Jun 17, 2011 (06:06 AM EDT)
My 4 Fundamentals Of Effective IT Communication
Read the Original Article at InformationWeek
I once attended a meeting on behalf of Rob Carter, the FedEx CIO. It was the Friday morning CEO staff meeting as the peak of the shipping season approached. I was there to discuss the preparations of FedEx.com to handle the expected shipping and tracking volume. I remember exactly my presentation when Fred Smith, FedEx's founder and CEO, turned to me.
"Mr. Smith," I said, "marketing is projecting 1.0 million shipments on peak day. We are scaled for 1.2 million shipments and can go higher with little customer impact. The systems will be monitored 24 hours a day. We are ready."
And I sat down. Mr. Smith said: "Best IT presentation I ever heard." And then he went on around the table. Undoubtedly it was not the best IT presentation he had every heard, but it met the guideline of "get up, tell him what he needs to know, sit down."
Very few of us have the stage presence and speaking skills of Rob Carter. But we all have to find ways to be effective communicators. That means having your audience understand your points. It does not mean you must be a great speaker, though that certainly helps. At the same time, I have come away from listening to many a great speaker without understanding the point of the talk. But it sounded good.
Your ability to communicate effectively can easily be a limiting career factor. Directors and VPs must be able to communicate in a variety of settings on numerous topics for any number of reasons. Here are my four fundamentals for effective (IT) communications.
1. Get to the point immediately. In other words, state your conclusion first, then support it. If necessary, start by giving the audience the brief background on why you're giving this presentation, then state your conclusion, recommendation, finding, etc. For example you might say, “We have been studying what do about... Our recommendations are..."
The second flaw in this approach is the assumption that the presenter will actually have the time necessary to build the case. More often than not, the time set aside for the presentation gets cut because the meeting is running long, your 20 minutes is now five, and half the audience is packing up to head to their next meeting.
The third flaw is the feeling by the presenter that he or she must prove the analysis was solid. Assume that your analytical skills are trusted and use that analysis to support the conclusions.
2. Structure your slides properly. Since so much corporate communication starts with a PowerPoint presentation, it's important that you structure your slides with a purpose. Getting to the point quickly is especially important if the audience is high ranking and your presentation is just one of many they will hear. You'll have a lot more flexibility to be effective in unexpected situations.
Going back to my FedEx years, there was a situation where one of my systems had failed an internal audit and the business senior VP and I were summoned to the Memphis headquarters on a Sunday evening to report our corrective actions to the board's audit committee, headed by Sen. George Mitchell. Being called before Sen. Mitchell and the board was intimidating, even as experienced as I was.
I had my three-slide presentation ready, and it was in the board materials. The senior VP and I sat outside the boardroom for what seemed like forever before we were called in. The boardroom was empty! The entire board was at FedEx Field in Washington, D.C., for a football game and the audit committee was on the phone. I listed the corrective actions we were taking, Sen. Mitchell said something to the effect of "sounds good," and the entire meeting lasted less than a minute. But I have no doubt that if the presentation and slides had not been structured properly and I had tried to go into the history of the audit before giving my actions, the call would have been almost as short but the tone would have been much different.
Providing a quick read is also important, especially if your organization distributes slide presentations as a pre-read. There were nights when I would receive more than a hundred pages of PowerPoint pre-reads for the next day. Only if the slides were structured correctly was it possible to be familiar with all the presentations.
A properly structured slide has four parts: a brief title; a topic sentence or two that summarizes the information; the body, which can be as complex as required; and an optional takeaway sentence at the bottom, which often serves as a transition to the next slide. A reader should be able to read the title, topic sentence, and any takeaways and understand the presentation.
Every communication expert will tell you there are good ways to say something and bad ways. The bad way is to use words that have strongly negative connotations. People have a tendency to hear and repeat controversial or inflammatory words even in the context of a positive message. Remember that when making a business presentation, you can't avoid being evaluated yourself. Take the opportunity to show your leadership, knowing that everyone prefers a positive attitude in leaders.
4. Get professional help. No, not a psychiatrist, but a pro who can coach you on basic presentation skills. My personal preference is Spaeth Communications out of Dallas, but any class that uses video to record and critique you is a great start. Even the impressive and effective Rob Carter uses professionals to help him refine his presentation skills.
Business presentations are a reality of corporate life, and how effectively you get your points communicated will have a direct bearing on your potential for senior leadership. The above fundamentals will only get you going in the right direction. There's no substitute for training, practice, and the hard work of refining your message.
Dr. Larry Tieman has been a senior VP at FedEx, a CIO, or a CTO for the last 20 years. He has worked with some of the great CIOs, including Max Hopper, Charlie Feld, and Rob Carter. He can be reached at Larry@LarryTieman.com.
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