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Avoiding the 'Excruciating' Agony When the Mind goes Blank in a Presentation

By Naomi Simson, Founding Director, RedBalloon; Director, Redii.com

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Naomi Simson, Founding Director, RedBalloon; Director, Redii.com

It can be daunting to present to a board, panel or even to your colleagues. You know your content and what you want to achieve, yet you somehow get lost for words. Most recently we saw what happened  to Benjamin Habib on ABC News24 Breakfast - he described the incident in a follow up piece in the Sydney Morning Herald as an “excruciating, mortifying, devastating meltdown” - all on national TV.

I understand why people fumble over their reports, or respond defensively when someone starts asking lots of questions they aren’t prepared for; the stakes can be high and it can be stressful. However, sometimes all the knowledge in the world doesn’t help us in that moment of critical presentation.

So how do you make the most of your 10 minutes in the spotlight to influence those who you are presenting to?

Let’s Use the Board Room as an Example...

One thing stands out the most: the importance of speaking the language of the business your board is directing. Often I’ll find people giving too much attention to the detail without any focus on why those details matter in the bigger scheme of things - how they fit into ‘The Plan’. Boards are interested in strategy and, more importantly, how your area is delivering to that strategy. And what we want to know is why you’ve made the decisions you’ve made, and why and how you intend to fix, improve or focus on one thing over another. This means honing in on the value technology (as an example) is delivering to the business as a whole, not just to your department or a specific project. IT jargon is rarely going to impress your board. It might confuse them, it might annoy them - and it might also give them the impression that you aren’t sure how your work fits into the big picture. So make a point of determining why you’re reporting on the things you’re choosing to report on…and speak their language

While I don’t have a preference for going through intricate details or processes (my HBDI profile is highly skewed to the top right or ‘yellow’ quadrant of my brain), that isn’t to say that I don’t care about the details or the metrics in a presentation - I do. The trick is delivering the right sort of metrics.

When a Technical Lead talks to me about sprint ‘burn down’, I want to know what’s been shipped and how these deployments add value to our customers. I also want to know what’s forecasted to be completed and when - so we can share progress, bug fixes or new features with current or potential customers. What I want to know above all stems from what Verne Harnish teaches: Who is doing What by When - Who is accountable, and when can I expect to see it completed or the next stage deployed.

If you’re delivering a lot in each sprint but not making progress when it comes to the product strategy, this can also show me you’re team is suffering chronic scope-creep (or is under-resourced). To a board member this can mean that business strategy or direction is lacking, and you’re trying to solve too many problems. Or, your team isn’t sure which problem they should be focusing on…which begs the question of leadership and how important it is to the team’s growth.

I would rather my leaders be honest about their numbers because it means I can ask questions and provide direction based on real information, and not what they want me to know about business performance. If I don’t have visibility of spend vs ROI, the number of defects found and who it is affecting, the number of customer support requests coming in and how long we’re taking to solve them, then how do we build the right product for the right people at the right time?

Which leads to me to another point; don’t be scared of questions. A good director knows they need context before offering direction. A good reporter asks questions to explore a topic in greater depth. Those questions aren’t a personal attack on you or your work (or at least they shouldn’t be); they’re an opportunity to explain the thinking behind your decisions, and an invitation to flag risks or issues that wouldn’t be visible to a board member who isn’t working with your people day in and day out.

It is completely common for a director to ask challenging questions, but remember that your role at these meetings is incredibly valuable; you’re providing insight we might not otherwise have.

If you’re unsure of what to focus on, take a step back and  ask yourself  what the purpose and priorities of the business are at this time . The common thread in all of this is why does this matter to the people listening? If you’re not answering that question, you’ll land yourself in trouble.

As an example, I am a non-executive director for two companies. Both provide an online offering, but they are completely separate businesses, with markedly different products (one is an online gift and experience retailer, the other provides employee recognition SaaS), delivered to different target markets. As such, I expect the tech leads to report different things at their respective board meetings; one business has been around for 14 years, and the other has been around for just over a year, so the funding, growth strategy and team priorities are markedly different in each business.

What is going on that is affecting your business right now? What are the achievements, risks and issues you and your department are facing that will impact your customers and your ability to deliver to your business strategy? If you can answer these questions - in plain English - then you’re well on your way to getting your audience onside.

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