Leader, how well do you behave when being presented to?
Despite so much focus on presentation skills, I had not previously come across someone writing on how leaders could better receive a data/analytics presentation. So, I was intrigued to find guest blogger Harry Powell had recently published a blog post on the topic.
I agree with his premise, that business leaders share responsibility with analysts – to get value out of data presentation & together come to the best decision based on the evidence. So, I am delighted to share this guest blog post which is grounded in the practical experience of Harry Powell, who is Data & Analytics Director for Jaguar Land Rover. Over to Harry to challenge all of us…
The skill gap of being presented to
There is a multitude of courses on how to present to your boss, but have you ever seen one that teaches your boss to be presented to?
I had to make an important presentation to a senior leader in my business. It was the culmination of months of work and my team had prepared the presentation diligently. We had to tell a complex and nuanced story. Although he was aware of the subject matter, we hadn’t spoken to him about it for some time and our thinking had moved on a lot since then.
The story could be told from two angles, so after a brief introduction, I asked him to tell me which way he wanted the presentation to go. He said that he didn’t mind; “Just take me through it your way”.
How leaders scupper data presentations
To my surprise he interrupted on only the second slide. In some circumstances this would be fine, but he asked about something that he knew, from the introduction, I would cover in a few moments time. He said he was busy and wanted to get to the point. But it seemed to me that he did not appreciate the subtleties of the issue, and it took quite a lot of to-and-fro to establish that there was a bit more to it that he had originally thought. What could have been covered in half an hour took double that time.
Moreover he seemed much more interested in telling me what he was thinking rather than hearing what we had come up with. If he really did know the issue already, it was not apparent from the questions he asked. It was quite an intimidating situation. Had we completely misunderstood the brief? Were we giving the impression that we were not properly prepared? Would we be better just to go with the HIPPO (highest payed person’s opinion) or should we risk sticking to our message?
All quite frustrating.
How should leaders behave when being presented to?
How a manager behaves during a presentation makes a huge difference to the outcome. Your team is presenting to you in person because it is an interaction; you create something together; you are all participants; You all have a role to play. If you didn’t then they could have just written it down and sent it to you.
What is the right way to behave in a meeting? Here is my model. I don’t always manage to live by it, but I think it is worth doing.
It has no catchy title, and I am sure others have come up with something similar. For the sake of this article you can all it the “half-third-sixth rule”; Listen, explore, challenge, decide.
A meeting of three parts & four steps
In your head, divide the meeting into three parts; one half of the total time; one-third of the time; and one-sixth of the time. You don’t need to hold to these exactly, but until you’re used to it, you could stick to the timetable explicitly. It’s quite easy and fits into the typical one-hour meeting naturally.
A good way to commit to the model is to tell the presenter that that’s what you are going to do. It will help them manage their time as well.
Step one: Listen
During the first half of the presentation try to listen. Just listen. Think. Compare. Make notes. Learn. Your aim should be to understand what the presenter is trying to say, not necessarily to determine if they are right or wrong. That can come later. Of course, the presentation may go off-topic and stray into irrelevance, and it will be incredibly tempting to jump in and set them right. But maybe it will be taking you in an unexpected direction. Possibly the presenter, having spent a good deal of time thinking about this topic is wanting to lead you towards some new insight that you don’t yet know. At least give them the benefit of the doubt, and listen. If you have briefed them correctly then they will know how long they have got and what they need to achieve. And if you get to the end of the presentation and you are still none the wiser, then you have learned something else even more valuable; about them.
The hard part of all of this for the presenter is understanding how this one issue fits in with all the other things they have responsibility for. But each of you has an important part to play. The presenter will understand the detail of the issue better than you, but you will understand the wider context better than them. So let them tell you their narrative. At least then one person in the room will have the whole picture.
There will of course be some matters of detail that you need to make sure you grasp clearly in order to evaluate the whole. By all means ask direct questions of clarification, for example the source of a fact or the method of calculation of a KPI. But be careful not to draw out the enquiry. You’ll disrupt the flow of the narrative and there will be plenty of time for that later.
By the end of the first half, you should at least know what the presenter wants you to hear. But there are likely to be loose ends. Most presentations are not very well written and are full of gaps. But remember that many of the gaps are not there a result of poorly thought out work but because you can’t include everything in a half-hour PowerPoint, and because, without your context, the presenter may not kno§w what is relevant to you and what is not. Preparing a presentation is an exercise of managing ambiguity in a situation of incomplete information.
Step two: Explore
The purpose of the next third of the presentation should be to explore what the presenter really meant, and what further possibilities might be possible. You still don’t know the full picture, so you need to draw out the information you need from the presenter. Think of this part as a peer-to-peer examination of the ideas in the presentation in the light of what you know of the wider context.
Don’t confront inconsistencies, try to draw out circumstances in which apparent inconsistencies are in fact correct. If there are no such circumstances, or if those circumstances are absurd, then the inconsistency is real. But the spirit of collaboration and positivity is crucial here. In my experience, presentations are hierarchical affairs. Junior colleagues present ideas to their seniors, seeking approval for action. Coupling that hierarchy with greater knowledge and an inquisitorial manner will not get to the truth, even if it feels good to impose your view on them.
We talk in my team about “yes if” as opposed to “no because” language. What would we have to do to make an idea work? Are there any other ideas that would get to the same solution more easily? One way you can tell if you are doing this right is if the presenter is still doing most of the talking.
Step three: Challenge
At the end of the exploration third, you should be in a position to summarise your understanding succinctly. To enumerate the options for action and their consequences, and to state what would need to be true for any option to be the right choice. So in the final sixth do just that, setting out your reasons clearly. Challenge the presenter to respond, not just to agree.
There is still learning to be had even at this late stage, but don’t allow it to turn into a long discussion. There is no time for that, and if the matter is still that open, ask them to come back at another time with a conclusion. Remember that, given your position, a robust challenge can come across as intimidating, and that may not be conducive to eliciting truthful information. Make sure you play the ball, not the (wo)man. Your presenter will be much more useful to you if they know that it’s not personal. You may need to tell them that, just to reassure them that your challenge should feel invigorating, not threatening. Encourage them to participate in kicking the tyres too. What would it take to undermine their idea?
Lastly, make sure you are especially careful to be clear and simple in the language you use to challenge the presenter. They may well be thinking about the whole issue quite differently from you. If they seem evasive, unsure or are digressing on a tangent, it is possible that they haven’t fully understood the question but don’t want to admit it.
Step four: Decide
It should not be until this phase is finished that you have reached your decision about what should be done. If there is nothing to be decided and no action to be taken, perhaps you might wonder why you have just had a meeting at all?
Holding back your decision for this long takes a lot of discipline and self-control. You may have been wanting to tell them the answer from the first minute, but try not to. Not only should you avoid telling them your decision until the end, try to avoid making your decision until the very end. At least entertain the idea that you may change your mind, and listen, explore and challenge wholeheartedly.
I wish I had the patience to do implement this pattern more often. But I should, because it has significant benefits for decision making and for wider team development. Have a go yourself, and let me know how you get on.
How well are you mastering being presented to?
Many thanks to Harry for his wise advice. It can be even more difficult for leaders with a data or analytics background to exercise such self-control, but I agree it is vital. Such an approach can both improve the quality of thinking in the meeting & do wonders for analyst development.
What about you? Have you thought about the topic of leadership development on the topic of being presented to? Do you know leaders who do this really well? Are there people in your business whom your team relish presenting their data to? If you have some wisdom to share, please do so using the comment boxes below.