Category Archives: Communications

Stop Making the #1 Mistake in Presentations

Ever hear this story?

VP of Sales:  “Hey, how did the sales training on the new presentation go?”

VP of Marketing:  “OK, well, you know, pretty good.”

VP of Sales:  “Why are you hemming and hawing?”

VP of Marketing:  “Well, I could tell they didn’t love it.”

VP of Sales:  “Do you know why?  I do.  They told me it was a great looking set of slides, but it felt more like an analyst pitch than a customer presentation.”

What’s gone wrong here?
It’s simple.  Marketing made the #1 mistake that managers of all ilks make when it comes to creating presentations:  they start with what they have — instead of starting with what’s needed.

What does that mean?
Marketing probably just came back from a few days of analyst briefings and when they needed to make a revision to sales presentation, they re-used a bunch of the slides from the analyst deck.  Those slides, created for analysts, talked about company strategy, positioning, and messaging.  Customer slides need to talk capabilities, benefits, and customer testimonials.

The slides, never designed to be used with customers, are thrown into a deck, and marketing feels great and super-efficient because they’ve re-used materials and presumably even increased message consistency in the process.  #wow

But it’s a #fail.  They broke the first rule of presentations:  it’s all about the audience.

Know thy audience
Presentations are all about the audience.  The first step in creating any presentation should be asking:  who I am speaking to and what do I want to tell them.

It’s not about you; it’s about them.  Which brings to mind one of my favorite quotes from Frank Capra, director of It’s a Wonderful Life.

“I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.”  — Frank Capra

It’s not just about marketing
While I started with a marketing example, this isn’t just a marketing problem.  Here are some other favorite examples:

  • Making a board presentation from an operations review deck.  Yes, they both have a lot of data and analysis about the business, but the ops review deck is created for an audience of your peers, for people who want more detail and who are far closer to the daily operations of the business.  One great way to hang yourself in a board meeting is to paste a bunch of slides from your ops review deck “to save time.”
  • Making one sales presentation from another.  This might work if the two customers have a lot in common, but if they don’t it will be a disaster.  My favorite quote here comes for a story about an Atlanta-based salesrep who kept referencing Coca Cola to Delta Airlines.  “Stop telling us about Coke.  We are Delta.  We fly airplanes.”
  • Making a product introduction presentation from a product management presentation.  You instantly doom yourself to feature-itis.
  • Making a vision presentation from a sales presentation.  Sales presentations about motivating benefits and differentiation.  Vision presentations are about what’s wrong with the status quo and how to fix it.
  • Making a roadmap presentation from a product planning deck.  Not only will you forget to pad the dates, but you will likely end up turning your product vision into a laundry list.

I could go on and on.  But the key mistake here is simple.  Instead of starting blank-slate with what’s needed based upon the audience, you start with leftovers.  What you have lying around from a prior presentation or meeting.

The road to Hell
Don’t have the good intentions of maximizing re-use when you make presentation.  Instead focus on your message and your audience.  That means starting with what’s needed instead of starting with what you have.

What’s the trick?
Most people condemn themselves at the 5th second of the presentation-creation process by double-clicking on PowerPoint and then hitting “open.”

Don’t do that.  Never do that.

Instead hit “new” and “blank presentation.”

Then think about the audience.  Think about your message and start roughing out an outline to achieve your goals and the slide structure (often just titles) to do that.  Let it sit for a while.  And then do it again.  Put your early energy into the structure of the presentation, not the slides.

Then — once you have a clear outline for what you want to say and how you want to say it — and only then, should you go looking for existing slides that will help you say it.

Career Advice: Simplifiers Go Far, Complexifiers Get Stuck

“If you can’t explain it to a six year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”  – Albert Einstein

There are two types of people in business:

  • Simplifiers:  who make complex things simple
  • Complexifiers:  who make simple things complex

Quick joke
Question:  What does a complexifier call a simplifier?
Answer:  “Boss.”

Somewhere, somehow, some people decided that in business you need to make everything complicated and speak using business jargon.

Well, that’s an interesting proposal and I’m not necessarily opposed to it, so let me run it up the flagpole so we can kick it around as a strawman.   Since I hear the idea has some traction in the field, let me reach out to the guys upstairs, and we’ll see if we have the bandwidth to go forward with this.  If the cost is North of $100K, I may have to backburner it, because we need to keep some dry powder pending the results of the strategy meeting — where I know we’re considering a pivot.  Right now, the long pole in the tent isn’t marketing but strategy so let’s keep lines open.  Kudos to the team for coming up with a such a great value proposition, but for now I’m afraid can’t lean in on this one.

That’s one way of hiding behind complexity: making yourself flat incomprehensible.  While that may impress your peers, your subordinates will mock you and your superiors will ask to speak to someone else.  As I argued in this post, when dealing with senior people you need to speak clearly and, above all, answer the question.  In most organizations, while jargon and doublespeak may be prevalent in middle management, they are nearly absent in the boardroom.

The other way of hiding behind complexity is not linguistic but conceptual:  always finding an upstream or bigger-picture issue that will block progress at the lower level.  Consider this statement:

I’d like to cut over to the new process, but we haven’t completed the training yet.

Is this, as it appears, a valid reason for not making progress on moving to the new process or is it passive resistance disguised as a reason.  For example, I don’t want to move to the new process so I keep “having trouble” scheduling the training.  Or is bona fide complexification?  If the training can be boiled down to one page that everyone can read in 5 minutes then just cut over.

Remember the old saw:

When you ask the time, some people will tell you how to build a watch.  Others will tell you how to build a Swiss Village.

My test for spotting complexifiers is look for the following pattern:

  • Slow progress on results
  • Blamed on everything being difficult or complicated
  • With a tendency to find artificial prerequisite activities that sound plausible, but on further examination aren’t.

Things are as complex as we want to make them. Most of the time complexity is an excuse for either not wanting to do something or not knowing how to do something.

My advice:  strive to make things simple.  Seek to understand them.  Struggle to find apt metaphors for them.  If you’re not burning real energy trying to simplify things for you audience, you are most like a complexifier.  If so, the next time you’re about to explain to someone why something take so long, is so complicated, or requires 5 steps to be completed before the start, ask yourself — do I really believe this or I am making it complicated because I either don’t want or don’t know how to do it.

A Simple Trick to Reduce Cross-Cultural Confusion

Have you ever been to a business meeting that felt like this?

I love communications.  Back in the day, I spent hours learning the comprehensibility of different typefaces on the theory that you shouldn’t fumble the ball on the two-yard line by building a great message, only to put in a typeface that people can’t understand.  Yesterday, I just started The Sense of Style, a manual that one-ups Strunk & White by providing research-backed rules driven not just by elegance, but comprehension.

When working with non-native English speakers, it’s easy to blame language as the source of miscommunication.  But language problems are pretty easy to identify — “Huh, what did you say?”  The scary situation is when everyone leaves a meeting thinking they’ve agreed to something, but no one actually agrees on what that is.  And that can easily happen even when everyone speaks fluent English.

That’s where culture comes in.  Most big miscommunications — the kind that derail projects and cost people their jobs — are driven by culture, not language.

If you work with India, trying to communicate without Speaking of India is like trying to trying navigate Mumbai without a map.  Living in France (as I did for five years) is greatly aided by French or Faux, which has nothing to do with language and everything to do with culture.

I’ve always found it interesting that the literal translation of jihad is “struggle.”  I often feel like communicating is a jihad in this sense:  an ongoing struggle to understand each other.

Having been to too many meetings where a false agreement was reached, I have come up with two different tricks that help minimize confusion among teams:

  • Real-time minutes.  Allocate a material chunk of the meeting to present the minutes of the meeting while it is still occurring.  But putting key decisions and action items on the screen somehow grabs peoples’ attention and gets them to focus.  Hey, we didn’t agree to X.  Or, that’s not what I meant by Y.  This trick works well for most groups, particularly those where both language and culture are not a real impediment.
  • First-draft-by-you minutes.  For more difficult situations, where miscommunications are frequent and important, I have found that it is incredibly useful to find out “what you heard” through the minutes as opposed to me simply re-writing “what we said.”  Thus, one great trick is to pick someone on the remote team and ask them to write the minutes and send them only to you, so you can see clearly was heard as opposed, perhaps, to what was said.  Once you identify and close any gaps with that one person you can then rollout the revised minutes along with someone on the ground who can explain them.

That’s it.  Two easy tricks to reduce miscommunication in the workplace.