It is easy to get caught in this trap. After months of working on an issue, you are asked to provide an informational update to a group of senior decision makers. You understand that no decision will come from your presentation. And there is not much on the agenda, so you are free to make as much as 30 minutes to provide your update.
Your presentation can be a little less formal and use the entire time, right? Wrong.
I recently saw a seasoned colleague fall into this trap. She has been in management for several years now, although her roots are as a hard-core analyst. In all roles, however, she is considered to be a very good communicator of technical matters that are complex and where the science is still incomplete.
The presentation lacked a formal opening that included the main takeaways. Yes, there was an agenda that described the four aspects that would be covered, but nothing tied everything together or told the senior decision makers where it was all going.
The second mistake was believing anyone wanted to cover 50 content slides in 30 minutes (actually, it went 40 minutes). No one really wants to hear and digest 50 content slides, regardless of whether they tell you they are deeply interested and to take all the time you wish.
The "money slide" that outlined the four key takeaways appeared in the next to the last slide. By then, numerous people were sitting on their hands waiting to ask questions about how everything tied together. They finally got it – in minute 39 in the 40-minute presentation.
No punchy start. No big finish. The only thing memorable about the session was that the decision makers got more information than they could have imagined. Yes, that is about the only thing we know for certain.
FINESSE is the mnemonic for remembering the basics of effective communication: Frame, Illustrate, Noise, Empathy, Structure, Synergy, and Ethics.
Structure applies to written reports as well as verbal presentations. Business-minded decision makers do not have the time to understand all of the details, so it is desirable to start with the conclusions. This means that the larger structure must be layered for subsequent questions and details that decision makers may be interested. That is, if they need more information. Providing your information in advance and getting to the key points in the beginning will make your communication more efficient, more effective, and more memorable.
The responsibility for effective communication of a message belongs to the sender.
Provide the End at the Beginning
There are many presentation sequences. Three are provided here.
Paired sequence (Advantages & Disadvantages, Problem & Solution. Costs vs. Benefits, Cause & Effect)
Most people automatically default to a chronological or "ascension" presentation sequence because of the cumulative learning style we learn in K -12 education. In other words, we start with little knowledge in kindergarten and slowly ascend to the pinnacle at the college level.
Technical professionals, especially engineers and scientists, experience a double whammy because of the nature of the scientific method. The scientific method starts with a hypothesis and slowly ascends through data, experiments, and reasoning to validate (or invalidate) the conclusion.
Again, the primary issue is that the business-minded decision maker does not have the time – or the necessity – to ascend the mountain of knowledge. With few exceptions, we just need to tell them what we learned when we reached the summit.
The Three-Act Structure: Opening, Main Body, Closing
Regardless of the sequence, every written or verbal communication needs a structure. The three-act structure stands the test of time. It is also a straightforward and extremely efficient structure. Therefore, technical professionals are advised to use the three-act structure to communicate with decision-makers.
The Opening is where we provide the “abstract” in our communications with decision makers. The Main Body is where all of the technical professional’s work is provided. Of course, the technical work is the basis of the conclusions. The Close consists of a re-iteration of the takeaways and the questions & answers – handling questions is the primary component for decisions with high degrees of complexity and uncertainty.
Focus first on the Opening. Focus next on the Close. The blind spot for most technical professionals is that they spend too much time on the Main Body (what analysts care about) and too little time on the Opening and Close (what the decision makers care most about).
Using Other Structures
There are many potential presentation structures and approaches. For example, persuasive communication advocate Peter Andrei describes the four major structures as persuasive, informational, inspirational, and advanced. There are thirty-seven sub-structures, or theories, as Andrei referenced them, within the four major categories. There are other books, references, and internet information on presentation structures.
The advice here is to keep it simple and time-proven. Remember that you play the role of trusted advisor and do not seek to persuade or manipulate. The technique does matter for effectiveness. However, first and foremost, good or bad, you stand on the data at all times and all tides.
Communicating with FINESSE
Structure applies to written reports as well as verbal presentations. Business-minded decision makers do not have the time to understand all of the details, so it is desirable to start with the conclusions. This means that the larger structure must be layered for subsequent questions and details that decision makers may have an interest. When it comes to structuring, the blind spot for most technical professionals is that they spend too much time on the Main Body (what analyst cares most about) and too little time on the Opening and Close (what the decision makers care most about).