In Perfect Harmony

By Colin Harris – Conchcom Ltd

In this article I’m going to explain how doing a group presentation is a bit like singing in a choir.

Once again, massive thanks to Terry Simpson for proof reading it.

We're not quite as attractive as this lot
We’re not quite as attractive as this lot

I’m in a choir.  I’m a comedian from Birmingham, the choir is for Birmingham comedians, it’s called “The Birmingham Comedians Choir” – I’ll pause for a moment to let you digest the creative brilliance of the name…

I must confess – I haven’t got a great voice.  I used to sing a few bars of a song as part of my act until one day another comedian pointed out that my voice wasn’t good enough to amaze people, or bad enough to make them laugh.  Anyway, I can carry a tune and I’ve been put in the bass section where we usually get just 4 different notes we have to sing in any song.

And it is great fun. There’s something uplifting when we get a song sounding good – a sense of group achievement.  But when it goes wrong it can sound pretty dire…..

We’ve got our first gig in a few days at a benefit concert for Syrian refugees.  Some of you may at this juncture be thinking “haven’t they suffered enough?”

“But what’s all this got to do with presentations?” I hear you mutter.

Well, if you consider a lot of situations when you’re presenting to a customer you are part of a wider agenda.  OK, maybe you’re doing the important solo – but is someone else introducing it and setting up the whole meeting?  Is someone else going to talk about the implementation, or discuss a particular topic?

I’ve seen loads of group presentations, and been part of a fair few where the following has happened:  Person A has introduced it, Person B has done their bit, then Person C has come on with a completely different topic, followed by person D who introduces another subject, and then finally back to Person A to wrap it all up.  …And to jump to a footballing simile that can seem like having a bunch of superstars on the pitch that can’t score a goal…. England anyone?

“Ahhh,” I hear you shout, “what they need is a theme to tie it all together.”

And you’d be right.  Someone’s got to conduct the choir…

The conductor controls the timing– and whether we should be louder or quieter…
The conductor controls the timing– and whether we should be louder or quieter…

So yes, after we’ve decided what our theme is going to be, someone needs to be in control as we plan it, rehearse it, and deliver it.

Now having a common theme is important.

However, I’ve seen group presentations where there’s been a theme, and where persons A, C & D have done their bits referencing the theme.  But then in the middle, Person B has done their bit using a completely different theme or without referencing the theme at all.  I’m not sure which one is worse – not having a hymn sheet or not sticking to it.

Obviously, unlike a choir, we’re not all going to present at the same time – although it would certainly make for a memorable day ….

Now there are certain songs where at one part the harmony deliberately creates a clash –  I think the technical term is ‘discord’.  And that’s fine as long as the next bit resolves that clash – it sets up tension.

And sometimes in a presentation we want to set up a bit of tension – maybe we pose a controversial topic or ask a challenging question – and again, that’s fine – let’s just remember to resolve it rather than leave it hanging because all the audience will remember at the end is the unpleasant clash.

Also, when we’re singing a song we don’t always stay at the same volume – we have quiet bits and loud bits – light and shade if you like.  Thus our presentation needs variety – not just in terms of volume (although, frankly, some presenters do suffer from a monotonic delivery); it needs changes of pace, tension, and resolution.  And it’d be nice if it finished on a crescendo, rather than just stopping suddenly or petering out leaving the audience confused.

The key things to remember are; someone needs to be in charge (the conductor), have a structure, agree on a theme (and everyone’s presentation supports the theme), plan it, and most importantly rehearse it.

Plus, and this is the biggie – we’re a choir – we aren’t competing with each other – we are working together as a team to create the best result we can.  OK, so we all want to be the superstar but we win as a team and we lose as a team.  It doesn’t matter if the bit you did was great if the overall performance was poor.  Or, going back to football for a moment… It doesn’t matter if you score a wonder goal if you allow the Russians to equalise in injury time…

Right, I’m off to practise my 4 notes.

An Analogy Paints a Thousand Words

By Colin Harris – Conchcom Ltd

In this article I’m going to explain how using a good analogy can bring your presentation alive, and also show how the wrong analogy can leave everyone deflated. Once again, thanks to Terry Simpson for the sterling proof-reading job.

A few years ago I was working for a major US Software House as a pre-sales consultant.  I was asked to meet with a new prospect and my job was to demonstrate the flexibility of our product.  The prospect was in Northern Sweden – inside the Arctic Circle, so I found myself on a plane heading northwards.

To take my mind off the thorny question of how exactly I was going to demonstrate ‘flexibility’ and also to distract the thoughts that I was in a bog-standard commercial airliner that was soon going to have to land on a runway covered in ice I idly flicked through the in-flight magazine.  Towards the back there were some things you could buy – two objects caught my eye – and fired up my imagination…. ten minutes later they were both in my laptop bag.

I was one of the first presenters.  I explained that I was going to show them how flexible our software was.  And because I was in Sweden I would do it using an inflatable model.  There were some nervous giggles.

I then produced my first purchase – an inflatable model plane that I’d blown up and hidden behind the lectern.

A flexible inflatable plane
A flexible inflatable plane

The sight of it got a big laugh.

“Now this plane is really flexible- see, I can bend it to alter its shape – and our software is like that – it’s very configurable so it’s easy to alter it to work in a different way or to change its appearance.”

“But there’s another sort of flexibility, isn’t there?  What if I want to add another engine, or take off one of the wings and put it on the other side?  I’d end up ruining it.  This plane doesn’t have that sort of flexibility.  And a lot of software out there is like that – it might be bendy, but if you want to add something or move something around you risk damaging it beyond repair”.

“So what we need is another sort of flexibility.”  I then produced my second purchase – a plane made of Lego.

Another sort of flexibility
Another sort of flexibility

“OK, so this isn’t very bendy – but look how easy it is to take an engine off, or move a wing around – and our software is just like that – it’s made from components like Lego bricks and we provide you with a toolset so you can add extra bits of functionality, or move those bits around.”

Then all I had to do was show a couple of examples of both bits of flexibility and then I summed up by showing the models again.  The prospective client loved it, and the other presenters latched on to the analogy when they showed their bits.

We got the deal and there was much celebration.

So whenever I now need to explain something complicated I will simplify it by using an analogy – and wherever possible I try to make it a bit funny.  It may be a story I’ve made up (or that happened to someone), it could be an object as an analogy for a process or a feature, it could be a proverb.  You could use a sporting analogy but just make sure it’s relevant to your audience – a British audience may not understand a baseball story, but similarly a great cricket anecdote stands the risks of bewildering the  Americans…

You can use a more negative analogy to explain their current situation, like stumbling around in the dark or being in a maze, and it’s a great feeling if the client really identifies with it.

The problem is if you can’t think of an analogy you run the risk of confusing the audience or leaving them bewildered.  There’s a great sketch from the British comedians Armstrong and Miller about not using an analogy – catch it here

Plus, the wrong analogy can be disastrous.  I once worked with a man who in the middle of a presentation that had been going quite well suddenly decided to explain a particular function of the software by likening it to a toilet.  OK, we all got the gist of what he was on about but I’m fairly confident that the reason that particular sale went down the pan was because every time the potential client thought about our solution this was the image that came to mind…

Not the right reminder...
Not the right reminder…

Then there was the time we asked our implementation specialist to use analogies when explaining how we made sure the implementation would go smoothly.

We were all on form, analogies were being flung out like confetti – it was going great.

Then it came to his section – he opened with the immortal words “Now we all know implementations can be a nightmare….”

We all felt the energy – along with any prospect of our company getting the order – leave the room.

So to sum up – an analogy, like a picture, paints a thousand words – just make sure it’s painting the right words.

 

Questions, Questions

Me doing Stnad Up
Me doing Stand Up

 

By Colin Harris – Conchcom Ltd

 

There comes a time in every presentation when we get to the dreaded “Are there any questions?” bit.  So let’s gird our loins and talk about some basic question answering techniques.

The bulk of this article is about how we answer those questions and will give some ideas and techniques that can be used to answer questions with confidence.

However, if we’re presenting to a small group of people we may invite them to ask questions throughout, especially if we’re presenting on a topic they’re unfamiliar with.  Or perhaps it’s a demonstration, where we’re showing the software and what we are doing may naturally cause questions to arise.  We’ll talk about this later.

So, questions, what are they all about?  People ask questions for a number of reasons; it may be because they want clarification, perhaps there’s a specific point they need clearing up that your presentation didn’t cover, or maybe it’s because they disagree with what you’re saying.  Sometimes it’s just because they think it’s their turn to speak.

The key point is the way you answer is going to determine how successful the presentation is.  So no pressure then.

Here’s some simple tips to start with.

The one sided conversation

Have you ever been in a presentation, sat towards the back, where someone in front of you asks a question that you didn’t hear?  Then the presenter answers, the questioner asks a follow up and the rest of you sit there listening to one half of a conversation trying to guess what the question was.  How good was that?

So, Colin’s first rule is this.  As the presenter it is your solemn duty to make sure everyone else hears the question.  Even if the question can be heard by everyone in the room you repeat it.  This achieves a number of things.  Firstly, you can check you’re answering the right question – how do you know? Simple, you ask the questioner if that’s what their asking – maybe clarifying it.  Secondly, it gives you a bit of time to think about the question and more importantly your answer. Thirdly, you pause.  You don’t go er, ahh, let me see, oooh, that’s a hard one.  You certainly don’t go ‘Great Question’ because what about everyone else’s questions – weren’t they great?  No, pausing is powerful.  Pausing indicates you’re taking the questions seriously, it empowers you, puts you in control, it oozes gravitas.  Fourthly, you give the answer.  More on answers later.

One final point – if the question was “would you like a coffee?” then a simple “Yes please” or “no thank you” will suffice.

Being on the front foot

There’s a cricket term – being on the front foot, and there’s its opposite – being on the back foot.  Now I’m not going to spend ages explaining the rules of cricket so don’t worry but there is an interesting technique called ‘stepping forward into the question’ that we can use when we answer.  It’s a way of appearing confident.  Consider the opposite – stepping backwards.  You get asked a question, you take a step back and answer it.  Straight away you appear nervous and hesitant.  They ask another and you back up again.  Pretty soon you’re pinned against the back wall, all credibility lost.

So step forward, I’m not talking about standing right over someone in an aggressive way, but a small movement forwards gives a positive impact.

Minutiae, Time Travel and Tangents

“Can you explain, in detail, using lots of big words exactly how that feature works?”  Sometime we get asked questions where although we know the answer, we know replying to the question is going to require us going really deep.  And the rest of the audience neither cares nor understands the answer anyway.  In that case it is perfectly acceptable to say to the questioner that you’d like to discuss that with them personally but afterwards.  Tell them, and everyone else that you’re more than happy to answer it, however either time constraints or the level of technical detail is better discussed separately.

Perhaps they’ve asked a question that you know you will be covering later.  Rather than jumping forward in time tell them that you’ll be covering it then.  And remember when you do cover it to ask them if that answered their question.

Sometimes they may ask a question that you covered earlier – when you answer it it’s OK to say “Remember that slide or bit of the software that I showed you earlier?  That was how we do x, y or z”.  If it’s a demonstration you might have to break off and revisit the same thing again if it’s an important bit but if it’s a presentation to a larger group, then take it offline for later.

What about if the question is from left field, or takes you completely off agenda – again, if this is a group presentation it’s OK to say “I wasn’t planning on covering that, but I’m happy to discuss it afterwards”.

If you allow yourself to get dragged off your presentation agenda, then you’re likely to lose control.  Just remember, if you have agreed to discuss it later, make sure you do.

Because it is

My mom was great at answering the really awkward questions when we were kids, “Mom, why is the grass green?”, “Because it is.”, “But mom, why?”, “Because I said so.”  She also had the power to send us to bed early.  Unfortunately, my mom isn’t around at my presentations.  And also, I’ve found in business that threatening to ground people when they ask tough questions isn’t great when it comes to winning business.

But there’s going to be times when you are asked a question to which you don’t know the answer.  And it’s OK to admit it.  But what you have to do is write the question down and tell the person you’ll find someone who does know the answer and that they’ll get it to them.  Make sure you do.  Otherwise, I’ll send my mom round.

Please don’t ask me that

There will be questions that you dread someone asking.  They may be about some aspects of your product that you know are weak, maybe it’s something your company did in the past, someone may fundamentally disagree with your company’s ethos or choice of technology, perhaps the previous release was released a bit previously (e.g. before testing was complete) and contained some undocumented features that did not operate as expected, (e.g. it was a bit buggy.)

So what do you do?  Do you panic?  Fudge?  Dance around trying to skirt the issue?  Lie?  Show the white flag of surrender?  No.  You answer the question with the answer you’ve prepared earlier. Huh, how do you mean?

What you do before a major presentation is ask yourself, your colleagues and coworkers (there really should be a hyphen in co-workers as I always read it as cow-orkers, whatever they are) to come up with all the really nasty awkward questions you can think of and then spend some time to come up with the answers.  And then practice giving the answers whilst your cow-orkers fire awkward questions at you.

Taking our example from before about that release that was a bit of a nightmare: –  You’ve fixed that, right?  You’ve put new procedures in place to check the quality etc.  So you acknowledge there was a problem and explain what you’ve done to correct it and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

If your company did something bad then you have to acknowledge it and show why that won’t happen again.

If your product doesn’t do xy and z then explain why it doesn’t, be positive about what your product does do that overcomes your clients’ problems.

It’s well worth practising this technique.  It enables you to remain strong and positive in the face of adversity.  And if you do it like I’ve explained, you can turn a negative into a positive.

But If your company did something really bad, and aren’t fixing it, or the product is seriously deficient and is neither use nor ornament then perhaps it’s time to question why you’re still working there.

Imagination

When we answer questions, especially ones of a technical nature, it’s often a good idea to use an analogy to explain what we mean.  I plan to do a complete article on analogies and stories but if you can use a simple analogy to explain a complex problem then there’s a good chance that the audience will understand.  Say there’s a particular feature in your software that has lots of different settings so you can vary the affect it has.  Now explaining all that may involve talking about complex algorithms or diving deep into many scenarios.  What you don’t do is say “With our product we can have 147 different ways of doing X.  The first way is….., the second is…”  What you could do instead is use an analogy that contrasts the difference between a light switch and a dimmer switch.  With a light switch you’ve got two settings – on or off – with a dimmer switch you can vary the brightness according to your needs.  Remember, it’s our job to make the complex seem simple; although I’ve seen presenters do the exact opposite, usually to justify how important their role is.

Presumably there is a light switch manufacturer somewhere who contrasts the differences between a light switch and a dimmer switch by talking about the 147 different forecasting algorithms that can be used in Materials Requirements Planning.

Anyway, watch this blog for my analogy piece.

Conclusion

So we’ve talked about answering questions in a confident and positive manner.  We haven’t alienated the rest of the audience by having a one-sided conversation and we’ve been on our front foot and knocked those curved balls out of the ballpark using more analogies than you can shake a stick at.

If all else fails you can also use Colin’s 2nd golden rule – start all of your presentations by telling the audience they can ask anything they like, but if you don’t know the answer, you’ll treat it as a rhetorical question.

Is that it?  Thanks for listening, I’ll be the one at the bar if you have any other questions.