Tell a story, do not just report

We all make reports/presentations for/to senior management. As technical people, we are typically generous with facts. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, we spice it up with graphs. Feeling happy with the amount of details we have packed in, we are raring to make a great presentation to the senior management. Hey, wait a minute…

What are we trying to achieve? To furnish information or provide insight to assist in decision making? To report facts or tell a story? To showcase value or the quantity of work done?

I prefer story telling. Telling an engaging story that is factual, easy to assimilate, providing insights to facilitate decision making and finally showcase the value of my work. Think it is a good idea? But, what does this take?

Certainly it takes more than just dumping a lot of facts and getting into too much detail in the beginning. In fact less is more! And this is what people find difficult. Let me summarise my recent experience with my colleagues who came to me with a dense and detailed presentation that they intended to present to our customer’s senior management.

1. Understand target & their expectations- “Who is the audience for the story?”

Before you jump into making the presentation, understand to whom are you presenting to and what they are looking for. Typically senior folks look for outcomes and value, not just activities and facts. When you report activities done, align these against the intended objectives. And if you have issues that hinder your activities, state clearly what you need from them to resolve, don’t whine! Don’t just report tons of facts, process these into meaningful information. Remember the senior management is going to ask you the question ’so-what?’ when a fact is presented, hence analyse & process these to meaningful information that can be correlated against intended objectives.

The patience levels of senior management are typically low, hence be clear about the objective, crisp in communication and hold their attention by ‘outline first and detail later’. A good story needs a great plot, well formed characters and a cogent buildup to the climax.

2. Organise the content – “Setup the chapters/scenes”

A good story flows smoothly. Start with a clear exposition of the objective of presentation, and then identify key information to be presented. Arrange the facts (content) into key sections, much like the chapters in a story creating a cogent sequence that form the story line. Then connect these information across these slides. It is the weaving of information that strengthens the story. The interrelationship of the activities, intended goals, and the final outcomes is what strengthens the story and makes it interesting.

3. Detail out the information/facts – “Choose the characters wisely’

A great plot with a cogent buildup is not enough. It is characters that breathes life in a story. In our case, the characters relate to the various facts/information. The information to be presented, their degree of detail, how objective they are, the relevancy to the context is what that makes the character contribute to the story line. Keep in mind that we are presenting to senior management who value objective information and have a high degree of impatience to wishy-washy subjective information.

4. Present the information well – “Dress up the character”

If the characters are not presented well, it is not fun reading the story. They have to fit well into the role, present themselves well, play the part for the right time and exit gracefully.

In addition to what information is presented and how it is presented makes the character play its part well. The way the information is presented include the layout, colour schemes, consistency, spelling, grammar, sentence formation, tone of voice, choice of fonts, use of callouts, using pictures in lieu of text. Short phrases, pleasant colour schemes, right choice of tone (active/passive, 1st/3rd person), appropriate fonts are what ‘dresses up the character’ making them very presentable.

5. Edit, re-edit – “Practice, practice…”

Much like how the characters need to practice multiple times to deliver a stellar performance, writing is iterative, requiring multiple edits, each one refining and embellishing. In every edit, refine by removing information that is superfluous. Remember ‘less is more’, by removing potentially noisy information. When you can remove no more, you probably have reached the end of edit cycle.

6. Read aloud – “Watch the characters perform”

Once you think you are done with the presentation, read the text aloud. In the recent case, I read some of the text in the presentation around and watched the author (my colleague) squirm! Well they could spot the issue and know what they had to modify. This works wonderfully to quickly analyse the content and spot issues. Note that you have to read text in the presentation using the the right modulation so that you feel good, or spot problems. This is very much like watching the performance of the characters and rapidly getting to know as to what you want to tweak.

We started with “Understand target & their expectations” focussing on what they want and now we close by playing the role of a customer by reading it aloud. It is indeed amazing as to how many times I have helped refine content by becoming the customer via reading aloud.

When drab reporting gets converted into a story, the author can make the presentation come alive and engage the typically impatient senior management. Leadership is about great storytelling and when you engage in this manner, you lead the conversation. You are in control then and therefore can get your message across powerfully be it to communicate the value of your work or seek assistance to smoothen bumps you have encountered.

As engineers, we are typically left-brained rooted in logical thinking. On the other hand story-telling is a right-brained activity involving creativity and emotion.

So the next time, you make a presentation, ask yourself “Can I tell this as a story?”. At the least, sit in a quiet corner and read aloud and assess if it feels good. I bet you will know what to do. If you find soliloquy challenging, do this with your best buddy.


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