Monday, September 12, 2011

Rockin' the House

Presenting the “Big Project” to the “Big Guys”...


Charlie was a bit nervous heading into his project review.  He’s spent the last 9 months working on the X17 warranty problem.  (How’s that for a generic-sounding project?)
The X17 was pretty much falling apart as soon as the customer took it out of the box.  What? Still no clue what an X17 is?  That’s ok, it’s totally made up.  There is no such thing. I’m just using it as an example to tell a fictitious story.  A story that repeats itself all too frequently…




Charlie sat nervously at the head of the table in the conference room as the chief engineers and other department giants finally arrived along with a few other engineers from the project.  (The first “big guy” arrived 2 minutes early, but the other two were 5 and 10 minutes late respectively).  He only had an hour and these guys were already cutting into his time!  Charlie didn’t make eye contact as he felt these guys were out of his league.  Fortunately for him, there was WiFi available in the room and so he buried himself in his email – though he really couldn’t concentrate on anything on the screen.  But at least he didn’t have to try to interact with those guys.


Finally, everybody was there and Charlie stood and pulled up the first of the 41 slides that he’d been working on for the last three weeks.  The slide read “X17 Warranty Issues and Strengthening Improvements to Case Moldings”.  Charlie began by saying “OK.  So today I’m going to talk about X17 Warranty Issues and Strengthening Improvements to Case Moldings”.


It went downhill from there.

He said "I have a lot of material to cover so I'll take questions at the end." Charlie’s first 8 slides (and 11 minutes of talking) presented the costs associated with the warranty returns as well as a geographic breakdown of where the issues occurred.  He laid out a pareto indicating which suppliers are associated with more failures than others.  Charlie’s next 29 slides (and 33 minutes of presentation) dealt with details of 7 design options that were considered and discarded.  Some of them were considered only on paper and never built.  Some of them looked like they may have only been considered on the back of a napkin at McDonalds.  Others couldn’t be built and a few others were built, but failed the testing.  Charlie shared spreadsheets full of data indicating the serial numbers of failed tests, the cost data for each failed design as well as statistical analyses of the measured results.  He went into great detail as he discussed the mathematical significance of one factorial study that he performed.  He even used all the right terms like “elastic modulus”, “correlated input factors” and “non-Gaussian statistical behavior”.

Unfortunately, after all of this, Charlie finally presented his solution to the problem.  It was actually a very clever design that wasn’t just stronger, but also saved material and manufacturing costs.  Too bad for Charlie, though.  By then is audience was in some far, far away place as they too had discovered that the room had WiFi and they were totally tuned out.  Others had to leave early in order to get to their next meeting - having never actually seen his really good slides of the proposed solution.
OK, back to the real world…  Here’s an exercise for you.  Pick out everything that was wrong about this story.  Think of it as one of those childhood picture puzzles: find 10 things wrong with this picture.  Here’s a hint – the chief engineers checking their email is not one of them.  At the end of this article I’ll list the ones that I found.  (OK.  It was easy for me to find all 10 since I wrote it.)
Presenting like a Rock Star - Principle #1:  First-First Impressions
First impressions mean everything.  In a meeting you actually get two chances to make a first impression.  Rock stars nail them both.  The first chance to make an impression is when people come into a room.  When the Chief Engineer enters don’t run and hide behind your laptop screen.  As the expression goes: “he puts his pants on one leg at a time” – or maybe more appropriately “he fills his pocket protector one pen at a time”.  In any case, he’s a human being, just like you.  Treat him as such. 
Here’s a little-known social dynamic:  He’s walked into your conference room for your meeting.  Think of it as your living room and you are in the position of “host” – you should be the one to welcome him!
Here are some things to consider when the big guy walks in the room.
1.       You may know him (since he’s “famous” in the department), but there is a very good chance that he may not know you. 
Face it.  You may be a little guy in a big organization.  He’s a busy guy and many not remember you.  He knows that some “Charlie” is presenting some “project” in room 437D. Be a rockstar and take the initiative.  If there is any doubt that he may not know you, step up and introduce yourself.  Here’s a simple way to get there: Make sure that your opening slide has the project title and your name on it.  (It should be showing on the screen as people arrive.)  Then greet him with “Hello (insert chief engineer’s name here), thanks for coming to my presentation today”.  What’s cool about this approach is that you don’t have to go through the awkwardness of recollection.  By all means NEVER, NEVER, NEVER go to a superior with a line like “Hi Jim, remember me?”  Do not EVER put him in a position whereby his credibility or confidence can be damaged.
2.       You’re catching him while he’s “fresh”.  A rockstar will find a way to get him talking.  You’ll have your time to talk later.
If you can show interest in your audience, there is a better chance that they will show interest in you when you need it.  Don’t just think of meeting prep as preparing slides and data.  You need to also think of the “opportunity” that the meeting presents and you need to prepare for the “social” aspect as well.  You are going to be in a room with people that can change your career path.  Plus they are coming into a new room for a new meeting.  This is the prime time to connect.  What are they interested in?  Find out.  What are they working on?  Find out.  Here are some clues for conversation starters.  Can’t choose?  The best ones are ones that you are mutually connected to. 
Have you seen them around town?  A restaurant? An event?
               Hey I saw you at the _____ last week.
Do they wear anything indicative of a college or a sports team? 
                Did you catch the ____ game last week?  How did the ____ do last weekend?
What was the last thing that they communicated to the department?
                How is the ____ program going?
What is the big initiative that the company or department is working on?
                How is the ____ launch going?
Has he been on a trip?
                How was your trip to _____?  What's it like there?
A good friend of mine has been very successful in several management positions.  He has always made it a priority to get to know some basic things about each of him employees.  He remembers their name, wife’s name (if applicable) and at least one other thing about the person (where they live, etc.).  This an amazing tool for him when it comes to conversation.  What’s even more amazing is that, at times, he’s been able to achieve this with more than 200 people reporting to him.  You may not be able to go this far, but having a few notes about your audience will go miles in terms of your ability to rock the room in the coming presentation.
First-First Impression Hint:
When you are working on your presentation and making your notes, also spend some time working on your audience and making some notes about them.
First-First Impression Resources:
Good in a Room: How to Sell Yourself and Your Ideas and Win Over Any Audience by Stephanie Palmer.  It’s far from an engineering book, but she really does a great job addressing the importance of the social aspects of meetings.  I highly recommend it.
Presenting like a Rock Star - Principle #2:  Making a Second-First Impression
I enjoy the topic of “teaching” and am interested in “what makes a good teacher”.  Several years ago I heard a great teacher talk about how he gets copies of lessons taught by other teachers.  These teachers send them to him – hoping that he will send constructive feedback.  One thing that this teacher said was “I can tell a good teacher in the first 4 minutes”.  I think that the “4 minute” window is a bit too generous today.  It is way too easy to get on WiFi or check your smartphone in today’s conference rooms.
The opening of your presentation is a second chance to make a first impression.
Here’s a simple principle.  To make the best opening – start with what matters… and that’s not necessarily what matters to you.  Start with what matters to the audience!
In the above example, does Charlie really think that the big guys can’t read?  Then why did he read his opening slide to them?  Stupid move on his part.
How about this new and improved opening:
“It’s no secret that the X17 has been causing us serious problems and I’ve been working hard on this for the past several months.  I’m pretty excited today as I think I have a solution that not only is strong enough but uses less material and is also less costly to manufacture. Let’s check it out…”
This opening totally changes the tone and flow of the meeting!  In fact these three sentences cover everything that needs to be said or will be said in the hour to come.  In fact, the audience can get up and leave early (as they often do) and they will still have gotten “the main point”.
Here’s what a great opening does:
1.       “It’s no secret that the X17 has been causing us serious problems“
It establishes “where we are”.  There is no point in going into history if everybody knows it.  In fact, reviewing history is a painful waste of time.  You may have 8 slides on the warranty history, but please don’t force them on the audience unless they ask for it.
2.       “I’ve been working hard on this for the past several months.”
Let them know where you are coming from and your role.  Audience members need to know who you are and why you are presenting this.  Be able to answer their question of “why am I taking my time to listen to this guy?”  You definitely don’t want to go too far here and you don’t want to forget mentioning your team members at some point.  But, this is your chance to establish “who you are relative to the project”.
3.       “I’m pretty excited today…”
Listen very closely to these next 6 words… IT IS OK TO BE EXCITED.  Got it?  Now repeat after me: “IT IS OK TO BE EXCITED.”  Good.  Now don’t forget it.  Here’s the deal.  You’re an engineer.  Chances are good that your audience in this setting is made up of engineer-types.  These are people that are genetically designed such that they get excited about cool solutions to technical problems.  So why not show some excitement?  It will go miles toward building a positive dynamic in the room.  Here’s an absolute must-read book:  The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo.  Get it.  Read it.  Live it.
4.       “…as I think I have a solution that not only is strong enough but uses less material and is also less costly to manufacture”
You know where you want to take the meeting.  Tease it!  Have you ever watched a show where they set up something incredibly interesting only to cut to a commercial?  If you haven’t experienced this, you need more than this blog to help you.  This concept is called “teasing”.  You give away just a little information to whet the appetite of your audience.  This is way to keep an audience from checking their email and/or smartphones.  One caution: overuse of teasers will absolutely destroy your audience.  Use this craftily and you will be a rockstar.  Overuse this approach and your jerk-icty (see the last posting) ratings will increase significantly.
5.       “Let’s check it out…
Here’s a huge, important point: dive into the solution!  Your audience doesn’t care that much about all of the work that you’ve done.  They care about solving the problem.  Thomas Edison said, “If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”  However, here’s a clue for you.  You’re not Thomas Edison and even if you were, this isn’t the time to talk about all of the things that didn’t work.  This is the time to sell your solution – which will ultimately “sell” you and raise your rockstar quotient.  You’ve still got your 29 slides (I never said to delete them) in case someone asks questions about various options that may be worth considering.  I know that you want to show that you worked hard.  Unfortunately for you, your management doesn't care that much about how hard your worked.  They care about results.
That’s a killer opening… but what about slides?  Here’s a recommendation: slides are great for pictures and picture-like content (e.g. graphs).  They are lousy for text.  If you put text on a slide people must use their eyes to process a written words while using their ears to process your spoken words.  Not a good combination.
So try this opening slide scheme:
(Slide) Photo of a broken part
“It’s no secret that the X17 has been causing us serious problems and I’ve been working hard on this for the past several months.  I’m pretty excited today as I think I have a solution…”
(Slide) Photo of the new part
“…that not only is strong enough but uses less material and is also less costly to manufacture. Let’s check it out…”
After the opening… get on with selling the solution.  Maintain the energy and don’t waste time on things that don’t matter.  Wait!  Did you catch that word in the first sentence?  To some people “selling” is a bad thing.  But that is exactly what we as engineers need to do in this setting.  We have a product (our solution.) We have buyers (those that are evaluating the solution.) And we need to “sell” it.  Present your ideas as such!
You’re probably thinking: “But Mark!  I’ve got an hour and I’ve got all these slides.  I want to show them how good and thorough of an engineer that I am.”
Here’s what I have to say about that:  To be a rockstar engineer you need to realize chief engineers want to get one thing from this setting – and it’s a big multi-syllable word: trustworthiness.  OK let’s just simplify it to: TRUST.  Your job in this meeting is to help them grow to trust you and trust your solution.
Now to really mess with your head…
Instead of preparing 60 minutes of presentation as Charlie did above.  How about using the killer opening, then spending 15 minutes presenting the solution – allowing for interruptions and questions as you go?  By the way, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE do not ever say: “I’ll take questions at the end.”  This is a complete show stopper for people who are sequential learners like I am.  If I have a question, I need an answer before I can move on.  If I can’t get an answer to a question I will tune out fast.
After your 15 minutes (which will hopefully stretch to 30 since your audience is warmed up and conversational) you will not have about 20 minutes in which you can now show leadership in the room and circle back with a phrase like: “I do have field data regarding warranty costs and locations if anybody would like to see it”.  Or “I do have the test data for the other possible solutions” if you are interested.
Now here’s one that will totally kill you…
End early.  Yeah, that’s right I said it.  “End early”.  Yeah, I know that this may be your only chance to “show off” in front of these guys and I know that you don’t want to waste a minute of it.  But do it.  End early.  If you sense that you are losing your room, end early.  If you see the clock approaching the end time, end early.  Don’t wait for the audience – you should maintain your position of control and you should be the one that ends the meeting.  Don’t let the meeting dissolve away with people drifting out as meetings often do.  You can be a rockstar and maintain your role as host – and you can be the one to end the meeting.  Try this: “I appreciate your time and discussion today.  So with that we will wrap things up.  If any of you would like to stick around.  I’d be happy to talk more.”  That’s the stuff of rockstar-engineer legends.
Second-First Impression Hint:
When you are presenting to those that are over you – you should realize that they are interested in one thing: TRUST.  Don’t waste their time on things that they already know or things that don’t solve the problem.
Second-First Impression Resources:
The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo.  Some really good inspiration regarding “not holding back your excitement” and some great tips on slides and “flow”.
The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint by Edward Tufte.  It’s just a few pages, but incredibly powerful stuff.  It is worth reading just for the discussion of space shuttle disaster and the way that the information surrounding this event was presented.
Finally, here's the list of everything that Charlie did wrong (Maybe you can come up with some of your own too!).
1. He buried himself in his laptop before the meeting.  His laptop should be displaying the title slide of his presentation (with his name on it.)
2. Didn't "work the crowd" prior to the meeting.  This is a huge opportunity that was lost.
3. He read his slide to the audience.  Don't do this.  Your audience can read.  Don't treat them like they can't.
4. He told the audience that he would take questions at the end.  This is basically saying "shut up until I'm done.  I don't want to hear from you."
5. He spent too much time on the problem.  Trust me.  Management knows the problems.  In fact they probably know more about the problems than you do.  Don't waste their time telling them things that they already know.  Worse yet, don't waste their time telling them things that they may know more about than you do.
6. He spent way too much time talking about alternatives.  Alternatives can go in an appendix of a report.  Alternatives can be presented if someone in the audience asks for them.  You can say "I have looked at several alternatives and am willing to discuss them, but I want to be respectful of your time."
7. He spent way too little time on his solution.  This should have been the focus and it should have been up front.
8. He used big, fancy words that his audience didn't need.  When I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation I was constantly being told to use bigger words.  When I arrived in industry, I was told that I tended to "talk over people's heads".  Since I've always been interested in effective communication, this really hit me hard.  Think about it this way: two or three small words are far more effective than one big important word.  Two or three small sentences are far more effective than one big, long sentence.  Your audience is working hard to digest and understand your solution. Don't make it harder on them by forcing them to translate words that they don't normally use.  This does not impress them.
9. Charlie lost the room.  Great presenters treat presentations as a two-way conversation.  They pay attention to body language and the "interest" of the room and they do everything that they can to re-engage people that may be slipping away.
10. Some of his audience missed the most important material.  By "saving the best for last", Charlie effectively "hid" his best material from some of the audience.

So let's get plugged in,
...turn on the hazer,
...flip open the dry ice,
...crank up the spotlights...
...and totally rock your next project presentation!

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