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August 13, 2010

Case study: cables negotiation — part 7/8 — Prepare your message

This entry is part of a multi-post case study.

So you’ve identified potential solutions to reduce the duration of your cable negotiations. You’ve also identified which analysis you needed to do to verify that these were indeed valid solutions. Suppose that your analysis left you with one clear solution, as depicted in the first figure below. Now you need to implement it.

To prepare your message, first identify the main take-aways from your analysis

Identify the main take-aways from your analysis

Implementation can be very organization-specific. So, instead of spending some time looking at it in this post, let’s focus on thinking about how you can “sell” your solution to your organization; that is, persuade them that they should implement the solution you’re recommending.

Persuasion is part of any problem-solving process: unless you are completely cut-off from the world, you’ll always need something from someone. So let’s look at how you can present the results of your analysis effectively. This post discusses how to prepare your message. The next post will discuss how you should deliver it—assuming it is a Powerpoint presentation that you are giving to the leaders of your division within the company.

Tailor your message to your audience

You’ll need to prepare the best message possible for your specific audience, which means that you need to think about who they are. Zelazny has a good chapter on this; here are the elements I consider:

  • How familiar are they with the problem? (That will help you decide where you start your situation-complication-key question flow and how technical your message should be.)
  • How opposed to your solution do you think they’ll be? (That will help you decide how to formulate your argument.)
  • What is their attention span (decide on level of detail)?

In the same line, you’ll nee to think about how you want to convince them. Aristotelean persuasion has three pillars: logic (logos), emotions (pathos) and credibility (ethos). You’ll need to think about how you combine them to produce the best message for this particular audience.

In our case, we’ll be presenting to the leadership of the company, so we’ll assume that these guys are pretty logical. They will want to see data supporting our recommendation and a few testimonials might help as well. But cold, hard logic isn’t enough; we’ll also want to generate some emotions to sway them our way.

So, what sort of emotions do we think would help best? We can provoke:

  • Anger (“Delays in closing negotiation are the result of the incompetence of several few.”)?
  • Empathy (“The hard work and dedication of an entire team is wasted because we can’t close on time.”)?
  • Fear (“If we don’t reduce the duration of negotiation, the whole business is going under.”)?
  • Interest (“Here is an opportunity for your division to break new records.”)?
  • Pride (“It would be the first time than anyone ever solved this recurring problem.”)?
  • Other emotion(s)?

Emotions are best used if you focus on one. As a general rule, I also think they work better if they are positive (interest, pride, etc.) rather than negative (anger, fear, etc.) but that is very situation-dependent.

Now we’ve identified our best solution as involving the engineering department in the negotiations. There are various way to convey that message. It can be antagonistic (“we would never have had so many delays if Engineering had agreed earlier to be part of the negotiations”), begging (“please, Engineering, agree to help us because we cannot do it on our own”) or anywhere in between. Obviously, your message will be more constructive if you stick to the positive side—without having to be begging. It will work even better if, before your big presentation, you have secured Engineering’s buy-in in your solution and ensured that they’re ready to back you up (more on that in the next post).

Develop a storyboard

Before you get into the details of your story, you’ll need to develop the overall storyboard: where do you start from, what do you mention along the way, and where do you end. The best way to do that is to start by developing your executive summary: the three to five slides that summarize your entire point.

Present your conclusions by first assembling the executive summary of your message

Start preparing your message by assembling a storyline

For any presentation with more than 20 slides, I like to start with the executive summary. Actually, for all presentations—irrespective of size—I think it is a good idea to first tell people where you’re going, because it helps your audience to think about each piece of new evidence that you present in terms of its contribution to your overall conclusion: they are never thinking “where are you going with that?”. Instead, they can apply they critical thinking skills, each time wondering if the evidence does indeed support your overall point.

In the cable negotiation example, our main message comes down to three simple points:

  1. {Situation + complication} / the need for change: “Delays in closing cable negotiations has cost us $3M in the past 2 years”
  2. Proposal: “We can avoid 90% of further delays by involving Engineering in the negotiations”
  3. Anticipated benefits: “This would place our division in the top 3 in the entire company”

In this message we have our logic flow (by doing something simple you get big benefit) and emotional (we’ll give you something to be proud of (top 3)). We establish our credibility by the way we present this message (grammar, visuals, etc.) and by our track record, i.e., by demonstrating time after time that we deliver what we promise.

So if we’re happy with the executive summary, we’ll use it as the index of our presentation and we’ll break it down into parts, distributing each as the tag lines of our slides.

Develop each of your main ideas on various slides so as to show the level of detail that you think is necessary

Starting from the executive summary, drill down into details

The idea is to explain our arguments at the relevant level of details for the specific audience.

Starting from the executive summary, drill down into details

Starting from the executive summary, drill down into details

Note: for the moment, we’re not populating the slides just yet. Instead we’re making sure that the tag lines complement one another to form a logical and compelling story. (By the way, this is one of the reasons why your tag lines should express ideas and not just be titles. More here.)

An important consideration is to stay focused. You’ll probably want to mention quite a few details but you need to resist these parentheses. Your audience will have a very limited attention span. Maybe they’ll remember one idea out of your presentation. If you’re lucky enough to have an outstanding audience, they may remember as many as three! But they won’t remember more. This is guaranteed. So here your choice is not whether you want to use your presentation to solve 5 or 10 issues but to decide if you want your main recommendation to go through. The more distractions / side points you’re making, the less likely it is that they’lll remember what you want them to remember in the first place.

A corollary is that you have to resist the urge to explain everything that you’ve done in your analysis to uncover your conclusions. Sure you’ve done an amazing job and it would be nice if you get credit for it but each time you prepare to mention a point, make sure you understand what you’re really saying, i.e. what is your “so what“. If your actual point is that you’ve worked a lot, be prepared to face the critics.

Populate your slides

Once your storyboard is distributed on top of your slides, it’s time to populate your slides with the evidence that supports each argument (this is the so-called evidence-assertion structure; see Alley, referenced below). Up until this point you’ve favored the macro-cohesion of your message: you’ve ensured that each main part articulated well with the others and that each was supported by logical arguments. Now you need to focus on the micro-cohesion of your message: ensure that each idea—each tag line—is supported by the right data.

This is an iterative process, which is why you need to start working on your presentation at the beginning of your project, not at the end (more on that in the next post). You come up with the  tag lines that correspond to your best guess as to how your story will flow. Then, you think about the information that you need to support these tag lines. Once you have the information, you revise your original tag lines: does the information support my original idea? If so, move on to the next slide. Otherwise, revise your tag line and reconsider your entire message in the light of the new evidence.

Following an assertion-evidence structure, the content of each slide should support its tagline

Then populate your slides with the evidence that support their taglines

References:

Alley, M. (2013). The craft of scientific presentations, Springer.