Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Presentation Tip: Preparing for status update presentations

One of the most common types of presentations that professionals have to make is a status update type of presentation. You are working on an initiative or project and you need to bring a steering committee or management team up to date on what has been going on. While this type of presentation sounds straightforward, many presenters do not realize the opportunity and risk in this type of presentation. In this article I want to talk about how you can make your next status update presentation a success.
The biggest risk in this type of presentation is not understanding the true goal of the presentation. The goal is not just to update the audience on what you have been doing. The goal is more important than a simple information sharing time. There are two goals that you should be considering. The first is to convince the group that the situation is in control, no changes need to be made, and the project/program/initiative should continue to be supported. Too many presenters assume that they still have the support of management and are surprised when questions are asked that indicate perhaps support is wavering.
Another common goal may be to ask the group for support to move in a slightly different direction or change the type of support (financial, personnel, timing) that is being given. I have seen too many project managers come out of a meeting with their sponsor group frustrated that they didn't get approval for changes. When I inquire about what happened, it becomes clear that the presentation never asked for approval of changes. The project manager just assumed that the audience would know the goal of the presentation and didn't think they needed to be clear about it.
Depending on the situation you find yourself in, one of these two goals will likely focus your thoughts and message better than simply a list of what has been done in the past month. This is your opportunity to shore up support and raise your visibility to executives. Once you know what your goal is, you need to consider your audience. With either goal, you are looking for support, so think about the criteria that the group uses to decide on supporting an initiative or changing direction. Consider what their prior concerns have been and be prepared to address them. Even though you may have been presenting to this group regularly in the past, we all tend to assume things about a situation and it is good to review our audience analysis each time.
In developing an outline for your presentation, I suggest you start with a quick overview of the status and any requests you have. This is not a mystery novel where you want to reveal the requests at the end. Be upfront with what the purpose is and a high level view of the status on schedule, budget and other important aspects. Then you can discuss with them progress and challenges in each area. Executives don't like surprises, so saving the requests until the end makes them uncomfortable and they will likely end up delaying any decisions until they have had more time to think about them. By previewing the requests up front, they have time to consider the detailed information in each area within the context of the request and can be more confident making a decision at the end of the presentation.
When creating slides for your status update presentation, consider using visuals that will be easy for the executives to understand. For schedules, consider time-based diagrams like a Gantt chart or calendar diagram. These diagrams visually show the time a task takes or shows when it will be complete. The timeline or calendar makes it easy to see how tasks relate to each other on the dimension of time (for an example of a calendar diagram, watch this slide makeover video on Brainshark or on YouTube). For budget discussions, don't just copy a spreadsheet onto a slide. Summarize the key figures and show a summary table, highlighting the key figures they need to pay attention to (for an example of a summary table replacing a spreadsheet, watch this slide makeover on Brainshark or on YouTube). Consider other diagrams or visuals that can help the executives quickly and easily understand your message. The better they understand, the easier it is for them to support you.
Don't forget at the end of the presentation to explicitly ask for support based on the specific requests you have. Too many presenters assume that the audience knows what support they are asking for, so they don't actually ask. If you don't ask, they won't necessarily know to respond.
A status update presentation is an opportunity to showcase you and your team, so plan it carefully and create an effective presentation that gets your team the support it needs to move forward.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Presentation Tip: Don’t use numbers just because you have them

You are a presenter who deals with a lot of numbers. Maybe they are financial results, operational analysis, or market research. You live in Excel and love spreadsheets. So, naturally, when you have to present to others, you include almost every number you have. Doesn’t everyone love numbers the way you do? Unfortunately, no. In this article I want to suggest what you should present instead of all the numbers.
Let’s start with why presenters feel like they have to include all the numbers they have calculated. First, they believe that if they include everything, the audience will better understand what they are trying to say. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. A slide full of numbers makes most people mentally check out. The second reason presenters include all the numbers is that they feel that they have to show how much work was done. If they don’t show a lot of numbers, the audience won’t think they worked hard doing the analysis. Trust me, they will be able to tell whether you worked hard or not in ways other than how many numbers are in your presentation.
I believe that the presenter has the responsibility to figure out what the numbers mean to the audience and only present that information in the presentation. It may require a few numbers, but certainly not all the numbers in the analysis. As a presenter, look for a change between time periods and draw a conclusion on whether that is a positive or negative change. Look at the trend over a longer period of time and determine if that trend needs to change in order for the organization to succeed. Look at the differences in results between different regions or products to conclude where future efforts should be directed. Your audience wants to know what the numbers mean to them.
I suggest that when designing your slide to present your analysis, you start by writing a headline that summarizes the one point that you want to communicate. If you have more than one key point, create more than one slide. This headline drives what visual you will put on the slide. Sketch the visuals, which may be a small summary table of numbers with indicators to show whether the numbers are good or bad, a graph showing a trend or relative results, or a diagram illustrating results through a process. Whatever visual you select, it will support the headline that you wrote. And it won’t be a slide with a spreadsheet full of numbers.
Most professionals are passionate about their work and have an emotional attachment to it. That is what makes my suggestions even harder to implement. When I suggest only including a few of the numbers or a summary graph, it is natural to have an emotional reaction: “What do you mean I can’t show everything I did? Don’t you know how much work I put in to this?” I do know how much work you put in. And the audience will see your effort when you provide an insight that makes their decisions and work easier.
In a recent workshop I showed how an organization could take a slide with 600 numbers on it (I am not exaggerating, I counted), and reduce it to the ten numbers that the executives really needed to know about. The improvement in clarity was amazing. You can achieve the same clarity by focusing on what the audience really needs to know. If you present financial information with spreadsheets, you may be interested in the webinar I did at the start of the year on presenting financial information effectively using PowerPoint; you can read more and get the recording here.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Presentation Tip: Choose a boring font

A lot of presentation designers have made comments in the last year or two about what font you should choose for your PowerPoint slides. Almost every designer suggests that you abandon the built-in fonts like Arial or Calibri. Why? They claim that by using a standard font, you won't stand out. Instead of the fonts that they claim are overused, they suggest you find a cool font to download and use that instead. One article I read even suggested what search term you should use to locate a font that is appropriately cool.

To understand why these designers make these suggestions, you need to know what type of presentations they typically work on. They are usually working on slides for a conference keynote presentation where the primary objective is to make the presenter look good. The goal of the presentation is rarely to convey important information or convince a decision-maker. When you are in that type of setting, where you can have absolute control over every aspect of the technology, you can probably get away with a downloaded font. But that is not the world I live in, and I suspect that you don't either.

In a typical corporate setting, we are having to e-mail our presentations to others or take the presentation on a USB stick to another computer that is used for the presentation. In the world we live in, a downloaded font is a bad idea. Why? Because you run the risk of your text being unreadable or gibberish. Here’s why I say this. When you use a downloaded font, it resides only on your own computer and doesn’t travel with the presentation file unless you’ve specifically set the option to do this (hands up if you know where this option is hidden). When that presentation arrives on another computer, PowerPoint doesn’t recognize the name of the cool font and so it substitutes another font it does know. You don’t get to choose the substitute font, it does it for you.

And what happens to your carefully designed slides? One time I saw PowerPoint select a font that made most of the text run off each slide and text boxes ran on top of each other, making the presentation look like a mess. Another time it selected Webdings as the substitute font and all I saw was gobbled gook. And in reviewing slides for a client recently, their downloaded font caused the text in a table to move around and it made it hard for the audience to tell what was going on. Is that what you want a key decision maker to see when they open your presentation? I didn’t think so.

In another client situation, they insisted that their font needed to be used. Fortunately, they had a special arrangement with the font company to allow us to buy the font at a reduced price. When we went to purchase the font, we discovered that the discounted price was $756! For one font! Imagine asking your partners or customers to spend that amount, just to be able to view your presentation.

So my suggestion is to stick with what some would call a "boring" font, like Arial or Calibri. These are standard fonts that are on every computer, so you are assured that your presentation will look the same when your colleague, client, or supplier views it on their computer. Will the recipient of your file dismiss your ideas just because you used a standard font? If they do, I suggest that you are probably dealing with someone who won't really understand your bottom-line message no matter what you do. Most business people I deal with want to see a well-crafted message with persuasive supporting visuals that communicates clearly. Do that and the font doesn't matter.

Another advantage to using Calibri when you are showing numbers is that it makes it easy to line up columns of numbers. Since Calibri has monospaced numbers, you can use the decimal tab to align the numbers and every column will also be aligned. If you are reporting financial information, you will find this combination makes your life much easier. So there is actually an advantage to using one of these "boring" fonts that don't meet a desginer's idea of "cool".

I won't be the trendiest commentator on presentations, but I will always advocate what I think is best to help you communicate more effectively when using PowerPoint presentations. Stick to the standard, "boring" fonts, and you will be much better off.