By Jimmy Guterman
Back when you were a beginning knowledge worker, chances are you distinguished yourself first by what you knew. You showed that you were passionate about the technologies relevant to your work by keeping up to date on the latest and greatest and sharing what you learned with your colleagues. This helped differentiate you and put you on a management track. But it all changes when you actually move into management. Once you’ve made that jump, your job is no longer show what you know; your job is to share and present what you and your team need to do.
While that distinction seems obvious to me today, it did not at the time I made my own transition into management. As a learning manager, I put way too much effort into trying to create presentations that would wow people with my accumulated knowledge and insight. But my audience was no longer looking to me to be an topical expert; rather they expected me to be an agenda setter. I was showing off, turning people off, and failing to do my job as a leader.
To push you further in the direction of making compelling presentations as a manager, I want to share with you the work of two very smart thinkers on the art of communication: Nancy Duarte, who has designed many a persuasive TED talk (including one by Al Gore that grew into An Inconvenient Truth), and Garr Reynolds, whose influential, streamlined approach to presentations pushes people way beyond bullet points and into real connections with their audiences.
I highly recommend two books by Nancy Duarte. Slide:ology is a terrific step-by-step primer on strong, persuasive storytelling via presentations; Resonate is a master class in how to shape presentations in ways that will affect your audience in deep ways. Both books are well-worth reading front to back, but a good place to dip in first is Change Your World, a chapter in Resonate that focuses on using presentation to make change. Duarte helps you think big but stay grounded. Her key quote in that chapter — President Kennedy’s line that “The only reason to give a speech is to change the world” — sets the stage for a practical but highly moral discussion of what persuasive presentations can produce. Meanwhile in the “Don’t Use Presentations for Evil” subsection, Duarte highlights (with Enron as prime example) how presentations can get people and organizations in and out of big messes. Still, the chapter is also highly tactical: its “Gain Competitive Advantage” subsection lays out how visionary talks can differentiate you from everyone else in an indelible way.
Everything Garr Reynolds has written about presentations is worth reading, too, but the video version of his Presentation Zen is full of fascinating tips and examples for keeping the focus on the actions you want people to take. Also, his The Naked Presenter shows how to tell compelling, change-making stories even without slides as crutches. A great place to start learning Reynolds’s method is this section in Presentation Zen about engaging with your audience. While he’s done his research (you’ll enjoy his quote from a book called Why Business People Speak Like Idiots), he emphasizes how research itself isn’t enough for a great presentation. Reynolds shows how you have to make an emotional connection: “Our audiences bring their own emotions, experiences, biases, and perceptual filters that are no match for data and facts alone. We must be careful not to make the mistake of thinking that our data can speak for itself, no matter how convincing, obvious, or strong it may seem to us.” If you want people to follow what you suggest in your presentation, you have to help them feel what you want them to feel.