basic ideas. The next post will apply these basics to the design of Business Analytics applications.

Powerful colors

What does color do? At the most basic level, it can send powerful signals. Think about the colors of a traffic light: Red means stop. Red indicates danger but also power (look at some of the world’s largest brands….they use red). Yellow is vigorous and insistent. Green means go. Green is also positive. Look at the photos below:

RED – Is somebody in trouble?

The warning sign above sends an aggressive and strong signal. Compare this to the photo below. Isn’t that positive?

GREEN – This is relaxing…almost Zen

MIXING COLORS But colors usually do not come isolated from each other. They go together. Some colors create harmony. Other combinations simply hurt. Others create a nice contrast. We should therefore be very careful about choosing the right colors. To understand how this works, look at the classic color wheel below. Basically all colors can be mixed through these six elements:

The famous color wheel

When you pick colors from opposing sides, you can create nice contrast (e.g. Blue and Yellow, Red and Cyan). Contrast makes things stand out. On the other hand, you could also create harmony by choosing colors that are right next to each other on the color wheel (Yellow-Green; Yellow-Red). See the examples below:

Harmony…..

Mixing colors therefore is not trivial. A little knowledge of the color wheel can help you achieve nice effects. Use the color wheel to your advantage! NO COLOR AT ALL Sometimes we don’t need colors at all. There are cases when a black and white photo works better. The lack of color allows us to bring out the nuances and it helps to focus on the important things. Take a look at the example below. The colors in the first photo do not really add a lot of value. Actually, they make the photo look dull and boring. The castle itself looks dull, too.

Dull. Simply dull.

Now look at the same photo as a black and white: Suddenly the amazing structure of the castle really stands out. The dull sky is now adding value as well. We can see the rain coming down and it really adds to the atmosphere.

Hey…I want to go there and see that castle!

Dashboard color

So much for the basics. But what about Business Analytics? Stay tuned for some lessons next week. That post will apply these basic insights to our management dashboards and reports. In the meantime, if you have a chance pay attention to colors over the next few days.

Memorize a presentation? Forget about it!

Memorize a presentation?

Presenting is a highly rewarding exercise. Yet many people struggle with it. Nervousness and also the required preparation induce uncomfortable feelings in many people. The first one is a necessary evil and it can be dealt with. But how about the second one? People often ask me how I manage to memorize a presentation. Well, here is the secret: I do not memorize anything. And now hold your breath: I never practice either.

Natural conversations

The way we present has fundamentally changed. Ten years ago, many of us would have probably endured a boring and scripted presentation. Today, we expect presentations to be conversational. In his excellent book The Naked Presenter, presentation guru Garr Reynolds says:

”Most communication experts today agree that a good talk or a good presentation should feel more like a conversation.”

Memorizing a speech or a presentation goes against that objective, from my point of view. Such presentations can only sound stiff unless we are trained actors. The same is true for spending too much time practicing. Think about it: how often do you memorize a conversation before you have it?

An alternative approach

What would you rather do in front of an audience (customers, friends, colleagues)?:

  1. Memorize a long poem and recite it
  2. Read a 50 page story and then tell that story

Chances are you would prefer option 2. I certainly do. And that’s why I have developed a process that feels like preparing to tell a story. It really works for me. Give it a try.

The steps

Step 1: Create your content. I don’t want to go into any details here. Much has been written about how to develop a great presentation. So, let’s just assume we already have a somewhat solid slide deck in front of us.

Step 2: 30,000 ft view. Take your presentation and review it in the slide sorter view. Do a high-level walk-through. Check your general structure and story. A presentation needs to have a logical flow. Look for inconsistencies and harsh transitions. Rearrange slides where you see the need. This step usually takes a few minutes (assuming you already have a somewhat decent story….).

Slide Sorter View

Step 3: Build a map. Now it’s time to drill down further. Stay in the slide sorter view and zoom out so that you can see all slides on one screen. Take a screenshot and paste it into a new slide. Now, think about the logical sections of your presentation. I put a bar over slides that belong together (think chapters or sections). Once I have done that, I then write a short “mission statement” into that bar. If you struggle with your mission statement, you might want to revisit the entire section or maybe delete it after all. Less is more when it comes to presenting.

Presentation Map

Step 4: Review the map. This map is incredibly powerful as it helps you refine and visualize your presentation structure. Use the map to review your content and structure again. Look at each slide and check whether it supports the mission statement of the section. It is often helpful to show this structure to another person.

At this point, you should know your presentation quite well. All that without memorizing anything. Also, you have the ability to really refine and further develop your content. In the example above, I can clearly see that slide 5 is useless and that section 3 is weak and incomplete.

So far so good. Let’s work on the details. You can now switch back to the slide view. It might also help to print out your map. The following steps should be repeated for all the slides. Walk through them sequentially.

Step 5: Purpose: Write down the purpose of the slide. This should be a simple sentence. This is the key message you want to bring across with this particular slide. This message needs to be crystal clear. And it needs to support the mission statement of section that it belongs to. This step not only helps you “memorize” the presentation but it will also help you get rid of useless materials. Once again, less is more.

Step 6: Messages and stories. Now that you know the purpose, start thinking about how to best bring the purpose and message for the slide across to your audience. This could be a story. Or this could be data points. Stories usually work best. People love them. Also, it is easy to remember them. They sound conversational. If you present numbers, think about an interesting way to do that. Try not to limit yourself. I often end up with 2-3 different ways to talk about a slide. That gives you a lot of options when you actually present.

Presentation notes

Congrats. You have made it that far. You should know your presentation pretty well by now. And your content should be really clean and well structured by now. But what about memorizing a presentation?

The last but important step

The final step is quite simple but it is the most important one. It comes closest to memorizing the presentation. I usually repeat this step a few times.

Step 7: Walk-through. In the days/ hours leading up to a presentation, I typically take a piece of paper and mentally walk through the presentation slide by slide. Depending on how comfortable I am, I write down the key message of each slide. In most cases, I won’t have the presentation open for that. That helps me focus on the general story and the messages. Also, I usually print the map and review it. However, I do not stand up and practice the whole thing in real time. You might want to do that if it makes you comfortable. It does not work for me.

An effective process

This process might look quite complicated. But it’s not. It accomplishes three things:

– It cleans up your presentation flow
– Helps you memorize your flow and talking points
– Gives you confidence

Is this time-consuming? Not really. It’s a whole lot faster than writing a script and memorizing it. Scripting pulls you too far down and you run the risk of loosing the bird eye’s view. You get stuck in details.

Knowing your stories and messages for each slide will then allow you to deliver your presentation in a conversational style. Why is that? You know your content inside and out and that is a real confidence booster. Running through a memorized script on the other hand has the potential to make you nervous.

That’s it for today. I will walk you through an example sometime later this year. Make sure to check back.

6 Performance Management lessons from the Tour de France

The Tour de France

The toughest sporting event of the year is in full swing right now. No, I am not talking about the Olympics. I am talking about the Tour de France. No other sport requires its athletes to perform at the highest level for 21 consecutive days. Think about this: Riders burn an average of 4000 calories per day. To win this unique competition you need to do everything right and you need to have a bit of luck as well.  It is therefore not surprising that top athletes leverage smart technology to help them. As a matter of fact, most top cyclists leverage so-called power-meters to collect and analyze ride data. Think of it as business analytics on a bike. And guess what – the athletes & their coaches do it really well. Here are a few simple lessons that we can learn from the pros:

  1. Pick a balanced set of metrics: Improving your performance requires you to look at various measures. Cyclists, for example, look at things like cadence, power output, heart rate etc.. Each one of these metrics influences performance. It’s the combination of them that allows riders to make sound decisions about their training programs and racing strategies. Do you have the right mix of metrics that allows you and your team to perform well? Managing sales is much more effective by looking at metrics such as # of new customers, avg $ per sales order etc.. Just looking at revenue alone creates a limited view.
  2. Monitor the relevant metrics:It’s nice to have a lot of metrics to work with. But make sure to pick the ones that are actually relevant to your business. Cyclists for example are ultimately looking to increase their speed. However, speed is very hard to control. It’s heavily dependent on outside variables such as wind, terrain, tire friction etc.. Monitoring speed on a continuous basis is therefore no recipe for improvement. As a matter of fact, it would be a counter-productive exercise (think about a day with lot’s of tail-wind). Cyclists therefore focus on the above mentioned metrics. They have direct control over these and improving them will lead to higher average speed. What about your metrics? Are you monitoring the relevant ones? Managing the marketing department with revenue metrics alone is not that effective, for example. You’d rather leverage metrics such as # of leads generated, brand equity etc.. Those metrics are in direct control and they influence the overall goal of increasing revenue.

    Golden Cheetah
    Meaningful metrics create powerful insights
  3. Consider relative measures: Power output (watt) is a key metric in cycling. The higher the power output one can produce, the better. But watts by themselves do not allow you to compare progress over time. Let’s say I am able to produce 300w over one hour today. Last year, I was able to produce only 280w. Have I improved? Will I be able to ride up that hill faster? It depends. We would have to look at my weight. The heavier I am, the more power I need to maintain a certain speed. And that’s why cyclists closely watch relative metrics. Watts/kg is one of the key metrics. It allows them to compare themselves with other riders and they can carefully track their progress. Are you looking at some relative metrics? Think about marketing, for example. We could be tempted to simply look at the number of leads that a certain campaign has generated. Sure, that is an important metric. But we should also look at the cost per lead. That allows us to compare different campaigns.
  4. Leverage data:It’s nice to have a ton of data available. But it’s only useful if we turn that data into information through analysis. Leading coaches and riders spend a lot of time analyzing ride data. They look for insights and they use these insights to refine their program. Businesses have a wealth of data available. Unfortunately, not all of it is used appropriately. I recently met a company that has terabytes of clean customer data sitting in their databases. None of it is being used right now. Such a shame. It happens way too often.

    Tracking and predicting performance
  5. Merge information with intuition: Data is great and data (hardly ever) lies. Yet, it is critical to listen to your inner voice as well. The best cyclists in the world leverage all their analytical insights and merge them with their intimate knowledge of their own body. They intuitively know when they can attack. It’s the same in business. That NPV model might look great on paper, but our gut tells us that the investment is wrong. Let’s not forget that!
  6. Change that plan: Athletes spend a ton of time planning their training schedules. They use scientific methods to predict their peak performance. But no plan is fool-prove. Things are likely to change. Top pros therefore adjust their schedule on a rolling basis. There are days when they simply can’t pull off a hard interval session. Sure, they could try to do it. But that could have a devastating effect on their engine (body). Likewise, there are also days when their body feels surprisingly fresh. In those cases they increase their training load. Too many businesses create plans and stick with them regardless of what is happening around them. That is not only risky but it also often prevents companies from outperforming (think about all those expense budgets that are rigorously spent each year…).

The Tour de France by numbers

Take a look at these lessons and see how you could apply these to your business. Granted, cycling is a simple sport. But they face a ton of pressure. The best riders are separated by a mere 1-2% in overall performance. 2011 research by the CFO Executive board has shown that CFOs believe their finance departments perform 30% below their performance potential. What does that tell you?

P.S.: If you like sports and analytics, make sure to follow the daily coverage of Trainingpeaks.com. They feature detailed ride analysis and such. There is some fascinating stuff.

Is it worth going the extra mile?

That last bit of effort

Most of us have encountered many situations where we need to make a decision: do we want to put in just a little bit more effort or should we just let it go. There is the project proposal that we have been working on for days. Should we do another spell-check, should we have somebody else take another look at it? And there is one of our customers. Should we invite him for a quick cup of coffee despite our busy schedule? There are many situations. Unfortunately, we are often tempted to take the easy route.

A small investment

In many cases, we should make that little bit of extra investment. The potential pay-back is just too big. And it’s usually a relatively tiny investment of our time and effort. I was reminded of that the other day while I was out biking. My house is at 550m altitude (1804 ft). Within a mile there are a bunch of sunflower fields. They are all in full bloom right now. It is gorgeous. There is a town on my cycling route that is just ten miles away. It’s located at 590m (1935ft) altitude. The fields were completely green this past Sunday. Not a single yellow sunflower bloom. A minor difference in temperatures due to the proximity to the Alps and the altitude. (This town actually has more snow in winter than we do).

Sunflowe

Not going the extra mile has inherent risks. I flew back from a conference a few weeks ago and wasn’t feeling well. The staff on the flight seemed to be a bit off as well. Dealing with an arrogant and unfriendly staff was the last thing that I needed. Was it really that difficult for them to bring me a second cup of coffee? Was it that hard to greet me with a smile? Was it that difficult to apologize for the water they spilled on me? I doubt it. What could have been a nice experience (I was upgraded) turned out to be a real mood spoiler. I have booked several upcoming trips on other airlines since that experience.

Make the effort

Going the extra mile does pay off in many cases. The required effort is usually small. Why don’t we do it more often then?