What distinguishes great storytellers from merely good presenters? What makes someone capable of weaving an enticing and inviting tale while someone else will do a competent job of complementing his or her slides, but not really leave the audience wishing there was more to be had?
I want to confront the elements of one bad and one average presentation with a situation I find to often be an excellent measure of presentation excellence: telling stories to children. Based on that comparison, I would like to derive some elements which can lead to better or even great storytelling. Let's go.
A failed presentation
I recently attended a failed presentation. The speaker is an expert in his field and has been recognized as such by his peers. In a peer environment, he has no issue in bringing his ideas to the fore. However, this time he was confronted by an audience of non-experts, and he needed to translate his deep technical knowledge to another level of understanding. He failed and he knew it. I took notes during the presentation. I'll share some of the observations I made, which I've structured a bit.
The speaker was holding onto the desk and did not want to move away from it. It almost appeared as if the desk was a buoy and a lifesaver. Letting go would have meant certain death to this person. He exhibited fear for his audience. He did not look at his audience or even if he did, he never let his gaze settle on the audience to "feel" the vibe of the group. He was not aware of visual and auditive feedback queues reaching him through the non-verbal communication the group was offering him. The material to "understand" the group and work with it was there. He just never used it because he did not see it.
His presentation was a bunch of slides filled with text. He killed us with his Powerpoint. I'm sure all the information was on there. But ALL the information was on there. And presenting ALL the information in a Powerpoint or whatever presentation software you use is a sure way to make your talk completely incomprehensible. Because text is not information.
Conclusion & message
The speaker did not own the stage. He never made the storytelling space his. This space extends beyond the speakers' desk and encompasses the entire room and even beyond. He never showed any flexibility in adapting his story to the audience without losing the essential messages. He was not a storyteller.
If I had to sum up what he told me through his presentation, it would be "I feel like I've been forced into your space and will make myself as scarce as possible." That's a waste of good time from an expert, but also a waste of time of the entire audience.
A mediocre presentation, which really was a failed one
I'm sure you've attended plenty of presentations of the kind I'm about to describe. They are rather common in certain competitive business environments and are often given by the most important hen in the hen house. An informative presentation, an update where there is no room for any discussion, interpretation or even the possibility to gain an understanding. The objective clearly is to do this, shine and then get everyone to the drinks as soon as possible. The presenter may be funny, but mostly that's purely incidental.
The speaker is often a dominant player, an important person in the hierarchy of the organization which he is presenting to, or an external consultant invited by the organizational top layers. They cover his back and he knows it. This guy (yes, it's often a guy) knows everything. There is only one story and it's his. By nature, this type of presenter is not adaptive to the audience. The content cannot and will not be changed. Not because the presenter is not capable of doing it. On the contrary, I often think these presenters would be great presenters if only they would get off their high horse and stop to listen to their audiences. Rather, they refuse to change the content because they are right, and you/we are wrong. Even worse, rather than changing the way their information is offered they react aggressive to audiences when they feel the group reaction does not align with what they think it should be.
Their presentations are typically too long and contain too much information. They've taken the time to go through the information and synthesize, but only where it supports their message. During the presentation, they often have limited to no real interaction with the information on a slide. The slides are really a distraction for the guy who wants to be center stage and in the spotlight. The question remains, if that is the case, why bother using them in the first place.
Conclusion & message
Dominant speakers are really no better than those speakers scared of their own shadow, as we witnessed in the first example. The message they yell in your face is that "You are a prisoner in my space which I will now impose on you." I have an automatic alergic reaction to these people, and I often excuse myself quite rapidly. It's just not worth my time to look at 30 minutes of self-glorification.
Great presentations - Storytelling to children
Contrast this with the great presentations happening every evening all over the world. I'm talking about the millions of stories being told to children before bedtime.
Storytelling to children is usually a very relaxed activity. There is no confrontation between speaker and audience, but rather a deep complicity. Let's discover this together. Stories are often constructed in such a way they allow the speaker to be adaptive to their audience in order to get the clear and concise message across. The medium also allows for permanent feedback. A child will clearly show whether or not it's still on board with the story. If not, their minds often leave the room to reflect on the past day and the awesome bug they saw creeping on the windowsill of the classroom during that ... oops, just wandering a bit. Feedback, right. A child is replete with visual and auditory clues on whether or not the understanding is there.
The advantage of many stories is that they have been refined over the ages. Less is really more in stories. The message has been honed to almost perfection, and the reader in his or her role of presenter has the material to weave a tale, on occasion with beautiful, relevant illustrations. Think about this for a second: for most traditional stories, you need one or two visual queues before you are able to identify them. As an adult. For stories you may not have heard or read in 30 years. Think about that in terms of presentation effectiveness.
I'm holding off for the conclusion and message for a bit because I want to integrate this in my profile of a great presentation with a great storyteller. Let's go there together, now.
Great presentations with great storytelling
I would like to make the distinction between preparation and execution. Let's visit preparation first.
Great presentations with great storytelling require the material and the storyteller are in tune with each other. The material and the story prepared by the storyteller need to be flexibel enough to allow the storyteller to put in accents and change the pace of the story while the storyline remains consistent. Much like children's stories, this requires refinement. You need to move beyond the initial chaos and complexity of your story and simplify, not by taking away but by adding and refining. Great preparation also includes a good understanding of the dynamics of the room in which the presentation will occur. The presenter needs to own, but not dominate the room. In effect, he or she needs to adapt the lay-out of the room to the real needs the presentation and the audience may have. This also takes time and plenty of preparation.
The execution of a great presentation asks for a welcoming, open attitude towards the audience. I've seen great speakers welcome the audience before the start. I've seen other great speakers not seek any contact to not disassociate their personality from the story they bring. Either can work, depending on the circumstances. As long as the audience feels welcome and drawn into the world of the speaker and his story. In execution, the story needs to be adaptive yet hold the line to make sure the message does not get lost. The speaker has the ability to permanently query his audience to check whether they are still aware of the storyline. Tactical use of silences at unexpected moments or to mark endings is a great way to do this. A great presentation also keeps it real. There is some, but limited room for theory. The audience needs to be enticed with reality, with actual or at least possible situations within the initial constraints of the story and needs to be able to react to that. Take Red Riding Hood, for example. A talking wolf is hardly realistic, but no child would accept this wolf to act in manners different from what a story-wolf would do. In all it's imagination, the storyline needs to hold, it needs to be realistic. Through this all, there needs to be room for interaction and exchange with the audience. Ideally, the audience becomes part of the story. Who never "bit" with their hands in the feet or legs of their children at the hight of the "eating of grandmother" scene in Red Riding Hood? Who cannot remember their first, slightly scared but mightlily amused reaction?
Conclusion and message
A great presentation with a great storyteller leaves both the speaker and the audience lots of room for creativity without losing the key message. A great storyteller allows his audience to see its own reflection in him or herself. A great storyteller says to you: "Welcome in my space, which I will share with you. It will become our space."
Work related stress is an integral aspect of most of our lives. I know it had been one of mine. It led me to bad eating habits, to overweight, to lack of sleep, lack of focus and in general lack of enjoyment of my life. My life was wasting away in front of me, and I was not aware of it. I could not see it because I was really to busy looking at my Blackberry screen. What a waste.
I got lucky a couple of months ago. Thanks to my loved ones I recognized what was happening to me and how self-destructive this had become for me. I had the luck of finding the opportunity to make another choice, and choice for more responsibility but less day-to-day pressure. It enabled me to stop certain practices and start others.
I still have good friends that chase the clock. They are stressed when they call me, they don’t get to dive deep into subject matter, they touch and go without really opening themselves up to the subject matter. They don’t sleep well, they gain weight, their partners are unhappy because they are never there, they’ve lost touch with their children. It’s not what it’s all about.
Looking back over these past five months, in which I have been more productive than before, this is what I learned to do.
Switch off your smartphone
If you can live without one, do it. It may seem alien to most of you, it may seem like a loss of status, but you may find it’s the single best action you can take to lighten the pressure on you now. And let’s be honest … I love my iPhone as much as the next geek, but most of us are not emergency surgeons. Most of our jobs do not require us to react in an instant to any message finding its way to our inbox. Imagine this would be your fixed bakelite home phone of years past. You would not be able to sit down before it rang again … and again … and again. How long would it take you to put that receiver off the hook? Then why do you accept to become a hostage to your blinking blackberry light? And while you’re at it, configure your VIPs, limit them to you next of kin and kill the ringer for any other profile. Have a nice and respectful voicemail message. Then check your voicemails like you do your physical mailbox.
Switch of all incoming message notifications
Do this on both your devices (blackberry, iphone, ipad, or, heaven forbid, Android device) and your computers. Any type of mail notification will rip you out of the zone you’re in and kill your productivity. With lots of people being confronted with 100+ incoming emails per day, not counting spam, that’s one about every 5 minutes on an average workday. If you know that getting into the zone on an excellent day will cost you upwards of 15 minutes, notifications alone kill your productivity. Because subject lines are often so badly written, you’ll want to go and see what it’s all about … and you will get killed. Last piece of advice on this: don’t check your email first thing in the morning. You’ll get sidetracked from the main tasks you’ve defined and you will regain the initiative around lunch, if at all. That’s half a day wasted. Not worth it. Check your mail twice a day, then batch your responses.
Stop wearing a watch
This is a recent practice I started when the battery on my wristwatch ran out. I have an omnifocus task sitting in my errands context instructing me to go and get a replacement, but I wait. Not really being aware what time it is, with good reminders set for meetings in my calendar application (the only relevant notifications I use on my PC) I have become more, not less aware of time passing. It allows me to focus more and yet be more aware of overall time. It’s an excellent practice I expect to start paying good dividends real soon.
End your workday on time
Yes, I am an expert. I have been hired for my expertise, and I am expected to deliver this expertise and create an added value. I’m also a manager of a (small) department and I need to manage the internal audit team and ensure we deliver to specs. But I also am a dad and a husband and a friend and an advisor to other people. So while I owe my employer my employment, I pay him in focus and dedication by turning off my email notifications and smartphone and really focus on the job at hand. I owe my employer my full commitment, but he owes me the right to turn my focus to other things when I am not working for him. Which is what I do when I end my workday on time. When I’m there, I’m there all the way (“When you’re a Jet, your …” ;-)) but when I end my workday, it actually ends and does not extend into my personal life.
Watch less TV
We’re a TV generation. We grew up with color TV in the ’70s and ’80s and are now losing ourselves in hundreds of channels, but nothing on. The growth of reality TV is a sad commentary on our time. Reality TV is a contradiction in terms: reality is what happens when you switch off your TV. We have excellent tools which allow you to capture your favorite shows. Make a conscious selection of what you want to watch and how much time you’re willing to dedicate to that. Then record or retrieve the shows or the programs you want to see and watch only that. Don’t exceed the alloted time you have reserved for that. And don’t overdo it either. It’s a sedentary activity that adds little to no value to your life. How does it influence your life if Brooke has yet again married whomever. My next to last episode of “The Bold and the Beautiful” I saw was in 1993, when my grandmother was dying. Recently, I caught the back-end of an episode and had little difficulty following what was going on. The story never changes. It does NOT make a difference. Hence, why bother. Go and create something.
Go create something
Yesterday I was in the garden, picking up after the kids. They had constructed a camp in the woods behind the house and had a jolly good time with it. It’s been too long since I built a camp of my own. When I was in Benin recently, I took a lot of video footage with my iPhone. I had a lot of fun in the evenings cutting the footage into a short three minute movie of my impressions. It’s not great art, but it’s a highly creative endeavour nonetheless. Find something to do. Write, blog, play with your kids, create … don’t die in front of the television screen. There’s an entire world out there for the taking.
Define three core tasks
A recent practice I adopted which really aids me in defining what is really relevant is the practice of defining three core tasks. I have a multiyear goal set, highly ambitious, which I’ve translated in three objectives which are achieveable in a timespan of about one year and which should lead to getting closer to achieving the multiyear goal set. The yearly objectives I’ve mapped into an OmniPlan structure where I’ve mapped a number of interrelated monthly goals to them. If I hit those goals, I’ll hit the yearly objectives. The monthly goals are broken down into weekly objectives, in turn broken down into daily core tasks. The system is not airtight from a project management view, but it’s not supposed to be. I’ve found out that if I don’t have a larger goal, in a yearly, monthly and weekly context, that I don’t get half as much done than if I have. I need targets, and I need the freedom do freely execute towards them. That’s why only three core actions per day drive me in the right direction while allowing me enough freedom to create and be creative. They may be smaller actions, but they need to bring me towards achieving the goal I have set for that week. A daily core task may be “Sit down with X to talk about Y”. If having that conversation, even for 10 minutes, allows me to go quicker on achieving a broader objective, for example because the talk clarified a lot and allowed that person to give me feedback or to appreciate why we as internal audit adopted a certain position, it’s more than worth it. These things often don’t get done if you don’t specifically plan them. These actions are often born in OmniFocus during a project review but I explicitly put them in my agenda on that specific day to really be able to execute them and mark them as done that same day. I don’t want ten tasks, because then I would just move them backwards and backwards. I don’t want one sole task because I would just procrastinate. Three is the right amount.
In the end
It really is all about focusing on what matters most, and really saying no in a loud voice to all that is not that relevant, but may be enticing. You need to know what you want in order to be able to say no to all the interesting things that lead you away from your goal. Good luck!
Take a look at the map
A map of internet cabling shows what challenges Africa faces If you look at this submarine cable map and you take a look at the African continent, you may notice two things:
- The number of submarine cables going into Africa appears less than almost any other continent, with the possible exception of the Indian subcontinent.
- The color distribution, indicative of the suppliers, is less pronounced than in other continents.
Compare what’s going into and coming out of Africa with what is going into the US and Europe, and you see the difference. However, you may notice Africa is well surrounded.
Lots of possibilities, but a lot of work remains to be done.
I’ve been giving the practice and best approach of managing risks a lot of thought lately, and I’m seriously wondering whether or not we’re not trying to solve the wrong problem when trying to install risk management systems in the way we’ve been going about it in the past 20 years.
The wrong problem
Past and current thinking on risk management implementation goes something like this:
- There are risks out there;
- Some of these risks may impact my operations;
- But I don’t know which ones and what their relative importance is;
- So I need to find a way to identify them;
- And evaluate them and rank or prioritize them;
- In order for me to allow for best resource allocation to solve the issues;
- Or at least as many as my funds available for risk mitigation will allow.
And so we impose a risk identification framework on our organization. There is however, one problem. An organization is a complex structure of people which all have their own, very unique view of reality and the risks this reality entails. Hence, the exercise just became a lot more complicated.
Resistance is futile
As decree up on high, risk management will be implemented. So people go about it just like they go about implementing any other decreed new system. They go through the motions but don’t really “get” the system or its added value. Case in point: most human resource systems are, when considered from a technical point of view, very well thought out and could, if used correctly, really add some value. However, people just go through the motions and don’t really get all the value out of the systems. In addition, systems are used in error and timing or even content is not optimal for its intended purpose. In this way, assessments are not based on pre-discussed metrics or don’t find their way in time to the management table where they could have a significant impact on a promotion decision … Because systems are not used well, their added value does not come to the fore and we end up not using or supporting them to the best extent possible. And the systems die a slow death. It may be the same with risk management implementations. They are issue centric, but not user centric. And given that the real added value comes from making the user realize his or her real exposures, it may be that we’re really approaching this the wrong way.
The alternative: user centric risk management systems design
What a mouth full! But what it really comes down to is this: we need to make sure that the risk management systems we implement are usable from the user perspective instead of solely from the business perspective. This means that we need to assess how the user actually is confronted with risks and allow for obiquitous capture at that moment. This will be the subject of further posts, but I wanted to put the idea out there.
I subjected myself yesterday to what was probably the worst training I ever participated in. The subject matter was the new ISO 10018 guideline on Human Resources management. I won’t mention the provider, because it really was too embarrassing for words.
What went wrong?
First, we paid for the training. If you pay, even a small amount in excess of 250 euro per person, you expect a decent training, with motivated people.
A replacement keynote speaker
The training started with the keynote speaker having been admitted to the hospital not 12 hours earlier. That’s not predictable, hence I really don’t make an issue out of that. However, the person replacing him was not adequately briefed on the presentation and the subject matter. We touched all the slides briefly, went slightly in-depth on some other slides which had little relevance regarding the subject matter, and did not cover what was essential in the presentation deck.
A duo-presentation with a so-called expert
The keynote speaker was supported by a so-called experience expert. Interesting, were it not that this person had clearly only put a couple of thoughts or ideas on paper a couple of hours prior to the presentation. If he had actually prepared it, I would be ashamed of being him. A couple of bullets on a piece of paper, no supporting material, difficult to follow, and so totally convinced of his added value to the world … At this point, I should have left, but I did not as I respected my colleagues who were there. But then it got worse.
A drunk Dutch consultant
Enter an older person, which I had a run-in with earlier during the presentation because I “dared” to question the relevance of the presentations and the subject matter. His materials were filled with language errors and typo’s and he clearly did not understand the subject matter which was supposed to be his expertise. This was an ISO consultant, expert in certification, who did nothing but mention a methodology without clarifying its added value nor its relevance in the context of the training. He also, sadly, appeared to be drunk, and fell asleep a bit later. Luckily for him, and sadly for us, not during his own presentation.
What went right
A testimonial from the field
The last speaker of the day was a woman who came with a testimonial from a HR change process she had managed herself, in a larger organization in Belgium. This true to life testimonial was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise largely irrelevant showcase for a number of low to medium quality consultants which I would not dare to ask money for.
In conclusion - a word of advice to consultants
If you invite people to a seminar with a title such as ISO 10018, please try to make sure that at least part of the training is about your subject matter. If you plan on doing a showcase for consultants, don’t ask me for money.
Yet another great article by James Shelley. I’m just discovering his blog, and the depth of the writing is wonderful. Especially in light of the recent events that hit Belgium hard, this is a text worth reading, as it really highlights what is truly important.
“So don’t pretend to know everything. That’s just dumb.” — James Shelley
Yet there are "experts" everywhere. Let me plead for just a bit of reluctance in the consulting space before calling yourself an expert.