A Conference Rant

The toughest job in business these days? Conference organizer, if you ask me. Meeting the diverse expectations of anywhere from 100 to 1,000 attendees is nearly impossible, and is, at the least, a thankful task.

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An example of one of the spectrum was the gentleman who attended a panel discussion I was on, and asked the panel “what are the 3 things you’d recommend I do when I get back to the office on Monday morning?”

For the record, I despise that question. How the hell should I know what you should do on Monday morning? Do I know what you’ve been doing the past 520 Monday mornings? Do I know what the unique challenges and opportunities your organization faces are? Do I know what is and isn’t working at your organization today? Who are you, anyway? And why aren’t you doing what your boss tells you to do? Or, better yet, why are you doing what he or she tells you to do?

No. My fellow panelist, Mark Zmarzly from Deluxe, was up first, and gave the absolutely perfect answer to the man’s question: “That depends.” Bingo.

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At the other end of the spectrum was an example that Mark wrote about on his own blog. Writing about his experience at the recent Financial Brand Forum, he mentioned that he had heard “at least one conference participant say that the ideas presented at the conference weren’t revolutionary.”

I had two immediate reactions to this: 1) These people didn’t see my presentation, and 2) (doing my best Jack Nicholson impression) “YOU CAN’T HANDLE REVOLUTIONARY!”

Ignoring my first reaction for a moment (which, of course, may have the result of serious self delusions of grandeur), these comments about the lack of “revolutionary” ideas are troubling.

First off, one man’s revolutionary idea is another man’s impractical idea.

Second, exactly how are we defining “revolutionary”? Going back to my potential self-delusions, I would like to think that at least of the ideas I presented qualified as “revolutionary.” But I guess not. Or maybe those people really didn’t see my presentation. Hey, a boy can dream.

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Speaking of impracticality, here’s a dilemma.

Assume that the speakers at a conference really focused on the “three things attendees should do when they get back to the office.” If there were eight speakers, attendees would be left with (up to) 24 things to do on Monday morning.

Good luck with that!

And if every attendee did the 24 things the speakers told them to do on Monday morning, we’d be left with even less differentiation among competitors than we already have today, because every firm would be doing the same things.

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In his blog post, Mark mentioned that his favorite Financial Brand Forum presentation was from the CMO of a very respected west coast bank.

After getting over the sting of my presentation not being his favorite, I thought, “Really?”

I never did get the appeal of some exec getting up in front of conference attendees and talking about what his or her firm did. Like there was anybody sitting in the audience who could pull off the same things this west coast bank does. Or that should pull off the same things. Different banks + different capabilities +  different markets = Different strategies and tactics.

But I am aware, however, of the real value of this kind of presentation….

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Successful conferences balance three types of speaker presentations: Education, Inspiration, and Instigation.

Whether attendees take away the “three things they should do on Monday morning” or not, I can’t argue that attendees shouldn’t learn something. But if all they come for is to learn, than I think they miss out on a few things.

Like inspiration, for example. That’s the real value of the CMO presentation, as far as I’m concerned. Presentations like the one Mark liked inspire people to do great (or at least better) things at their own company. Even if there isn’t a shot in hell of them doing the same things the presenter did a his/her company.

Beyond education and inspiration, there is a third type of presentation, or benefit to be gleaned from a conference presentation: Instigation. If you want your existing views and opinions of the world to be confirmed, then stay home and read any of a gazillion blogs that exist.

A good conference presentation can be neither educational or inspirational, but still valuable because it challenges how you see the world. Maybe the ideas don’t rise to the level of “revolutionary,” but they could help you to see the world in a new light.

Personally, I aspire to deliver the third type of presentation. I’m hoping there’s a place for that in the conference world.

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There is, sadly, a fourth type of conference presentation: The bad song.

I’m not even going to include a link to that Let’s Get Social video that made the rounds recently. Somebody should be arrested for that.

 

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Federal Reserve Mobile Financial Services 2014: Great Data, Lousy Graphics

Your objective when presenting data, whether it’s in a presentation or a paper, is to convey meaning.

The reason we use graphs in presentations and papers is that a graphical representation of data is often easier for the audience to process than the written or spoken number. This doesn’t stop a whole lot of people from screwing it up, however.

Here’s an example of the failure to use good data visualization principles to facilitate the communication of data. Take a look at these two charts from the Federal Reserve’s recently released study on consumers’ mobile financial services habits. The content of data of the questions and answers isn’t important here. It’s the percentages shown.

20140331 FedReserveIn the first chart, the most-frequently cited response was mentioned by 53% of survey respondents. In the second chart, the most-frequently cited response was mentioned by 28% of respondents.

Yet, the length of both bars in the two graphs is nearly identical. Your anal-retentive snarketer here actually measured them. The 28% bar is a little more than 3.5″, the 53% bar is 3.9″. But because they both take up the entire space allotted for the graph bars, you’d be hard pressed to notice this difference.

I don’t have a PhD in Math or anything (just an MBA in Finance and Statistics), but it seems to me that the 28% bar should be just a little more than half as long as the 53% bar. If they were on the same graph, I bet that would be the case. So why would a bar representing 28% on one graph be any different length on other graphs in the report?

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Stop doing this, people. Stop stretching the top bar in a graph all the way across the graph. If you have six inches of space, only a bar representing 100% should take up the 6″. If the top bar in a graph is just 50%, it should only be 3″ long.

You better convey meaning by keeping graph dimensions as similar as possible across graphs in a report or deck. You’re making readers and audiences work too hard to interpret the graphs when the top bars are stretched all the way. And wasn’t “ease of comprehension” the real reason you chose to display data graphically, instead of textually, in the first place?

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Of course, there is another–more sinister–reason why this happens as often as it does: The presenter/writer is intentionally trying to deceive us.

That’s right. They draw that top bar, which might represent just 23%, all the way across the graph, in order to make it appear larger than it really is. And, of course, in a graph where the 23% bar goes all the way to the edge, the difference between 23% and 19% looks huge. In a proportionately drawn graph, that difference looks miniscule.

Of course, when considering the margin of error,  the difference between 23% and 19% might not even be statistically significant. But let’s work on one problem at a time, here.

How To Quantipulate Using Graphics

To refresh your memory, quantipulation is:

The art and act of using unverifiable math and statistics to convince people of what you believe to be true.

Examples of quantipulation abound in marketing and politics. Today, I’ll show you how to quantipulate with graphics, using a real-life example pulled from a very reputable firm’s blog.

In a post titled What Social Networking Websites Do Consumers Access Within the Course of a Typical Month? the Raddon Group enclosed a Powerpoint deck that reported the results of a recent survey the firm conducted. The graphic below was pulled from the deck, and was altered to hide the numbers on the vertical axis. The chart shows the adoption of PFM (personal financial management) tools from Fall 2010 through Spring 2012.

Based on the chart, what would you guess the growth in PFM adoption has been? From about 30% to 90%+? Sounds reasonable to me. But here’s the chart with the numbers, as displayed in the presentation deck.

Although the two bars representing Fall ’11 and Spring ’12 are twice the size of the Fall ’10 bar, the difference between the bars is just 2%, or 20% of the original bar’s total. 

Call me silly, but if one bar is twice the size of another bar, how can that bar be only 20% greater than the other one?

Bottom line: While it’s tempting to manipulate graphics to make changes look more pronounced than they really are, it’s not a good management or presentation practice. Axes should start at zero (unless the numbers reported go into the negative range). And the size of bars should be proportional to the space allotted for them. 

In other words, if your chart takes up 5 inches of space, a bar representing 20% should be about 1 inch long (or high, depending on the orientation). 

Oh, and one more thing: If you do try to quantipulate, I will find it and call you out on it. 

I Hate SlideShare

I hate SlideShare.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the company or the site. In fact, I think the site does a pretty good job of what it does, and I certainly don’t begrudge the company’s right to make an honest, ethical business out of what it does. 

But as a self-professed psuedopsycho presentation snob, I hate that people find value in slide decks. 

So maybe that’s really it: I don’t hate SlideShare itself, I hate the fact that there’s demand for something like SlideShare. 

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I give a lot of presentations at conferences, webinars, and at clients. And I’m usually happy to share my slides with anybody who wants them — after the presentation, that is.

That’s because, as far as I’m concerned, the slide deck itself is useless.

The value of the presentation is what I say and how I say it. The deck is nothing but a prop.

But, as evidenced by the popularity of SlideShare, apparently there are a lot of people who don’t share my philosophy. It kills me when I see SlideShare users fawn over some deck that consists of little more than a bunch of slides showing high-resolution pictures of stuff with a pithy sentence plastered somewhere on the picture strung together.

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There are three components to a great presentation:

1. Quality of the content.

2. Quality of the delivery.

3. Quality of the material.

If I had to weight the three components, I’d say 60/30/10. Great content can compensate for a less-than-great delivery. And great delivery can compensate for butt ugly slides.

SlideShare captures #3. Which means — according to my book — it captures 10% of the value of a presentation. 

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Another reason I hate SlideShare: I posted a presentation I did a while back to SlideShare just to see how many people would download it. Here’s the sobering reality: More people downloaded that deck than will read this blog post. 

So, not only do people place higher emphasis on the least valuable part of the presentation (the deck), it’s become clear to me that one reason for SlideShare’s popularity is that a lot of people are just too damn lazy to read. 

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The irony is that I’m preaching to the choir. By reading this, you’re proving that you’re not one of the lazy-ass heathen ruining the business world with crappy-ass presentations filled with nothing but stupid-ass pictures. 

What’s that? I sound mad? Can’t imagine why.

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I would ask you to tweet the link to this blog post so that others may partake of this presentation wisdom. But the reality is that they won’t read this because it requires too much mental energy. 

If I had half a brain, I’d take this blog post, split it out over 30 slides, paste it on top of a bunch of high-res pictures, and post it on SlideShare. 

UPDATE: Big thanks to @jameswester who created a deck of this post and put it up on SlideShare. Thanks, James!

How Not To Give A Presentation

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a strong interest in developing my presentation skills, and from time to time like to share things I’ve learned about giving good presentations.

If you have seven minutes to spare, please watch the following video. It’s a great example of what not to do when presenting. And it’s funny as hell (not that it tries to be, mind you). 

Why You Don't Write So Good

Seth Godin writes:

“The reason business writing is horrible is that people are afraid. Afraid to say what they mean, because they might be criticized for it. Orwell was on the right track. Just say it. Say it clearly. Say it now. Say it without fear of being criticized and say it without being boring. My best tip is this: buy a cheap digital recorder. Say what you want to say, as if the person you seek to persuade is standing there, listening. Then type that up. “

Maybe it’s the nature of the people I typically interact with (highly educated and opinionated), but I’m not picking up on a lot of fear of communicating in the workplace. In fact, I think Gen Yers are more confident expressing their opinions that Gen Xers or Boomers before them were.

My take: Fear might play a role in it, but there are other — and more important — reasons why business writing sucks.

If your writing sucks, it’s probably because you:

  • Aren’t thinking clearly. Poor writing — and poor communication in any form, for that matter — springs from poorly formed ideas and thoughts. Too much of business writing relies on buzzwords and meaningless platitudes — which are simply shortcuts for getting at the core of an idea or thought. On countless occasions on this blog, I’ve taken someone (blogger, researcher, etc.) to task for not critically thinking through what was expressed on the blog or white paper.
  • Aren’t clear why you’re writing. If your writing sucks, you probably haven’t figured out why you’re writing what you’re writing. Is it to educate the audience? Entertain the audience? Persuade the audience? Some of all three? If you can’t articulate why you’re writing, your writing won’t be very articulate.
  • Haven’t practiced. You can sing, can’t you? But just because you can sing, it doesn’t mean you can make good music. Same with writing. Just because you can speak, it doesn’t mean you can write effectively. Good writing is a skill. You get better by practicing.  If you’re not Beethoven, you’re not going to write a great symphony on your first try. And if you’re not Seth Godin, you won’t produce great business writing just by speaking into a recorder and typing up what you said.

Speaking isn’t a substitute — nor a prerequisite — for writing. When we speak, we use phrasing, intonation, and facial expressions to help convey meaning. If you simply translate what you say into the written word, something will be lost. I can guarantee that.

This isn’t the first time Godin has written about writing. Back in January 2008 he wrote:

“Don’t let the words get in the way. If you’re writing online, forget everything you were tortured by in high school English class. You’re not trying to win any awards or get an A. You’re just trying to be real, to make a point, to write something worth reading. So just say it.”

I said it then, I’ll say it now: DO let the words get in the way. Read through it through the eyes of your audience (to the best you can), and ask yourself: How will they interpret what I’m trying to say? Am I using words that could be misconstrued? Is there a simpler and more concise way to say what I just said?

Here’s why this is so important: The ideas that win in the business world aren’t necessarily the best ideas. They’re the ones that are most effectively communicated, by the most persuasive communicators.

If you want to record and type up what you say — with all your “ums” and “likes” and the poor grammar we get away with when we speak — go for it. Your writing will suck. And my ideas will kick your idea’s ass every time.

The World’s Worst — Or Best — Powerpoint Slide?

Gizmodo ran an article titled Behold, the World’s Worst PowerPoint Slide. As Gizmodo wrote: 

“It often seems like every PowerPoint slide is the worst, but here lies what projector company InFocus deems history’s most heinous. I’m inclined to agree. It’s almost brilliant in its horror. Diabolical. The arrows. The colors. This is Satan’s face.”

Here’s the offending slide:


My take: I’m inclined to disagree. 

Here’s why:  A good slide isn’t necessarily about legibility. In fact, for the most part, you don’t want people to read your slides when you present something. 

Good Powerpoint slides do a number of things. For one, they remind you what you’re supposed to be talking about at that point in the presentation.

Another thing a good Powerpoint slide does is elicit an emotional reaction. And the quicker that reaction is generated, the better.

When I look at the slide above, I can’t read a damn word on the slide. But I do have a reaction: “Holy sh*t, IT modernization is going to be really freaking complicated, time consuming, difficult, and probably expensive.”

And if you’re the CIO of a large organization, eliciting that kind of response from the senior management team is golden. After all, those bastards think your job is easy, don’t they? 

Bottom line: This is far from being the world’s worst Powerpoint slide.