Thursday, July 20, 2017

Presentations, Evangelizing, and Personas

As first posted on LinkedIn

The other day I was sitting down with a client and we were talking about one of my people that works with him. We'll call my person Ned for the sake of this article. As is generally part of my client touch-base discussions we talk about our people on project and how they are doing. His quick and immediate response was a good one. "Ned's great," followed by a thoughtful pause and, "Ned's good," less of a correction and more of a filling the gap in the conversation while he was still thinking. This is a good thing to hear, life is much better when your client likes the people you have working with them.
Then the client continued, "If I was to sit down with Ned for a beer and he pressed me for some feedback I do have something that I'd talk to him about." From there we proceeded to have a conversation about Ned's presentation skills. As part of our client engagement Ned was responsible for advocating for some new testing processes, technologies and models to up their quality organizationally wide. Part of this deliverable ended up being presenting BDD (Behaviour-Driven Development) to the implementation teams as well as following it up with real-time mentoring as they adopt the methodology.
The core goal of the presentation was not really to teach people how to BDD but rather introduce the concepts and gain their buy-in to why the new methodology was a good fit for the organization and therefore why they should adopt it with enthusiasm. Or to put it as the client did in our conversation, every presentation is your opportunity to 'evangelize your perspective.' He even took it a step further, as a high-concept design digital media company they give training to every team member on improving the quality of their pitches. Internally or externally, they practice excelling at their presentation skills.
Now Ned, as a tech professional at a fairly senior level has given a lot of presentations in his time. I have been there on a number of occasions when Ned has been presenting and he is really not bad; above average for most tech presenters. But, as many of you may be aware, that's a pretty low bar. He had, however fallen prey to one of the most common pitfalls in presenting, creating a PowerPoint with a lot of text in it and then reading from the slides more than owning the material as he was presenting it.
The key to absorption and retention of your presentation materials is always engagement. It doesn't matter if you have the most important information imaginable, if you can't engage your audience's interest they probably won't absorb and understand your message as you deliver it and even if there is a glimmer of understanding it won't be retained. Probably the most intangible part of engagement is your ability to capture the attention of the room. The internet is filled with tips to accomplish this, so it won't be covered her in depth but one of the cornerstone concepts to this is passion and enthusiasm.
An audience can tell when a presenter really cares about their content. They know the content so well that they don't have to refer back to their slides with anything more than a cursory glance. The presentation is filled with anecdotes, examples and explanations that seem to come from their own experiences. Their eyes glow with excitement when they tell one of their stories, or similarly you can see them remember the pain when the story isn't one of success. This presenter never has to read from the slides, they know each slide and what they want to say about it intimately. This comes through and forms a connection with the audience. They feel this passion and it produces a feedback of passion for themselves and results in better engagement.
Perhaps the most important factor in capturing the attention and interest of your audience is that of presenting your content in a way that relates to each member of your audience personally. It's often said that you have to know your target. This isn't always easy, often in a technical presentation you will have multiple interest groups present for the meeting. This doesn't, however, change the need. Coming back to our example of Ned, he was presenting to his audience their first view of BDD. The goal was to create a shared interest and base level of knowledge that would allow the team to adopt the use of BDD in their next project. At an even more core level it was to build enthusiasm and buy-in for the BDD methodology. Buy-in is the secret sauce in adopting any new approach. People will be much more tolerant of adoption pains if they believe in the end goals.
In this case the audience consisted of four main groups, developers, designers, user experience (UX) and project management. The presentation was well put together technically and had no problem at all capturing the hearts and minds of the developers. This, however, wasn't to be unexpected because BDD as a methodology is targeted to solve a lot of pain points for developers. The goal that it didn't attain is converting the designers and UX members of the audience to becoming advocates of BDD themselves. They were left a little confused and nonplussed. A part of this may have been the presentation delivery, or at least a more powerful talk may have won more people over. In unpacking the situation a little further however we discovered that the problem may have been more around the concept of targeting the members of the audience. Perhaps the presentation didn't do a great job of building a connection with everyone present. In this example this problem was actually quite short lived. In the next phase Ned ran a workshop to kick off BDD that all parties were present for, and the parties quickly became aligned with the goals and value of BDD. In a workshop, not only did the methodology itself speak to its value but Ned became impassioned and obviously checked-in. This was something that was felt and embraced by all members present.
When I was looking at this situation with fresh eyes an example quickly came to my mind. What if, in one of the early slides, Ned had said to the designers and UX people, "Have you ever worked your heart out producing a great design for a beautiful product and handed it over to development, who took it and worked their hearts out building something great. Then when they handed it back to you, you took a look and your first thought is, 'But why did you build THIS?'" Then, when he saw the nods from the crowd he could have said, "Breaking down communication barriers and building alignment for the targets early eliminates this kind of situation. THIS is what BDD does for you!" Instantly he would have buy-in because this is a real pain point for everyone building a product. This buy-in would translate to engagement and people relating to the material quicker and understanding more.
Ned and I sat down after my client meeting and we had a chat about everything I've said above. Ned is a great guy, one of those rare birds that is absolutely receptive to feedback about his performance. We were having a great conversation about some tips and tricks that could improve his presentations. I said to Ned that on each and every slide of his deck he should be ask himself, "What do I have on this slide to speak to each member of my audience?" By asking this question continuously you ensure that your are going to capture and retain the interest of everyone in the room. It would be a little onerous to ask this question of each and every member of the audience. But you don't need to do that, you can assign people to personas. A persona is a short (one paragraph) description of a typical user or audience member (in this case) grouped by their interests. It describes what they do and more importantly what they care about at a base level in doing their job. Ned could assign 3 or 4 personas for the people in his audience and ask the question about the representative description. Another suggestion I had was to spend a little time at the beginning of preparing your presentation to put together a slide that lists the personas that you intend to target with your presentation. You would mark this slide as hidden but be able to quickly refer to it as you prepare your presentation and then later as you prepare to make the presentation. It is always good to have a solid idea of your targets in mind throughout your delivery.
In the end I don't have any fear that Ned is on his way to becoming a masterful presenter. The odds are good that he will surpass myself any day now (I don't claim to be masterful at presenting myself). Ned will accomplish this by an unwavering focus on who is in his audience and remembering to target each of them throughout. By asking that question on each slide and referring back to his personas captured in the hidden slide he can practically guarantee engagement. Ned should also remember to be himself, own the presentation, and not be afraid to demonstrate his passion.

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