Friday, 21 August 2015 06:31

No PowerPoint Slides? How Can I Communicate?

Written by Elizabeth Larson & Richard Larson

Recently we attended a Small Business Leaders conference in Washington, DC. Our speakers included US senators, cabinet secretaries and undersecretaries, under-undersecretaries, and a few associate assistant deputies thrown in for good measure. It wasn’t until one of these associate assistants told us that we were his first group not to be treated to a PowerPoint slide show that we realized that there had not been one PowerPoint slide in two days—no slides, not one bullet point or photo, no multi-media—just words. To be sure, some of the speakers referred to their notes from time to time, but these were people all knowledgeable about issues confronting small businesses in the United States. 

At this point we could make jokes about politicians being too wordy, or government technology being old and broken so they had to rely on old-fashioned notes on index cards, but we had just spent two days talking, in part, about the latest technical advancements. So when the speaker alluded to the lack of PowerPoint slides, we realized in the first place that not one of the speakers had used slides, and in the second that as far as we knew no one missed them.

These speakers talked to us about what they knew, often with humor, always with enthusiasm and earnestness. There were no gimmicks, no extraordinary efforts to be entertaining-- just an understanding that we wanted them to share their knowledge, and they, in turn, wanted to learn about the issues that affected us. To put things in perspective, all the presentations were short, with most 15 minutes or less.

Don’t get us wrong--there is nothing wrong with PowerPoint slides, Prezi, or other presentation tools. They help keep us and our audience focused on the session objectives. However, such tools, when improperly used, can also stifle creativity and limit discussion. When we rely on such tools as the primary communication vehicle, we run the risk of telling too much and learning too little. For those of us who facilitate meetings, give presentations, act as mentors and consultants, or train others, to be effective we need to be prepared to address the topics of interest to our audience. We need to make sure that participants participate, and we need to leave time for participant interaction and questions. Let’s look at each one of these in more detail.

Prepare to address topics of interest to our audience. It was clear to those of us at the Small Business conference that most of the speakers prepared (or their staff had) enough to know some of the big topics facing the audience and were able to weave their messages into our issues.

As a project manager that is not always the case. For example, Elizabeth “ran” many meetings with business stakeholders. She says, “I often had an agenda that I felt needed to be completed. I knew what I wanted to get from these stakeholders, and I drove towards that end. Because I was focused on what I needed for the project and not what the stakeholders needed for their end product, the meetings did not always go well.” Preparing means spending the time to talk to stakeholders in advance of a meeting to find out the topics of interest to the participants. We may discover issues that would take the project in unexpected directions. It does not mean that we have to act on all these diversions, but we do need to ensure that our participants feel that they are heard. We need to bring these topics to our sponsors and business owners and let the participants know that we have done so. Parking lots (topics to be discussed at a later time) are often a useful way to capture these digressions, not only during meetings but our prep work as well.

Help participants participate. We found it interesting that there was a great deal of discussion with the conference attendees. This discussion was often lively but took place in a respectful, encouraging environment.
Of course creating that kind of environment is not always easy. There are many things we can do to discourage participation in meetings and workshops. For example, when we go into a meeting with a list of ground rules and view our job as enforcers of these ground rules, we discourage participation. When we require “only one voice at a time,” or dictate that a participant raise their hand before speaking, we can pretty well guarantee that participants will at best forget what they wanted to say or worse yet, shut down. Some of the latest meeting and workshop trends include providing participants with stickies to jot down their ideas as they think of them, setting up easel pads around the room so participants can jot down their ideas at any time, encouraging participants to get up and write or create a visual design on a whiteboard, and when meeting virtually, devising creative ways to ensure that all voices are heard.

Leave time for interaction. At the conference, most of the speakers mentioned the importance of hearing from us. They set aside time for lots of Q & A. In addition, there were several panels and each panelist encouraged questions and comments.

In our experience, agendas are generally too tightly packed. We try to cover more than is possible because we know that the stakeholders’ time is limited. Moreover, when the agenda is presented on a PowerPoint slide, it can give the impression of being unchangeable. This formality increases the risk of trying to cover too much in too short a time and decreases the chance that participants will interact with each other.

It is important for all meetings, and particularly when stakeholders are participating virtually, that all of us take the time to get to know each other. This is even more important when we are planning a series of meetings with the same stakeholders. It is equally important to remember that regardless of the topic or the nature of the meeting, each participant is important and will have questions. We need to learn from the participants, and the best way to do that is by encouraging their questions. Sure, some stakeholders will ask questions that are not directly related to the topic at hand, while others will “grandstand.” Even though their “questions” will be opinions and statements rather than questions, we need to provide an environment and the necessary time where everyone is heard.

Some of the speakers at the Small Business Leaders conference freely admitted that our issues were outside their domain of expertise or authority. Others refocused the group on the conference objectives. But in each instance we felt that we were in a safe environment and were taken seriously. We need to do the same in project meetings.

Next month we will get back to our Modeling Series as promised.

About the Authors:

Elizabeth Larson, PMP, CBAP, CSM, PMI-PBA is Co-Principal and CEO of Watermark Learning and has over 30 years of experience in project management and business analysis. Elizabeth’s speaking history includes repeat presentations for national and international conferences on five continents.

Elizabeth has co-authored three books: The Practitioner’s Guide to Requirements Management, CBAP Certification Study Guide, and The Influencing Formula. She has also co-authored chapters published in four separate books.

Elizabeth was a lead author on the PMBOK® Guide – Fourth and Fifth Editions, PMI’s Business Analysis for Practitioners – A Practice Guide, and the BABOK® Guide 2.0, as well as an expert reviewer on BABBOK® Guide 3.0.

Richard Larson, PMP, CBAP, PMI-PBA, President and Founder of Watermark Learning, is a successful entrepreneur with over 30 years of experience in business analysis, project management, training, and consulting. He has presented workshops and seminars on business analysis and project management topics to over 10,000 participants on five different continents.

Rich is a frequent speaker at Business Analysis and Project Management national conferences and IIBA® and PMI® chapters around the world. He has contributed to the BA Body of Knowledge version 2.0 and 3.0, the PMI BA Practice Guide, and the PM Body of Knowledge, 4th edition. He and his wife Elizabeth Larson have co-authored three books, The Influencing Formula, CBAP Certification Study Guide, and Practitioners’ Guide to Requirements Management.

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