Tuesday, December 4, 2012

How to be a Consultant, Part 6: Effective Presentation Content

This is Part 6 of a series on what it takes to be an effective computer consultant. In this post we’ll be discussing the creation of presentation content.

Whether you’re presenting to a small group of stakeholders in a board room or addressing a large audience at a conference, you’ll need to know some things in order to be an effective presenter. We’ve already covered verbal communication skills in our last installment; today we’ll consider the content you will likely be creating to accompany your presentation.
A presentation could be nothing more than you speaking, but it’s much more common to have some accompanying visual aids. In the older days, that might have been a chart or concept diagram. Today, it means slide content, which is most frequently created and rendered with Microsoft PowerPoint (or a similar tool like Keynote). Slide content can include text and/or media (images, video, audio). This is a subject full of strong opinions, so prepare yourself for some controversy!

Pervasive PowerPoint
PowerPoint is pervasive: just as Kleenex is synonymous with tissue, PowerPoint is synonymous with slide content. If you hear someone say they “hate PowerPoint”, they most likely mean they hate slide presentations in general rather than the tool itself (which is quite powerful).

Obviously, slide content can vary in quality depending on the author: blaming PowerPoint for a bad presentation is like blaming a kitchen for a poorly-prepared meal. With that said, we’ll be stuck with using “PowerPoint” interchangeably with “ presentation content” because that’s the common usage.

To PowerPoint or Not to PowerPoint: That is the Question
As we mentioned earlier, presentation content is an extremely controversial subject. While PowerPoint is very popular overall, make no mistake: some people absolutely hate it—or more accurately, they are opposed to electronic presentation content. If you do an online search for “you should never use PowerPoint” you’ll get something on the order of 15,000 results!

Why do some people hate PowerPoint presentations so much? If you peruse the results you’ll see reasons like these offered:
• You might have nothing to go with if there’s an equipment mishap.
• Overly long slide content bores the audience unlike conversation which can take turns in direction.
• PowerPoint is just a way for poor speakers to remember what to say instead of memorizing it.
• Some people relate much better to your narrative than to your visuals (different learning styles).
• Poor presentation content is rampant, and results in an excruciating experience for audiences.
In my  opinion, it’s the last point—not using PowerPoint effectively—that’s at the heart of the “don’t use PowerPoint” movement (humorously illustrated here). That doesn’t make tools like PowerPoint bad, any more than bad font and layout choices make word processors bad.

Bad Presentations: What to Avoid
Here are some things to avoid in your presentation content:

1.  “Slideuments”
2. Typos and Grammatical Errors
3. Poor Layout, Color, and Font Choices
4. Overdoing it
5. Lack of Consistency
6. Matching visual content and spoken content word for word
7. Not accommodating different learning styles
8. Failing to realize what you don't do well

Bad #1: Slideuments
A “slideument” is an overloaded presentation where the slides are stuffed with so much content that it resembles a document more than a presentation. Cramming all the information you can into your slides will render them incomprehensibly dense. It’s too much for the audience to absorb and usually results in small-size text with little white space. Remember, you can always provide a link to a follow-up resource such as a document or web site that provides more detail. Here’s a slideument slide example:

Example of a Slideument

DON’T turn your content into a “slideument” by overloading it.
DO think about the highlights or take-aways you want your audience to remember.

Bad #2: Typos and Grammatical Errors
There’s no easier way to cast doubt on yourself than to have sloppy slides that you haven’t checked for typographical and grammatical errors. Also check for repeated words or omitted words, and incomplete sentences.

Example of Typos and Grammatical Errors
DON’T use content publicly you haven’t screened for proper grammar and spelling.
DO pay attention to PowerPoint warnings and have someone else proofread your content.

Bad #3: Horrendous Layout, Color and Styling
Poor layout and style choices will paint you as an amateur. Good layout and strategic use of white space can set a presentation apart, but that cuts both ways. Odd choices of typefaces and font size are rarely gong to work in your favor.

For a presentation in a meeting room, font sizes under 14pt should be avoided: smaller text is hard for many people with older eyes to read. In a conference setting you don’t’ even want to go that small as some people are likely a sizeable distance from the display.
It’s amazing how many otherwise good presentations are defeated solely due to the choice of color, killing any chance of the audience making out the content. Avoid light on light (such as yellow text on a white background) or dark on dark (such as dark grey on a black background): go for contrast.

If you don’t have strong sensibilities in this area, find a good-looking template and stick to it like glue.

Example of Poor Layout and Font Choices
DON’T use sloppy or abnormal layout, fonts, or colors.
DO use a template or content author with sensible layout, fonts, and color choices.


Bad #4: Overdoing It
There are oodles of perfectly good features you can use in a PowerPoint presentation that are fine as long as you don’t over-use them or intermix too many different kinds. This applies to text effects, image effects, and animations. Be especially careful not to over-use transition animations: a little goes a long way! You’ve probably seen home videos made on a computer where the person doing the editing decided to use a different transition method between every scene (fading, wiping, closing circle, etc.): was the result an enhancement to the content or a distraction? ‘nuff said. Restraint and subtlety are the watchwords of every good content author.

Example of Using Overly-Fancy Transition "Vortex"

DON’T over-use effects that distract from your content rather than enhancing it.
DO exercise restraint and subtlety in your animations, transitions, and other effects.

Bad #5 Lack of Consistency

Consistency is a necessary ingredient in a successful presentation content: not using a consistent style for titles, bullet points, and so on throws people off and distracts from your content. In a consistent presentation, the audience quickly locks on to the style and looks past it to focus on the message.

Example of Inconsistent Use of Typeface and Size 
Bad #6: Matching Visual Content to Spoken Content Word for Word
Let’s be candid: depending on the speaker and the subject matter and the volume of information to be shared, you may or may not be able to remember everything you’re supposed to say. Go to a large audience setting like a conference and you’re doubly likely to become absent-minded right when it counts.

For this reason, a great many people put everything they need to say in their PowerPoint deck. The result is a word-for-word match between what’s on the screen and what’s being said. This is a very bad move: you need to convey more with less visually. The purpose of your slide content is to serve the audience, not the speaker.
Focus on key concepts and take-aways in your visuals, including important phrases, photos, or diagrams. Let a picture speak a thousand words. As long as you have the high-level reminders you should be able to recall the details; you can put the full content in the speaker notes, and then practice presenting until you have the details memorized.

Example of Word-for-Word Slide Content
DON’T use visual content as a teleprompter for the speaker.
DO design visual content to assist the audience in comprehension.

Bad #7: Not Accommodating Different Learning Styles
One reason some people object to slide content is, not everyone has the same learning style: some people are visually-oriented, some auditory, and some tactile in nature (whether they know it or not). Auditory learners would rather listen than watch, and if you can’t convey your message verbally they’re turned off by your reliance on something visual.

If you’re meeting with one person, you might tailor your means of communication to their preference (if you know it); when addressing a group, you should assume a mix of learning styles. When you have both visual and auditory people in the audience (the majority of the population), it’s vital that your presentation and narration work equally well so that you are simultaneously satisfying the visual people as well as the auditory people. Moreover, your visual and verbal content should not be identical: reading your slides word for word is likely to turn off the entire audience. Give the visual and verbal take-aways in the way most natural for each medium: for example, an engaging story you might tell verbally might need nothing more than a picture in its visual counterpart.

Make sure you are communicating with all kinds of people
DON’T rely on visual-only or verbal-only presentations.
DO communicate effectively to both the visual and auditory members of your audience.
Bad #8: Failing to Realize What You Don't Do Well
It's tempting to want to emulate techniques of other successful speakers, such as telling jokes or including great graphics. However, you should not do this if you don't do it well.

Everyone loves humor in a presentation. How much should you do? It depends on how well you do comedy. If you're a rock star, throw humor throughout your presentation. If you're okay in small doses, dole out an ice-breaker. If you're terrible at humor, stay away from it completely--or rely on purchased content such as a cartoon or humorous photo.

Likewise, graphics matter but don't create your own graphics if the result is amateurish-looking. Instead get help from a person or tool or online service. Seriously, it's better to leave it out if it isn't pristinely done.

The content author who knows their strengths and limitations gives the more effective presentation.

“The One True Path” to Effective PowerPoint Presentations: (multiple choice!)

Now that we know what not to do, what’s the right way to do an effective PowerPoint presentation? The good news is, there’s plenty of adivce online from people who have the answer; the bad news is, they don’t agree with each other! Depending on who you listen to, a perfect PowerPoint presentation uses one of these approaches (note the lack of agreement):

The Takahashi Method: slides contain a handful of words with very large text or an image, total number of slides is often 10 or less. The audience is forced to listen to the speaker since much of the content is not in the visuals.
The Lessig Method: slides contain just a short phrase, quotation, or image, delivered rapid-fire in sync with the speaking. The total number of slides may be quite large. The fast pace keeps the audience from becoming bored.
The Godin Method: slides complement the message with complementary visuals with striking images, bold text, contrasting colors.
The Monta Method: slides frequently contain questions that are posed to the audience, then answers are revealed after hearing audience guesses. The audience is kept engaged as participants.
The 10/20/30 Rule (Kawasaki Method): the 10/20/30 rule of PowerPoint is, 10 Slides, Delivered in 20 minutes, with on fonts smaller than 30-point type. It comes from a venture capitalist and has those kinds of presentations in mind.
Which is the right answer? There is no single best way, for the simple reason that venues, speakers, and audience are not all cut from the same mold. It should be obvious that one size does not fit all. What works best for one speaker isn’t necessary good for all speakers. Even the same speaker might use varying approaches depending on the subject matter, length of time, and type of audience.

Tips for a Superior PowerPoint Presentation
We’ve looked at mistakes to avoid and we’ve heard some different views on the best presentation techniques. Here are some PowerPoint crafting tips that help grab viewer attention, clearly communicate your information, and keep you in control. The list below is an aggregation of tips from several online sources (including Stephanie Krieger, Damon Brown) and myself.

1. Select or create a great theme
2. Use audio or video to convey your message more effectively

3. Use graphics to emphasize key points
4. Use animations and transitions wisely

5. Start by outlining your presentation
6. Use masters and layouts to save time and help get better results

7. If you’re doing hand-outs, consider differences between print and on-screen presentations
8. Use notes pages and handouts to help deliver the story

9. Keep file size manageable
10. Use the tools available to get it right the first time

11. Turn off (or manage) AutoCorrect layout options
12. Know exactly what your views will see.

13. Choose colors wisely, and remember that part of the population is color-blind.
14. Bullet points are easier to read than paragraphs

15. Pictures (and charts and diagrams) speak 1,000 words (if they’re good)
16. Practice giving your presentation (ideally to colleagues so you can get feedback)

17. Borrow from the best, and make it your own.

Examples of Great Presentations
Microsoft’s Scott Hanselman is a great presenter with effective slide content and lots of humor. You can view one of his conference session talks here. Notice how well he and his content work together.
TED presenters are often credited for presentation innovation and great effectiveness. Here are some examples of their presentation content. Though these may not be in the style that works best for you, you can still learn much from them.
Here are a few slides from the Thirst presentation to give you an idea of what effective presentation content looks like (no infringement intended, just paying homage).
Example Slides from an Effective Presentation

In Conclusion
If you’re a consultant, expect to be presenting in front of an audience at some point. It’s not difficult to develop good presentation content if you stay away from the common mistakes, emulate or develop a successful style, and work to gain some sensibilities. Your content needs to look good and it needs to be good.

Remember that your content is not the presentation: you are the presentation.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

How to be a Consultant, Part 5: Verbal Communication Skills

This is Part 5 of a series on what it takes to be an effective computer consultant. In this post we’ll be discussing communication skills; specifically, verbal communication.

Consultants have to communicate, and while some of that will be in written form there’s no escaping verbal communication. Consultants have to interact with their teams and their clients verbally, from informal dialogue to participation in meetings to making formal presentations.

Verbal communication comes effortlessly to some while others have had a lifelong struggle with it. This happens to be a subject I know a great deal about, as I was once a terrible verbal communicator: I tend to speak rapidly and don’t project very loudly. However, I’ve worked hard at improving myself over the last 20 years, and today I am merely awful. All kidding aside, wherever you’re at you can improve measurably by working at it.

Work on Your Weaknesses and Leverage Your Strengths
Improvement begins with awareness: you can’t improve on your weaknesses if you aren’t aware of them. Ask others for feedback about your verbal communication and listen to the feedback. Record yourself, listen to yourself, and make experimental changes.

There are many things that can get in the way of an individual’s ability to communicate effectively. For speech impediments like lisping or stuttering, seek professional help. In some places you may find that others consider your accent to be a negative; if you decide you need to do something about that, look into accent reduction. If English isn’t your first language and people are having a hard time understanding you, consider further language training (note: people may be too polite or embarrassed to tell you they don’t understand you).
Most other problems such as low projection, awkward pauses, or rapid speaking can be identified and improved through repeated practice with your peers and constructive feedback. See if there is a Toastmasters club where you work, or start one yourself. You won’t find only novices at these clubs: polished orators also value feedback and continual improvement, and many like to mentor others. You can learn much by observing speakers you admire.

Poor grammar, limited vocabulary, or misuse of words are perhaps the most difficult to conquer. For a consultant, this can lead others to believe you are uneducated and will raise doubts about your expertise. Take a remedial English class, which can be taken in-person or online.
Some problems have easy solutions, such as using a microphone in front of an audience if you don’t project well. You’re a consultant, so apply your problem-solving abilities once you’ve identified your weak areas.

Don’t despair if you have issues, because you also have strengths. Once you know what they are, leveraging your verbal strengths can compensate for your weaknesses, making them less noticeable. Do people repeatedly tell you that you sound authoritative, come across as well-educated, have a pleasant voice, a darling accent, or are witty? Take note of the areas you are in command of and use them strategically—but don’t overdo it.
Take a lesson from the music industry: plenty of people with bad voices have nevertheless become successful and popular singers. Some have even convinced their fans that their “unusual” voices are simply their unique style. You too can overcome.

Know What Knobs You Can Turn
You may be thinking “the way I speak is the way I speak”, but the way you speak is not fixed: despite the kind of speaking you normally fall into, there are a variety of things under your control that you can modify if you learn how to. They include these areas:

• How you breathe (ideally, longer controlled breaths from the diaphragm)
• Your volume (speaking too loudly is as bad as too softly)

• Pitch of your voice (modulate it for emphasis)
• Pace (going too fast loses people, going too slow cause a loss of interest)

• Articulation (avoid mumbling)
• Posture (stand up straight, but be relaxed)

Listen to people who speak on the radio, such as those reading the news or hosting a talk show. These people are not speaking the way they do in ordinarily life: they have been trained to pay attention to their enunciation when on the air. You can too.
Speak the Audience’s Language

As we mentioned last time around with written communication, you should speak in the language of your audience. If you’re in front of a well-educated crowd, expand your vocabulary a bit—but don’t sound snooty and use overly-erudite words. Use more technical language for a technical audience, and business language for a business audience.
Speaking your audience’s language can be tough if you don’t know their world very well; the last thing you want to do is use terms like CapEx and OpEx in front of a group of CFOs if you don’t understand precisely what they mean. In my experience it’s much better to admit what you don’t know (“I’m not a subject matter expert in this area, but we have experts in our company”) than to pretend you know more than you: it’s only a matter of time before pretenders get busted.

Using the Right Words and Pronunciation
You can lose your credibility very quickly if you use the wrong word or phrase in place of another, use a non-existent word, or can’t pronounce a word correctly when everyone else you’re talking to can.

It’s easy to use the wrong word, and many people have fallen into this without realizing it. Don’t confuse…
bought (purchased) with brought (past tense of bring)

mute (unable to make sound) with moot (of no practical value).
literally (non-exaggerated) with practically or virtually (almost, nearly).

primer (guide or book) is pronounced "primmer", not "prime-er" (which is paint).

nucular (no, it's nuclear and I don't care what state you live in). I don't think I need to explain this one. Regional pronunciations are fine, but coming across as illiterate is something else altogether.

Having said that, also realize that sometimes wrong usage is so pervasive it has become the accepted norm: today most people use the word decimate to suggest total annihilation, but the original meaning of the word was “to reduce by one-tenth”.
Don’t use words or phrases that don’t exist:

irregardless is not a word. You meant regardless (without regard).
for all intensive purposes is a misunderstanding of for all intents and purposes.

I could care less means you do care. You meant to say I could not care less (perhaps it’s best to avoid this phrase completely).

Above all, don’t use a word if you’re unsure of its meaning or pronunciation. I’ve found many people have at least one or two words they understand in the wrong way, so pay attention when you find someone using a word differently than you do—and find out which way is correct. it's unfortunate to realize you're making errors like these later in life, where it's been hurting you in the eyes of others for years.

Using words wrongly when you speak can be the kiss of death: a sufficiently bad or repeated offense may cause your audience to dismiss you and tune you out. 

Avoid Annoying and Unnecessary Phrases
Leave out these words and phrases—all they do is annoy people:

Can I ask you a question?  You just did…
Obviously or Clearly: never assume your audience knows and thinks just like you, so don't begin sentences with these kinds of words. Many people fall into a bad habit of beginning every other sentence with one of these words. Obviously this is extremely annoying to the audience.

ATM Machine. The M stands for machine, why are you saying it again? Likewise LCD Display, PIN number, LAN network, ISBN Number, RAID Array and AC Current are instances of RAS syndrome. Don’t be a member of the Department of Redundancy Department.
Fairly unique. Unique means having no equal. Something is either unique or it isn’t. You can’t be fairly unique any more than you can be fairly pregnant.

• Mysterious acronyms. Define acronyms the first time you use them. Not everyone in your audience may know what the acronym means, and in some cases it could stand for one of several things. Does "ATM" mean Automated Teller Machine or Asynchronous Transfer Mode?

Confidence, Friendliness, and Grace
Talk with confidence, friendliness, and grace or don’t talk at all. Failure to do so will speak volumes more than your actual words.

Confidence and authority must be in the consultant’s voice. Even in a “I don’t know” situation, you must exude confidence: “…but someone in our organization does. We’ll get them involved.” Don’t give the audience reason to doubt you: they can smell fear.

Friendliness and warmth comes through in your communication, as does hostility or neutrality. You can express friendliness by smiling, in your tone of voice, in your phrasing, and most of all by being sincere. Don’t underestimate the importance of coming across as warm rather than cold (evidence).
Don’t be crude or insensitive. You’re sure to offend at least one person and that could tip the outcome against you. It’s a risk there’s no reason to take. Avoid off-color comments or humor, political statements, or assumptions about what your audience’s values are. You’ll often be wrong, and sorry.

Don’t cut other people off. It’s disrespectful to them to not let them finish and give a moment for digestion before chiming in with your own comments. Admittedly it can be hard when you’re competing against others to get a word in. This is one of my own weak areas, and I always feel extremely foolish when I forget to control it.

The most respectful thing you can do when responding to someone is to make it clear you listened to what they just said. You can do this by echoing back the essence of their comment before offering your own.
When you speak, you want people to listen to you. You in turn need to listen when others are speaking. When two or more people are talking past each other it’s not conversation, it’s noise.

Dynamic Adjustment based on Audience Feedback
While you’re speaking, someone in the audience may sharply disagree with you on a point or the meaning of a term. If it’s a major disagreement with your content that’s one thing, but sometimes the area of complaint will be something you can adjust for. If you can graciously acknowledge a complaint and adjust what you’re saying to stop annoying that person—while still communicating what you intended—that’s the best way to move forward and not get derailed. At the same time, don’t let the audience change your message on you. Here are some examples:

• Person in audience: I don’t agree that is a benefit.
   You: It’s true not everyone sees this in the same way, but many of our clients identified this as a benefit.
• Person in audience: What you’re calling Capital Expenditures really isn’t.
   You: Sorry, I’m not an Accounting expert. What I mean is, you’re avoiding up-front server costs in favor of a pay-as-you go model.

• Person in audience: How do you back up that claim? I’ve never heard XYZ say that.
   You: That’s just my observation, but I can offer up several things that led me to that conclusion. I didn’t mean to suggest that any announcement had been made by XYZ.
• Person in audience: You lost me, I’m not following all these terms like “mediation” and “transformation”.
   You: All we’re saying is, you have all these great systems and we’re getting them to work together—but they don’t all speak the same “language”. We have several different techniques for getting them to understand each other.

Should You Avoid Verbal Communication if You’re Weak at it?

Is it a good idea to avoid verbal communication if you’re poor at it? There’s definitely a right answer to this question: it’s yes or no, depending on the importance of the communication.
NO, you should not shirk away from verbal communication. If anything, you should be seeking out as many venues as possible to practice and perfect. As we said at the beginning of this post, verbal communication is inescapable for a consultant. So work at it, just as you would any skill such as mastering a new technology. Having said that…

YES, you should under no circumstances put your weakest person on point for a critical presentation where there’s a lot riding on it. You wouldn’t put a new student driver on the freeway, would you? It would be bad for the student and even worse for those they are interacting with. If you’re in a team setting, choose the best presenter for a win. If the speaker is not the person who prepared the content, you’ll need to be sure they are in command of the material and can speak authoritatively and convincingly.
For a speaker who’s making progress and is ready to almost go solo, consider tag-team presenting where they are paired up with a strong speaker and hand off to each other in a smooth rhythm.

Non-Verbal Communication
Don’t forget that spoken communication is accompanied by the visual cues you give. If you’re in the same room with the people you’re speaking to, there’s more to communication than what comes out of your mouth:

• Facial Expression. Your face is a key indicator of your emotions. Remember to smile.
• Body Language. You want your posture, your movements, and your gestures to back up the warm, confident, trustworthy feelings you are seeking to convey.

• Eye Contact. Be sure to make eye contact with your audience. If you can’t do that all at once, take turns looking at one part of the room and then another. You want your audience to know you are speaking to them.
• Appearance. Like it or not, people often judge a book by its cover. How you dress and style yourself will make an impression before you even open your mouth.

In Conclusion
The spoken word: it’s tough for many of us, but it’s undeniably part of a consultant’s world. Much about you (and your company) will be inferred from your verbal communication, so take it seriously. If you’re one of those who have been struggling with effective speech, these tips should help. More than anything, practice speaking, solicit feedback, and improve on a continuing basis. If you don’t give up on yourself, I promise there will be breakthrough moments when you realize you are passing milestones on the way to verbal eloquence: and it’s a great and empowering feeling.

Next: Part 6: Effective Presentation Content