Tag Archives: effective presentations

Analytics professionals need to be communicators

Are we communicators?

Analyics are an extremely hot topic. While there is a lot of talk about it, too many companies are still failing to reap the true benefits from “bread and butter” tools such as dashboards. It’s safe to say that there is a disconnect: lot’s of talk and excitement, yet little true engagement on the business side. What’s causing the problem? It’s tempting to blame the technology.

The Disconnect

Having worked with many organizations over the past decade, I have come to the conclusion that a majority of the problems are caused by needless complexity and by a maddening drive towards technical excellence. Let’s face it – an analytics solution is only as good as the adoption by the user community. Brilliant technology fails when people don’t know what to do with it. How can we fix this? I think we – the analytics professionals – need to look at ourselves and make some changes to the way we work and engage with the business community. It’s easy and comfortable to stay in a comfortable cocoon of technical talk and optimization. Our objective needs to be to step out of that cocoon and start communicating with the business.

The Communicator

Last weekend, I started reading an excellent book by Tim Elmore. The book is about communication. Tim makes the case that our society requires a different communication approach. In the past, we adored the great orators that would read a carefully scripted speech. Today, we relate to people who deliver messages that connect with us. The author drafts up a comparison between the past and today: public speakers (aka technical experts) vs communicators. When I studied this, it struck me: The content applies to our business analytics profession as well. I have taken the liberty to modify it a bit. Take a few minutes to study the table and to reflect how this might apply to your and your team:

Analytics Professional

Are you a technical professional or a communicator?

Need to change

Let me tell you, this comparison really spoke to me. As analytics professionals, we need to make a serious effort to connect with our audience – the business. That requires us to leave the comfortable cocoon of technical talk. Here is an example: the classic requirements gathering. We interview, we document, we ask for sign-offs. The whole process is technical and it usually doesn’t help the business. It’s a process that was designed to help and protect the IT professional. A communicator on the other hand goes further than just creating a thick document. The communicator goes out of his way to really understand the business. That might require a simple prototype. It might require us to take a personal risk and ask more questions.The end result is a better analytics solution.

Here is a suggestion: Print out this table and take a look at it before you head into that next meeting or before you hand over that new dashboard. Think about your team. Are you a an analytics professional or an analytics communicator?

P.S.: I highly recommend reading Tim Elmore’s book. It’s an excellent read. There are  a ton of exercises and self-assessments that help you improve your personal presentation and communication style. I have read many books about presenting and this is belongs in the category of books that can really have an impact.

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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.

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6 tips for combating public speaking nervousness

A case of public speaking nervousness

It was a regular workday for Tom. Things were going well for him and his career. Shortly after 5pm his boss called to ask him for a simple favor: to deliver one of their standard corporate presentations in front of 30 sales and marketing people from a different business unit the next day at 1pm. Most people dread presenting and so did Tom. He cancelled his get-together for the evening and didn’t go to bed until after midnight. He tossed and turned in anticipation of the next day. At 4am he finally gave up, showered and continued with his preparation. His public speaking nervousness continued to rise throughout the morning. His girl-friend tried to re-assure him. He knew the subject extremely well, after all. Shortly after 1pm, disaster struck. He had just started the presentation when he had a complete black-out. 29 people stared at him with anticipation. He couldn’t find his words, the world started spinning around him and he passed out.

Public Speaking Nervousness

This view is supposedly scarier for many people than looking into the face of a snake.

The stage fright phenomenon

What happened to Tom isn’t unusual. It happens all the time. Most people hate presenting in front of a group of any size. But it doesn’t have to end in disaster. And it shouldn’t! Presentation skills are extremely important today. We are required to present more often that we think: team meetings, town halls, conferences… There are a lot of opportunities to shine but also to mess things up.

It is a well-known secret that even famous actors, performers and singers deal with the phenomenon of stage fright. There is no way around it. But it doesn’t have to be a horror experience. Instead, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences professional live offers.

“The fact is, people do judge by appearances. If you have great ideas but present them poorly, many people will fail to see their worth. You’ll be beaten by somebody whose ideas are less worthy than yours, but who presented them superlatively.”, Simon Reynolds.

Advice for public speaking nervousness

For the past four years, I have frequently presented to larger audiences of up to a few thousand people. Those occasions have taught me a lot. But let me tell you: regardless of how often I do this – I am usually nervous. Here are a few things that have helped me stay calm and relaxed. Many websites and books will tell you about breathing techniques and such. That sort of stuff puts a band-aid on a deep cut. I doesn’t help you heal.

  1. Nervousness = Ability to perform: Being nervous helps us perform extremely well. The reason is that our brains release adrenaline which in turn allows us to focus and to perform.  Just think back to a time when you achieved something amazing (maybe a test, race, tournament). Chances are you were super nervous but suddenly your adrenaline kicked in. So the first thing to do is to just accept the fact that you will feel those butterflies in your stomach. Knowing that this is part of deal and that this helps me has made a world of difference.
  2. Prepare: Preparation is key. For one thing, you should know your content well. If you do not know what you are talking about, you have every right to be nervous and maybe you shouldn’t even present to begin with. But preparation also requires you to have the equipment ready and primed. I always make sure to charge my laptop and iPad before any presentation. Also, I try to show up at a location early enough to test everything. It sounds so simple, but I have seen many people who get frazzled by beeping laptops, connectivity issues and such. So, do yourself a favor and prepare well.
  3. Content: Invest time in developing your content. Simply downloading any cool presentation from the corporate knowledge center will not help. Every audience is different. If you invest time in understanding their needs and tailoring the content will help you tremendously. I have had several occasions where I developed presentations that I was really excited to deliver. The content was that cool. If you are happy and familiar with the content, you will be in a much better place.
  4. Mingle: We are usually most comfortable with friends and family. Crowds of people that we do not know are scary on the other hand. I therefore try to mingle with people before a presentation. It allows me to get to know them, learn about their expectations and to also get some distraction.
  5. Humor: Humor is the best medicine. I personally love to joke around before speaking engagements. It helps me clear my mind and it helps with getting into a positive attitude. And that attitude is extremely important.
  6. Hidden agenda: Part of the reason we experience public speaking nervousness is the fear of making mistakes. But guess what – as the presenter, we have a serious competitive advantage: Nobody besides you knows what is supposed to happen. Let’s assume that you were planning on saying X before saying Y, but you end up starting with Y and then finishing with X. The audience won’t notice and they won’t care. You are the only one who knows! And even if you make a mistake, so what? Stuff happens and nobody expects you to be perfect. So, use that knowledge to your advantage: Only you know what is supposed to happen. That insight alone can really calm you down.

Public speaking nervousness

Next time you have to present and you experience public speaking nervousness, try one of these tips. But keep in mind – everybody is different. What works for me doesn’t necessarily have to work for you. You will have to try different things and see what works. The biggest difference for me was to find out about tips #1 and 5.
What are your experiences?

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The best and worst communicators of 2011

The experts at Decker Communications just released their annual list of the top ten best and worst communicators. I always look forward to this annual article. Not only is it interesting but it is also entertaining and sometimes a bit sad. I highly recommend spending a few minutes going through their blog post. There is a lot to be learned from the best (and the worst…).

COMMUNICATION SKILLS

Communication skills are more important today than ever before. There is so much noise around us. Being heard amongst all the information frenzy requires us to continuously work on our skills. In his amazing book You’ve got to be believed to be heard, Bert Decker sums that up nicely:

“The message for all of us is clear: Whatever our life goals, our career goals, or our dreams of a better world, the key to success lies in our ability to communicate. No matter how uncomfortable or ill-equipped we feel as communicators, we dare not back away from the challenge of becoming effective speakers.”

Over the past few years, I have attended more conferences than I can remember. Unfortunately, there are always a few people who deliver extremely poor presentations. Some of them simply do not care. Others are extremely nervous. And some of them simply have nothing to say. But the result is always the same: a lot of wasted time (think about the audience loosing 45 minutes of their lives) and the speaker’s reputation is often damaged (would you purchase expensive software or services from the arrogant person who could not articulate a clear message?).

Presentation coach Jerry Weissman states:

“If any one presentation fails, there may be no tomorrow. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

NEW YEAR, NEW GOALS

2011 is almost over. Towards year-end, most of us sit down to make goals for the next year. Working on communication skills is always on my personal list. So, what can you do? Here are a few ideas:

  • Communication skills

    Here are some tips & tricks!

    Pick up a good presentation book and work through the materials. There are a few recommendations on this blog.

  • Attend a class. If you happen to live in North America, I can highly recommend the Decker training. Their classes are amazing!
  • Volunteer to deliver presentations at the next meeting or conference. We can only improve with practice.
  • Learn from the best and watch a great presentation. Try to figure out what makes them so awesome. Ted is always a great resource for that.
  • Watch the movie ‘The King’s speech’. Great stuff.
  • Read some of the stories on this blog
  • Pay attention to all things related to communication.

P.S.: I was very pleasantly surprised that IBM’s future CEO Ginni Rometty is on the list! Check it out.

Resources:

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Making data sing in presentations

The other day, I made a bold statement about presentations: many of them suck and they especially suck when it comes to presenting data. Real meaning is often hidden in complex and dense charts. The problem is sometimes amplified by poor communication skills.

PRESENTATIONS ARE DIFFERENT

There is a fundamental difference between sitting in your office analyzing data and sitting in a meeting listening to a presentation. The second setting requires a lot of focus. Listening can be really hard at times and it is easy to loose track when we drop our attention for a few seconds. And there is no rewind button. Every time a new slide comes up our attention shifts to that slide. Our brain tries to make sense of it. Following the speaker during that brief moment is tough. The more complex a slide the longer this moment lasts and the higher the probability that the audience gets lost. To ensure that our messages are understood, we have to be thoughtful about how we present our data. Here are a few ideas that you can use to make your data sing:

1. VISUALIZE

One of the basic things I recommend is to utilize charts for presentation slides whenever we can. Reviewing raw data in a presentation setting is extremely difficult. We should not have to stare at a projector screen to make sense of data. It takes away too much focus.
Sure, there might be cases when people need to see that raw data but we can always share printed documents as backup materials if necessary.  Make it simple for your listeners and visualize the data. Look at the two contrasting examples below: it takes a while to consume the table, but the line chart immediately makes sense. Even on first sight.

The table above is inefficient. The chart works much better with presentation slides

2. CHART TYPES

Make sure to carefully select your charts, though. Not every visualization lends itself to delivering a crisp message. Once again, the things that may work for us at our desk do not necessarily have to work when we follow a presentation. The rule of thumb is to choose the chart that can most easily be understood. That might sometimes require us to drop some information. Once again: we can always supplement our slide show with backup materials. If you have difficulties selecting the right type, take a look at some advice on this site.

What happened to our revenue? This is too busy & difficult for a slide

Revenue decreased in a dramatic way. Although it is extremely colorful, this chart is a lot easier to understand.

3. SIMPLIFY

But even charts can either be too complex or we load them up with too much noise: 3D, logos, gridlines, pictures and unwise choice of colors. As a result, viewers and listeners have a hard time understanding. Presentation guru and author Garr Reynolds calls for a maximization of the signal to noise ratio: eleminate everything that could stand in the way (noise) of delivering our message (signal). Take a look at the example below. There is too much going on and our eyes tend to jump around.

Too much noise

Let’s reduce the noise and focus on the just the signal (below). Isn’t this much better?

Same date, less noise: much better!

4. MAKE IT EASY

We should eliminate everything that stands in the way of being understood by the audience. In other words, we should make it as easy as possible for them to quickly catch the important items. We can do this by amplifying the signal. Take a look at the slide above: the headline features the key message. Also, note how the 2009 bar in the prior chart immediately pops out: This must be the year our CEO left! I can see it immediately. A simple but effective trick.

5. CREATE FOCUS

Too many slides are way too busy and people easily loose attention. My basic rule is that we should only deliver one message per slide. Don’t try to cram everything into a single slide. Remember: slides are cheap! Nobody is forcing you to deliver your message in less than ten slides. It’s up to you to decide. Allow the audience to absorb the information and then move on with your story. A simple and single message on each slide ensures that the attention is quickly refocused on you – the presenter.

There is a lot going on here. But what is this all about?

The slide above is way too busy. We jump around and try to figure things out. But let’s apply the rules and also create focus on a single message that we will spread across two slides:

Slide 1: Aha! Region 2 is in a difficult situation....

Slide 2: ..only two solid customers (A & B)...the story is obvious now.

NEXT STEPS

Try to incorporate these tips into your next presentation. They will make a big difference. And it does not have to be complicated. Applying these things will help you make meetings more effective. And by doing that you can make a big contribution towards making sure that the investment in Business Analytics does not go down the drain when we put our information on slides. We owe it to ourselves and to our colleagues.

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Data + Powerpoint = Wasted Time?

Presenting data can confuse people

Let me be blunt and honest: Too many presentations and their accompanying slide decks absolutely suck. And they especially suck when it comes to displaying and discussing data. Over the past few years, I have sat through days- worth of boring and utterly useless presentations. Such a waste! And there was so much potential: great data points and valuable information. But all this was well hidden behind complex and confusing charts. And believe it or not: that is a problem for business analytics.

THE PRESENTATION PARADOX

We spend so much time and money on implementing business analytics software. We create so many awesome reports and dashboards. There is so much potential. But way too many people take this valuable information and literally destroy it by using the trusted information to create useless and complex slides. Those slides are then presented in meetings where we try to sell ideas and we where try to make collective decisions.  But due to the convoluted slides (often coupled with poor communication skills) most messages fall flat on their face. I am tempted to say that the ‘last mile’ of business analytics is broken in these cases. It’s about time to fix that.

A CRITICAL SKILL

Dense & confusing - A typical slide?

Famous statistician and popular data guru Hans Rosling famously discussed this issue and compared the presentation of data to playing music: “…few people will appreciate the music if I just show them the notes. Most of us need to listen to the music to understand how beautiful it is. But often that’s how we present statistics: we just show the notes, we don’t play the music.” It is not enough to create a sophistcated data warehouse and some shiny reports. No, we need to make the data sing when we present it to other people an especially larger audiences. Developing solid presentation skills should therefore be high up on the priority list for anybody who works in the area of business analytics.

COMMUNICATION

There is a big difference between presenting insights to an audience (meetings, events, etc.) and analyzing data at our desks. Following a presentation requires a different level of energy and focus: it is a lot harder to follow in many cases. Our brain tries to juggle processing the information on the slides while listening to the speaker. We therefore need to make it easy for our audiences to receive the messages that we have found and prepared. The reports and charts that work at our desks do not necessarily work in a meeting room. We have to think differently. And that’s the disconnect we often see and that Hans Rosling aludes to: we do not think differently and simply show confusing details when we should be showing a clear story. We are short-selling our efforts and the impact of our insights in effect.

But there is good news. Learning how to present and how to tell an inspiring story using data in a presentation does not have to be complicated. In a few days from now I will share some tips & tricks that you can put to immediate use. Start thinking about those presentations! As always, I am curious to find out what your experiences with this are.

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