A few weeks back, Karen Martin authored a post for her blog entitled, “How to capture an audiences attention” in which she gave several good tips for remembering your audience and delivering a strong presentation.
Inspired by Karen’s post and a recent chance to address the MassBay PMI chapter (a presentation for which I give myself a B+) I’d like to add another, useful tip to all those would-be speakers out there:
Don’t rely on your presentation to capture the audience, rely on your ability to present.
By presentation, of course I mean PowerPoint decks or other visual aids. Quite frankly, unless you have something technically complex that can only be understood with a graphical depiction, or you have something uproariously hilarious that can only project its humor when seen, then you really don’t need slides at all.
Yes, perhaps decorum necessitates that you have them, but you really shouldn’t need them. You really ought to be so utterly devoted to your topic that you can carry the audience without relying upon the screen. Take a look at many of the TED talks – there’s just a passionate person talking, not a smart instructor elaborating on words most of the audience can already read.
My short speaking experience is already telling me – don’t even think about opening that PowerPoint file until after you have perfected what you will say and how you will say it. Else, the slides will guide you. You need to develop that perfect ability to deliver your topic to the room first. Then, if you must, craft a few slides around it.
I am in the midst of a PMP prep examination these days, diving deeper into the project PMI’s methodology for project management than I ever have before. Despite more than a decade of working on nothing but project & program teams, I’ve never gone after PMI certification.
True to my affinity for Lean thinking, I don’t put much stock in these type of certifications. The class is bearing out that the intent is simply to pass the test, not build better project managers. Everything is about the test, the test, the test – and there is very little about the development of the principles taught and how they came about. Just. Pass. The. Test. The test is also intentionally deceptive – minor turns of a phrase mean different things in “PMI Land” as the instructors like to call it. A big part of passing the exam is tuning your eye to catch these clever little interpretations and usages – a skill which is useful for only 1 project: passing the test.
It is easy to understand why so many fellow students get frustrated and jokingly state that the exam does not reflect reality. Unfortunately, what seems to get lost, is that it’s not supposed to.
As I study the guidebooks for this class that are introducing us all to the PMI concepts, I am harking back to my Lean training and the years I’ve spent contemplating Operational Excellence through my writings on this blog. In my mind are the oft-repeated Lean-thinking mantras: “Theory guides practice” and “There can be no improvement without a standard.” Thank you, Dr. Deming and Mr. Shingo (and, please, OpEx gurus out there – correct me if I am quoting them wrong.)
I feel lucky to have the benefit of my time spent trying to understand the Lean paradigm because it is offering so much insight into what the PMI framework is trying to do. It is establishing a standard. It is offering a methodology for managing projects against which all other management styles, and outcomes, can be measured. In a way, it depicts the ideal – if all projects, everywhere, operated in the way the PMI describes, then all projects would deliver on time, within budget, and with inputs from all stakeholders at every level of the organization – including customers.
Is that reality? No. Of course not. If the standard was reality, there’d be no need to set up a test for it. A standard is not meant to depict reality. What it does do, however, is give us an ideal scenario against which to judge and measure the current state. How far from this standard are we? Did we make an intelligent deviation, based on detailed analyses of how our environment differs from that depicted in the standard, or did we simply throw up our hands and say, “But this is the way we’ve always done it?” (Or words to that effect, such as “I’ve never seen that” or “That just won’t work here.”)
When theory doesn’t match reality, there are 2 options: Change the theory to match reality, or change reality to match the theory. Those who argue the PMI framework just isn’t reality will be the ones trying to change theory in order to better align with their expectations – nearly all of which demonstrate a daunting tolerance for inefficiency & waste. On the other hand, if you accept that the “theory” is really just a depiction of the ideal – you instantaneously give yourself something to work towards. It is the “true north” of the program & project management world – to have a perfectly managed, documented, planned, monitored, tracked and executed set of activities that are completely understood and performed by all stakeholders.
My advice for those who are poo-pooing the PMI framework as nothing more than an academic exercise designed to pass a test (which, to some extent, it is), is to think of the methods provided within the framework a bit differently. The tools and techniques they teach are not a set of instructions on how to effectively manage projects. Think of them, instead, as a depiction of a perfect universe – and use that depiction to begin thinking about the gaps between your current reality and the PMI’s idealized scenarios.
Learning is a fairly linear phenomenon. You examine a decision, look at the outcome, and determine the causal chain. It is incredibly useful, as well as simple and straightforward. This is, usually, the manner in which we educate others and ourselves. Do this and get that.
On the Job training on the latest process or policy is usually much the same. People are told, or expected to know, some desired outcomes. They are shown the steps that achieve that outcome, and then are expected to master those steps. Perhaps, in an enlightenend organization, they might even be asked to improve upon those process steps. This is, essentially, the “Know What” paradigm in action – if you know what gets you to the target, just repeat it, and you will always reach the target.
Learning is about seeing things only for the result they provide. Understanding, however, necessitaties examining the context of a decision and the basis for the process in the first place. Whereas learning is forward-thinking (do-this-get-that), understanding is backward looking (do-this-because-of-that) and, therefore, understanding is an essential component of the “Know Why” paradigm.
Know What is the most simple method of directing an activity. Bosses, parents, bullies, and manipulators of all level will resort to this simplest of methods. Basically, it’s not much more than, “Do this, or else.” As such, people learn to avoid punishment. Or, in a better way, we employ methods such as “Do this, and I’ll give you that.” in order to create a reward. This way, people learn to seek compensation.
Know Why, however, is a more complex form of stirring people into action. Know why requires a conversation. It also requires that the person soliciting the activity has a deep enough understanding of the situation, the reasons why, and the ability to communicate them. Understanding is not directing, but guiding. It is also risky – people may reach different conclusions than what was intended. This is acceptable, however, since it enhances the understanding of the subject for both the teacher and the student.
Developing the habit of understanding is difficult. It is not the same as openly accepting ideas, but appreciating the thought patterns and circumstances that went into them. You might not agree with a point of view, but you should understand it. Interestingly enough, developing an understanding of things you disagree with tends to strengthen your beliefs and not weaken them.
Which, I have come to understand, is something that we should all try to learn.
Last spring, when my older son was 6, I wrote a couple of posts describing what I learned about parenting, people and myself as I attempted to guide him through excelling at something he’d never done before. You can seem them here:
That second post – about teaching the boys on my son’s team how to focus in spite of themselves, is one of the more popular posts I’ve ever written, if you judge by how frequently it has been re-tweeted. As we move into spring time here in northern New England, the baseball gloves are re-emerging from hibernation, and there are already opportunities to learn more about guiding people.
My son had a friend over on what turned out to be a record-setting day for warm weather (which has been freakish in these parts for the past 6 months or so). In 75-degree weather, which is about 3 months ahead of schedule, I played a little catch & hit with the boys on our front lawn.
My son and I have spent a lot of time over the past year or so on the mechanics of fielding and hitting. While he’s not exactly the second coming of Derek Jeter, he has a decent understanding of how to throw, how to hold a bat and swing level, and how to move his feet to get in front of a ground ball and squat down to field it. His friend, who has not played on a team yet, proclaimed he was awesome at baseball – and then proceeded to hold the bat incorrectly, throw with no mechanics, and every ball that rolled on the ground went through his crooked knees.
Now, this has nothing to do with me bragging about my son (okay, so maybe just a little). It has to do with understanding how people learn, the importance of subjective experience and interpretation, and the role of coaching. The other boy honestly and genuinely believed he was “wicked awesome” – based on his own experience and what people had, or had not, told him about the way he did things. My son believed much the same, until a lightly tossed ball went off the heal of his glove and hit him in the lip, or he swung so hard at a ball that he completely missed it and the bat went all the way around until it bonked him in the head.
Each of the boys had a different interpretation of what “good” meant – and acted in line with that. By their own definition, they were, indeed, “Awesome.” So, it struck me, that when we interview candidates or assign people to tasks based on what they tell us about themselves, we are really only going on that person’s interpretation – which may be very different from our own. Different professions have attempted to make the understanding of the job standardized by instituting certifications and licenses, however, there is still a great deal of variation in the ability to understand and implement those standards. There is still one universal truth – the definition of what constitutes “good” is often developed after the fact and is done so according to subjective interpretations by someone with a need to save face.
In my mind, this episode with the boys on the front lawn emphasized the need to establish the criteria for success up front and to work towards it constantly. There has to be some wizened expert in the mix, able to see the gap between what is known now, and what the ideal is supposed to be, in order to guide and coach those with little experience.
Without that, when simple games turn into genuine winner-take-all competition, the uncoached will be left to flounder and lose…..even though they were “totally awesome” in their own minds.
Speaking clearly is just another one of those things that seems like it ought to be easy to do, yet remains remarkably elusive. Very often, when we’re speaking, we will say something that makes perfect sense to us, but our audience doesn’t understand. When we’re listening, we tend to try and re-phrase the speaker’s words, figuring that we need to “get what they mean.”
What we don’t do very well, as either speaker or listener, is try to understand the others’ point of view, or anticipate how they will react. This is what makes giving direction so difficult – that even when we do our best to consider the audience, the audience is programmed, by both nature and nurture, to take our words and look for some other, deeper or different meaning. For one, they want to taste-test our statements and see if they make sense. For another, everyone’s different and simply won’t understand the same information in the same way. Chalk it up to personality profiles, learning styles, intelligence, or anything else you like.
We need to seek understanding first when we encounter new information. There’s always time to use what we already know tear an argument apart later, but the time to gain new information is right now.
That being said, we’ve all seen terrible presenters, too. There’s nothing worse than a middle-manager, forced to give a presentation, who stumbles through the slides, either racing through important points just to get to the end, or reading every word on an overstuffed slide – just to get to the end. Of course, when a question arises, such a presenter either looks like a deer in the headlights and stammers out some half-baked answer, promises to “get back to you,” or, what’s worst – declares that it’s your fault for not listening.
Both seeking to understand what is being said, as well as taking into consideration the concerns of the audience, can alleviate the “waste of interpretation” that leads to tremendous misunderstandings. If the speaker isn’t clear, don’t try and assimilate the information – ask clear questions to develop a new understanding. If the audience isn’t “getting it” change your method of sharing the information. After all, if the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.
Anything else simply leads to things getting lost in translation, which means people are walking away with a different understanding of the information than what the presenter intended – which means more work later on to stem rumors, clean up errors, or once again try to gain enthusiasm for another round of “improvement” initiatives.