“I think health advisories about eating and drinking are all made up. My uncle enjoyed having fried food, drank like a fish and smoked often. He lived to a ripe old age of 87. My aunt, on the other hand, was a teetotaler and used to go for her daily walks. And yet she passed away because of a heart attack at 62!”
”I don’t think we should invest in Madhya Pradesh. My cousin had a tough time getting his approvals for a factory in Jabalpur“
“Nepotism exists in all sectors. Have you not heard of doctor/lawyer families? And by the way, the top management of ABC Bank is all from XYZ state”
I’m sure you have come across statements like this (and more), when debating with friends and colleagues.
What is the issue with statements like these? These are not data. They are opinions based on selective anecdotal evidence – that is often presented as data! (Especially when some of them have ‘statistics’ embedded in them).
As some wise person said, “The plural of anecdote isn’t Data”. You cannot just string together a series of anecdotes and call it the ‘facts’.
“In God we trust. All others must bring Data” – Unknown (frequently attributed to W Edwards Deming)
If you would like your recommendations (and arguments!) to be data-driven, you need the power of two tools:
MECE thinking: MECE stands for ‘Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive’. It forces you to consider all possible angles and factors in the analysis. It is also described as ‘No overlaps, no gaps’. (This post is not intended to be a detailed explainer on MECE – will do that in a later post!)
The right Norm and variance: As part of MECE thinking, you need to choose the right norms for your data points. Norms can be compared across 3 basic parameters: Time, Competition and Component (share).
Let’s take a quick example – one that has been a raging debate in India for many months now: Nepotism.
There are broadly two arguments being made. One which says that Bollywood is the worst industry when it comes to promoting its own. And another which states that there’s nothing especially wrong about Bollywood – nepotism exists in all industries.
If you debate this just using anecdotes, you’ll never hear the end of it. There are plenty of anecdotes, on both sides of the aisle. No one can win.
What you need is a data-driven approach.
Disclaimer: Crafting a detailed MECE approach for this question is beyond the scope of this post (sorry!)
Still, I’m giving an indication of what I mean by data-driven approach:
1. Start by defining the main hypotheses that you wish to prove or disprove. Ideally, it should be quantifiable. For instance, here it could be something like: “The rate of nepotism in Bollywood is highest among all industries, geographies and over time”
2.Figure out a keymetric that can be used to measure nepotism in some way. Say, the “Percent of movies in a year that have ‘star-kids’ in key roles v/s ‘non-star kids’” (Let’s call it the ‘Nepotism rate’.)
3. Measure and compare this metric across the right ‘norm-variance‘ parameters:
– Time: Find the current ‘Nepotism rate’ for Bollywood, and then find the same for the last 5/10/20 years. Go as far back as you have data. The trends over time might give you a much better perspective, rather than just the number of one year
– Geography: Compare the metric in Bollywood vs. other industries (from India and from abroad). Sure, other countries are culturally different. Still, it might be useful to see how this shows up in the metrics. In addition, you can compare the trends in the ‘Nepotism rates’ for other film industries over time.
– Industry: This means taking the comparison outside of the movie industry. This is tricky. You may have to see something like “Percent of leadership roles in the industry that have ‘owner-kids’ in key roles v/s outsiders“. Sure, it may not be exactly comparable with the ‘movies released’ part… but it will give you some sense. You could also take other creative professions like music, art, stand-up comedy et al. The comparative numbers will give you interesting insights.
– Component: Dig deeper into Bollywood. How does the Nepotism rate differ across Studios? Across movie genres? Budgets? Big screen vs OTT? More fascinating insights will come your way.
4. Do the above exercise for other key metrics:
– How many Star/Non-star kids got a second-movie chance after the first flopped
– Number of years of struggle before getting first big break
– Total roles in a five-year period
– And so on!
5. While collecting this data, it is useful to have preliminary ‘hypotheses’ – your educated guesses on what the numbers/direction might be. Be super-careful of confirmatory bias though!
6. Finally, once you collect all the data, the next step is to craft the messages from the data, and craft a coherent narrative from those messages. And then visually represent it and prepare to present it.
I didn’t say the process would be easy! But it would be comprehensive. And data-driven.
So, the next time you get a loose anecdote-based comment, decide if it is worth getting into the discussion (most of them are inconsequential).
If it is worth getting into, then make it a data-driven one.
And remind your collaborators: The plural of anecdote is not data!
“I’m really looking forward to the 2-hour business review presentation”
Said no one, ever.
Why do review meetings suck so bad?
And why does it bother me so much?
I’m a Storytelling coach. And in my workshops, I train people in the techniques to convert detailed, complex data into simple, compelling stories.
But ever so often, when I suggest a new way of presenting information to a session participant, I face a bunch of resistance.
Here are two common examples:
Me: Your slide is too complex. You should split your
messages across more slides – have only one message per slide
Participant: But I can’t do that
Participant: Because we have an internal restriction – any presentation should not exceed 10 slides…
Or this second example:
Me: And that is how you can convert this boring data-table
into this compelling story
Participant: That’s great. But our Clients mandate is to present data in that exact data-table template only
The core underlying problem here: trust. A deep lack of trust between the two key players involved in Data Review meetings: The Reviewer and The Storyteller.
Let’s understand where both of them are coming from.
The Reviewer: “I want the truth, but don’t trust the Presenter to give it“
In the Red Corner, we have ‘The Reviewer’. Typically senior leaders (or Clients). They want the Storytellers to present the “true picture” of the business as clearly and quickly as possible.
But they don’t trust the Presenter to do that, because they believe:
Presenters usually hide bad news if any – especially if it reflects poorly on their performance or has any implication on their rewards
Presenters tend to drown the Reviewer in an ocean of data – because of lack of their own clarity or worse, deliberate obfuscation
The Storyteller/Presenter: “I’d like to tell the truth, but worry about repercussions“
In the Blue Corner, we have The Presenter/Data-Storyteller. They want nothing else but an uneventful meeting. One in which The Reviewer doesn’t get into ‘Shoot-the-messenger’ mode, giving a tongue-lashing because the numbers don’t ‘satisfy them’…
One in which, perhaps they even get faint acknowledgement for the effort taken to simplify highly complex data …
Maybe even, gasp, a word of praise for the storytelling that enabled a better discussion and decision making…? Ah, who are we kidding…
And so it remains stuck in limbo.
Presenters are wary of trying something new for fear of incurring the Reviewers’ displeasure… And Reviewers prefer to drown in a sea of data, rather than trust their presenters to give them a clear, simple story.
The solution: 10 Commandments
As a solution, I propose a Satya-Vachan (Sacred-Oath) to be taken by folks on both sides of the table.
I call it the Ten Commandments of Business Review Meetings.
To keep it balanced, we’ll have 5 each – for the Storyteller and the Reviewer.
(Warning: This post is a bit of a rant. Ok, it is a full-on rant. Fasten your seat-belts, the ride’s gonna get bumpy!)
Here’s a quick summary.
Five Commandments for The Reviewer:
1. Thou shall insist on the Story and not the Data in all its vivid, gory detail
2. Thou shall approach the presentation as Mr. Curious or Ms. Learner; and not as Mr. Blame-Finder or Ms. Finger Pointer
3. Thou shall not be anal about presenting in standard templates, formats and dashboards
4. Thou shall let the presenter talk at least for the first 5 mins, without interruption
5. Thou shall refrain from mandating nutty rules like “No animations” or “5 slides only”
Five Commandments for The Storyteller
6. Thou shall include every key element in a MECE manner, but thou shall not overwhelm thy audience in an ocean of data
7. If there’s bad news/poor performance, thou shall not hide it in slide 125
8. Thou shall not be a victim of the Curse of Knowledge
9. Thou shall make your story easy to understand visually
10. Thou shall create a script and rehearse before the meeting
All set? Let’s do this.
5 Commandments for The Reviewer:
1. Thou shall insist on the Story and not the Data in all its vivid, gory detail:
Sure, you pride yourself on your attention to detail. Sure, you remember the sales number for Product sub-category M5(a) in market Y from 3 years ago.
But before you go about insisting on seeing that data, ask yourself one question: Is it relevant? What is the key problem or issue you are trying to solve? And what are the key ‘big’ pieces of information you need to solve that problem?
And sure, if the sales figure of Product sub-category M5(a) in market Y from 3 years ago is critical to that question, please go ahead and dig-away.
But more likely it’s not. And so,
refrain from being Mr. ‘Insist-On-Detail-For-The-Sake-Of-It’, and instead ask this
magical four-word poser: “What’s the story here?”
Insist that the storyteller puts in the effort to understand the ‘essence’ of the data and extract the story in a MECE way. (Remind them of Commandment no. 6).
2. Thou shall approach the presentation as Mr. Curious or Ms. Learner; and not as Mr. Blame-Finder or Ms. Finger Pointer
Let’s face it. Review meetings
will bring bad news. More often than you like. When said bad-news arrives, you
have two options.
Option 1: Be Mr. Blame-Finder. I understand – you are worried about how you will communicate this bad news to your boss. You are experiencing a myriad of emotions: disappointment at the bad news, anger at the person or factor responsible, worry about how you will explain it higher up.
At such a time, it seems easy to have an emotional outburst at the Data-Storyteller.
But imagine what effect will this have on the Presenter. Anytime there’s some not-so-good news on the numbers, she will try her darn best to try and hide that information. Under a mountain of data. In font size 10. Preferably in the appendix.
How to avoid this? Simple, choose
Option 2: instead of Ms. Finger Pointer, become Ms. Learner (or Mr. Curious).
The review presentation is not a Police Interrogation of a suspect. It is more like a joint diagnosis by a team of medical professionals – who’re trying to figure out what ails the business (and in which areas is it hale and hearty) … and what could be done to fix the issues…. so that you can jointly arrive at the next course of action.
This principle, by the way, is backed by research by Stanford – it’s called the use of Data for Learning and not for Inspection. You can read it in point 5 of the linked article. (Because, of course, we all need a stamp of approval from Stanford for common-sense advice).
3. Thou shall not be anal about presenting in standard templates, formats and dashboards
Sure, a template or a dashboard
is useful for studying the data. But it’s not a story.
Here’s an analogy. Say the Storyteller is the Chef and the Reviewer is the diner at the restaurant.
Think of your data as the ingredients for the dish… and the template/dashboard as an interim stage in the cooking process. The stage when the chef has collected all the relevant ingredients and equipment (in the right measures) and laid it out ready to cook…
Imagine the chef calling the diner in at this stage to take a look and enjoy the dish…
You (the diner) would be like: “Hey, I don’t need curated list of ingredients – I need the prepared dish”
You don’t need a detailed template with information – you need the story.
By all means, use templates and dashboards for sharing information over email etc. But during review time, the template cannot become the story. Don’t insist on presenting using these tools.
4. Thou shall let the presenter talk at least for the first 5 mins, without interruption
The Presenter has worked for days
(if not weeks) on the presentation. She’s put in her sweat, blood and tears,
her very heart and soul.
Ok maybe not.
But surely, there’s a lot of effort gone into making the deck. The least you can do is give her the first five minutes (assuming the person isn’t saying blatant untruths or offensive stuff!) – so that she can summarise all the key findings.
But, but – what if a thousand questions pop into your mind? Questions that you’re afraid you’ll forget if the moment passes and you don’t ask immediately?
There’s a fascinating invention
you may have heard of – it’s called (drumroll please): Pen and paper!!
(Ok that’s the last of ‘em snide
But seriously – five minutes. No interruptions.
After that – if you still find the storyteller meandering or being unclear – fire away the questions!
5.Thou shall refrain from mandating nutty rules like “No animations” or “5 slides only”
Once upon a time, in a darkened
meeting room far, far away, a presenter did something abominable.
He (over)used animation.
Fed up with his insipid, complex
presentation – and wanting to find a scapegoat – the leaders decreed:
‘THE USE OF ANIMATION IN THIS COMPANY’S SLIDES SHALL BE A PUNISHABLE OFFENSE. REPEAT OFFENDERS SHALL BE MADE TO VIEW THEIR OWN PRESENTATIONS ON LOOP.
Seriously, why all this drama for
a simple, useful tool? Some over-use can be discouraged, but a blanket ban is
counter-productive. Bring back the Animation I say!
Animation can be a useful tool to
display the information on the slide in bite-sized pieces – and avoid
overwhelming the audience with too much information. Let it be used.
Another classic counter-productive
mandate: “Please restrict the presentation to 5 slides”.
You realise what you’re going to
get right? The same 25 slides will now be compressed into 5. With a ton of
information crammed into every slide. In font size 10 (being the maximum).
For your own eyes’ (and sanity’s)
sake, do away with such restrictions.
Your only constraint is time.
Instead of restrictions on the number of slides, insist on the following:
The Presenter to plan their story to finish within 67% of the allotted time (leaving 33% for Q&A)
The Presenter to summarise all messages in the deck, into a simple 1-slide Executive Summary (at most 2 slides).
Each slide to be simple, clear and meaningful and flow well from the previous slide
You’ll find that as long as each slide is easy to understand and the overall time constraint is met, the number of slides – Don’t. Matter. At. All.
That’s for the Reviewers. Now let’s move on to the
Five Commandments for the Storyteller
6. Thou shall include all key elements in a MECE manner, but thou shall not overwhelm thy audience in an ocean of data
I get it. You have done a lot of
work. And you’d like the audience to know that.
I mean who else creates 35 pivot tables from just one master table? And why should the audience be deprived of the unbridled joy, the unadulterated exuberance of your glorious analysis?
Because. Despite what you think,
the audience is also human and deserves to live.
You may think they are here to marvel
at your analysis, your numbers, your slides…
Surprise, surprise – the
presentation is not about you!
You are just the guide to the audience, showing the torch-light, helping them make sense of the underlying problem/s in the business- and your recommended solution.
To do that, you must resist the
temptation to simply dump the entire hot, steaming pile of data on the table….
And instead, think through what is the story. (For guidelines on how to do that, you can read this article).
As a storyteller, you have a responsibility not to overwhelm your audience with data. The same amount of effort that you expend in deciding what should go into the story, should be expended in deciding what stays out too.
But here’s the thing. Editing is
not an excuse to exclude crucial parts of your story from the deck.
You need to run the ‘MECE’ test –
are your presentation elements ‘mutually-exclusive and collectively exhaustive’?
Do they cover all key elements in a ‘no-gaps’ and ‘no-overlaps’ way?
The ‘Collectively Exhaustive’
part especially is critical – to ensure comfort for the audience that nothing
Especially when it’s bad news…
7. If there’s bad news/poor performance, thou shall not hide it in slide 125
Uh oh. Product Q’s revenue was
down 15% in the last quarter.
Down, huh? This means only one
The management needs to be protected from the noxious effects of this piece of information.
Slide 125 in the Appendix it is.
Now, hiding bad news is a very
You may gain a few days of peace and quiet. But the moment you get caught (and you will get caught), you lose something far more important: your credibility.
As a result, when you present the next time (even if there’s nothing to hide), your seniors would suspiciously scour through your presentation – searching for that hidden bad news…
The better approach: be upfront
about it. Depending on the impact of the bad news, state it clearly and unambiguously
early enough in the presentation.
You can soften the blow by
prefacing with something like: “Ok guys, you’re not going to like the sound of
this, but…” OR, “The next part doesn’t make for happy listening…”
But the blow has to be delivered.
What’s more important, of course,
are the two immediate next steps that must follow: The RCA (root cause
analysis) and next steps.
RCA: Once the bad news has been given, immediately answer the question that will be foremost on the leaders’ minds: ‘Why did it happen’. Dive deep and identify the root-cause of the issue.
Next Steps: Then suggest your recommended corrective (and preventive) actions to ensure that the cause/s do not repeat again.
This 3 step approach (What – Why – Now What) is a simple way to build leaders’ trust in your story.
8. Thou shall not be a victim of the Curse of Knowledge
Hang on, knowledge is supposed to
be a blessing right? How can it be a curse?
It can, when you forget that your
audience doesn’t have it.
When you are so deeply entrenched
in the details of the data, you forget what it is like, not to know the
data. Essentially you fail to empathise with the audience.
And so, when you suddenly dive into
explaining the nth level of detail of a specific factor (without giving
the context that it was the reason for the fall in Product Q’s revenue), your
audience is likely to give puzzled looks, asking “What gives?”
Leaders crave for context, for
the big picture along with the details. Help them connect the dots.
Don’t fall prey to the Curse of Knowledge.
9. Thou shall make your story easy to understand visually
10. Thou shall create a script and rehearse before the meeting
A lot of us have a problem rehearsing. Typical excuses include:
“It’s my material – I know it cold!”
Sure you do. But this is a presentation, not a Q&A session. You need to know exactly what points you want to make (and not make!) on each slide – and more importantly how will you segue between slides. You need to create a script for each slide and for transitions. And practise it.
– “I did rehearse – I went through the
slides and thought through what I’d say on each”.
That is not a rehearsal. You. Need. To.
Say. It. Aloud.
And time yourself. You’ll identify parts where you are meandering; and parts where you abruptly jump from one section to another. Even minor tweaks to your script can then make a big difference.
– “I feel awkward rehearsing
in front of a mirror”
You don’t need to! The best way to rehearse is in front of a live audience (face-to-face or virtual). Their reaction and body language will be the best guide for your delivery. If that’s not possible, record yourself presenting and go over the video. Sure you will cringe… but it’ll make you a better speaker.
Your audience deserves that
better speaker. Make the effort for them.
And that’s it – the Ten Commandments for Business Review Meetings.
Follow them and you’ll see a vast improvement in the quality of the discussion – and decision making – in your review meetings.
And what’s more, you actually might end up saying:
“I’m really looking forward to the 2-hour business review presentation!”
No energy-draining commutes, no time-sucking meetings, no pesky co-worker conversations, no random birthday celebrations… and more family time… what’s not to love?
The dirty secret? For many of us, the office provides the necessary discipline to work. Actually work. And not fall prey to the three challenges of the home-office environment:
a. Distractions: Getting sucked into the unending temptations of the online universe (“Just one more video, and I’ll get back to work”) and other distractions.
b. Battling interruptions: Uniquely home interruptions such as the newspaper guy coming for his bill; the ironing guy for new clothes … and just when you are focusing on that critical proposal, a family member would ask for help with the printer. People assume that if you’re at home, you’re fair game and can be asked to do anything.
c. Managing low-energy periods: At office, the presence of others helps us power through the ‘low-energy’ periods (for instance that dreaded post-lunch nap, sorry dip, in productivity).
How can you cope?
In this long-form blog post, I’m sharing all the productivity lessons I’ve learnt from 5+ years of working from home.
(Disclaimer: There are much better sources of advice on this topic – for instance, the ‘Getting Things Done’ movement. I’m no expert on the topic. This is just a structured list of ideas that have worked for me).
Here’s a quick summary:
Break down your work into a prioritised list of tasks and record them
Break down projects to bite-sized, SMART tasks
Record tasks in the appropriate place based on urgency
Prioritise them using the Creator-Clerk framework
Manage your T.E.A.M. (Time, Energy, Attention and Mood) to complete the tasks
Time: Know your Biological Prime Time (BPT) and only schedule Creator tasks during this period
Energy: Create a conducive office environment and sleep, eat and exercise well to maintain energy for critical tasks
Attention: Know the sources of distraction and engineer your workplace to minimise its impact, especially during the BPT
Mood: Avoid unnecessary conversations and keep your mood positive
1. Break down your work into a prioritised list of tasks and record them
a. Break down projects to bite-sized, SMART tasks
At work, you have two kinds of tasks. Simple one-off to-dos (e.g. book Pune-Delhi ticket) and more complex ‘projects’ (e.g. prepare client proposal).
You cannot work on a ‘project’. You can only work on tasks that make up a project. But we often list down a ‘project’ as a to-do in our task list … and then get stuck – where exactly to start?
For instance, can you identify which of the following items qualifies as a ‘task’:
Research about healthcare in India
Make a plan for the company offsite to Goa
Complete auto-industry report
Answer: None of the above.
The above activities are all projects, that consist of a series of tasks within them. You need to break the project down into those tasks.
For instance, in the above cases, the following might be a specific task for each project:
Download and read annual reports of top 3 healthcare companies (A, B and C)
Speak to 3 vendors about Goa transport options and costs
Put down thoughts for ‘Competition financial performance’ section in ‘Industry Overview’ chapter
When you are ‘breaking-down’ a project into component tasks, there are 2 guidelines to keep in mind:
MECE: Between themselves, all the tasks should be MECE (Mutually-Exclusive-Collectively-Exhaustive)
SMART: At the lowest level, the task should be unambiguous and SMART (Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic and Time-bound)
The actual steps in creating a detailed MECE task list is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say that you should have tasks, not projects in your to-do list.
b. Record tasks in the appropriate place based on urgency
Now tasks don’t arrive neatly in a package at 9 am every morning. They are an unruly barrage of items that come at you with no order or frequency. If you just keep responding to each one as they came, you’d never be able to get critical work done.
Which is why you need a recording system for your tasks and thoughts.
Over many years of experimenting, I have figured out a system that works for me. Depending on the category of the task and when it needs to get done (today or sometime in the future), I have the following recording system in place:
Elaborating on the above, here’s what I do for the different categories of tasks:
For a meeting/call on a specific date or time, it’s easy – just record it on your calendar and then forget about it.
For ideas or tasks on specific projects, it’s best to have a ‘structured-sink’ where you can drop these ideas into. If you are working collaboratively on a project, you can use tools like Trello, Asana, Wrike et al. (TBH, I haven’t worked on most of these, since I mostly work alone). For self-work, Microsoft OneNote is a good option to jot down notes.
For future to-do lists or ideas on specific topics, I use Google Keep and Evernote. Keep is my generic note-taking tool, in which I have a range of notes, both personal and official – for e.g. my address and bank details for quick sharing, shopping lists, check-list for travel etc. On the other hand, I use Evernote almost exclusively for work ideas. I really like its ‘Notebooks’ feature and I use that to put down ideas by category. For example, the ‘Notebooks’ on my Evernote are given below:
Physical Notepad: This is probably my most important task-management tool. Previously I would note down the day’s tasks in my normal work notebook. The issue with that is the work notebook also has a ton of other stuff – conversations notes, thoughts for a presentation, doodles etc. It then becomes difficult to flip back and look for your to-do list, among all the other notes. That’s when I decided to buy some small notepads – which I exclusively use for the day’s tasks only. That makes it easy to find the to-do list for the day and previous days. And it enables you the satisfaction of ‘ticking things off’ the list!
Alright, so you have your list of activities for the day. Time to get cracking? Not yet. You need to categorise them into Creator and Clerk tasks first.
c. Prioritise tasks using the Creator-Clerk framework and urgency
Not all tasks are equally important. While we know that instinctively, we don’t follow that priority when executing them.
Way back in 2009, Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham had penned a famous essay: Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. In it, he categorised all tasks into two – Maker tasks, which add most value and Manager tasks, which need to be done but aren’t value-generating of themselves.
I call them Creator and Clerk tasks, to make the distinction clearer. Creator tasks are what get you paid – writing a proposal, making a project plan, creating a presentation.
Clerk tasks are the routine everyday items that take up a lot of time but are not the reason you get paid. E.g. Filling time-sheets, expense reports, responding to routine emails.
Here’s an illustrative list of Creator and Clerk tasks to make the distinction clearer:
Once you have the list of tasks to be done, you need to classify them into these two categories.
And then comes the important step: At the beginning of each work-day, list down no more than three Creator tasks that you would like to accomplish for that day.
More than three would make it too ambitious and set you up for disappointment; less than three might be too easy.
Once you’ve categorised your task, we move onto the next section: using our resources – our T.E.A.M. – to complete the tasks.
2. Manage your T.E.A.M. (Time, Energy, Attention and Mood) to complete the tasks
That’s right – just managing your time isn’t good enough. You may have all the time in the world, but still not get any work done, because:
You were distracted (low attention)
You were low on energy, or
You were in a low mood
Which means you need to manage all your resources impacting productivity – your time, energy, attention and mood.
Let’s dive in.
a. Time: Schedule Creator tasks during your Biological Prime Time (BPT) and take frequent restorative breaks
In limited-overs cricket, the Power-Play is a critical phase. During this period, there are restrictions on how many fielders can be outside the circle – which gives the batsmen a freer license to take risks and score more.
Of course, that means you need to send the right batsman during this period. You would send a Virat Kohli or a Rohit Sharma; and not a Jasprit Bumrah or a Yuzvendra Chahal.
Similarly, during your day you have a PowerPlay time – it’s called your Biological Prime Time: the time of the day when you are most alert and raring to go. Typically it’s the first 2-3 hours when you start work in the morning (for some it may be the evening time; for others, it may be two slots across the day).
Now here’s the thing: During this period, if you end up doing ‘Clerk’ tasks, you would be frittering away your BPT advantage. It’d be like sending Bumrah (no offence!) during your batting PowerPlay.
So the key ‘time’-management trick to maximise your productivity: Schedule your Creator tasks during your BPT.
For instance, I would start my morning with any proposals that need to be sent, any research that needs to be done for an upcoming session or any writing for the blog.
Late mornings and afternoons would be for the mundane stuff – accounting, paying bills and taxes, booking flights and hotels. I try and keep my BPT free from such items.
Of course, this is easier said than done because of 2 issues:
Yourself: Often we are tempted to start work in the morning with simple Clerk tasks (like clearing all unread emails to “get them out of the way”). It may give you a sense of accomplishment, but it’s a poor use of your BPT, since your Creator tasks remain undone. It may also happen that we start off on a Creator task, but get stuck in between. That’s when one part of us says “Hey, forget this difficult job – there are so many easier things to do in your list. If you work on them, at least you’ll be ticking them off your list”. Avoid the temptation. Creator tasks are meant to be difficult. Power through them, and you’ll come up something impactful. If needed, take a 5-minute, non-screen break… but don’t give up.
Otherpeople: You know your BPT. But others don’t. And so there are likely to be multiple interruptions from your boss, colleagues, family members (at home)… How to cope? Identify the most common interrupters and politely request them to hold off their queries for a couple of hours. Better still, tell everyone upfront that you are going to be busy from X to Y time period and it’ll be best for them to hold off any non-critical questions till later.
Make the most of your BPT.
Divvy-up your BPT into smaller time-slots: Your Creator task should not be a large 2-hour lump of work. Break it down into smaller pieces. One approach that works here is the Pomodoro technique: you work in 25-minute intervals and take 3-5 minute breaks in between. This site gives an easy tool to implement this technique. In my own case, I break down my BPT into 30-45 min slots, with short breaks in between.
Go easy on yourself during the non-BPT: Conversely, go easy on yourself during the non-Prime time. Recognise that you can’t work non-stop for 8 hours at home. Which brings us to the next point: breaks.
Take frequent breaks. Now, a break doesn’t mean watching a video or catching up on your social media feed. You need to take restorative breaks – that enable you to come back to work refreshed.
Short but frequent (You can time them using the Pomodoro technique)
Moving not stationary: Go for a short walk
Social not solo: Have a quick conversation, preferably not about work
Outside not inside: Nature works best
Fully detached: No smartphones!
So, on Time: Focus on your BPT, go easy during non-BPT and take frequent, restorative breaks.
You may have the time, but what if you don’t ‘feel’ like working? We move onto resource #2: Energy.
b. Energy: Sleep, eat and exercise well to maintain energy for critical tasks
You need to acknowledge that your energy would dip during some parts of the day (that dreaded post-lunch period). What can you do? Three things:
One, do the basics right to get adequate energy for work. Get 7-8 hours of sleep, exercise and eat right. Also, designate one separate place as your workstation at home. Ideally not something comfortable like a lounge chair or sofa. Invest in a good work-chair and table, if you don’t have one. You’re gonna use it a lot going forward!
Two, smartly use deadlines and end-points. Our minds work faster when faced with a deadline, or when we perceive to be close to completion. Which means that you can ‘program’ your mind to be more enthused about work – by breaking your entire project into smaller components, each with its own deadline and end-point.
Three, acknowledge that you will struggle in some periods of the day.
And now, the next piece of advice I’m going to give would be blasphemous to some and music-to-the-ears to many: It’s ok to take a short afternoon nap.
What?! A nap during work-time? That’s terrible, you may think.
But it makes a lot of sense according to the aforementioned Dan Pink book. In fact, he suggests a 5-step process to ‘nap right’. He calls it the nappuccino (because you’re supposed to have a cup of coffee before you nap! The coffee takes about 25 mins to enter your bloodstream and that is adequate time for your nap). You don’t have to lie down on a bed – a nap can also be a quick shut-eye on your desk or sofa.
Recognise that you have differing energy levels at home as compared to office (because of the lack of social interaction). Plan accordingly and you’ll have a productive day.
Energy is still relatively easy to manage though – we now move on to the most tricky challenge: distraction.
c. Attention: Know the sources of distraction and engineer your workplace to minimise its impact, especially during the BPT
The biggest challenge of WFH is managing distractions. Unfortunately, they are all-pervasive and increasing in intensity. Distractions are especially worrisome when they hit us during our critical Creator tasks.
To cope with this problem, you need to break it down into smaller component parts.
Here’s a framework that I have created to classify distraction:
So distraction can be categorised on 2 axes – based on its nature (work-related or leisure) and its source (self-generated or from others).
Let’s take the first category: Work-related distraction. These could be you remembering to book your tickets (while in the middle of a Creator Task), your colleague pinging you for some old proposal or your boss asking you for some mundane clarification.
Here are the types of work-related distraction and how you can combat them:
Self-generated work-related distractions
When you remember another small task while doing a Creator task: Unless it’d take less than a minute, avoid the temptation to “quickly” finish off the small task/s. It’s not about how much time it will take. It’s about not letting your attention (and your subconscious mind) divert its focus away from the Creator task. If you remember another task, just record it in the right place (see point 1-b above). Writing down the task means that it’s no longer taking up your mind-space. Time to get back to the critical task at hand.
Boss/client: If there’s one source of distraction that you can’t do much about it’s your boss or client asking you for some information when you are in the middle of something. You could, of course, politely tell them that you’ll get back – but it may not always be possible. I would suggest two remedies. One, build some buffer for such unavoidable interruptions in your day-plan. Two, request for lesser interruptions during your BPT, by reframing the situation. For instance, instead of saying “Please don’t disturb me from 9 to 10.30 every day” you could say – “Can I please request for some quiet time every day from 9-10.30 am? It would help in generating better solutions for our project!”
Colleagues/subordinates: With colleagues, we feel peer-pressure to respond as soon as something is asked for. You don’t need to do that! Politely indicate to them the time period when you are busy and request them to hold off their questions for later. During this period, switch off from the communication channels such as chat, Whatsapp etc.
Here’s a visual summary of how to cope with work-related distractions:
Managing work-related distractions is not easy, especially when the boss is involved. But the remedies are still easier than the big one: managing leisure distractions.
Self-generated leisure distractions
Let’s face it. Work can be boring. Creator tasks can be tough. And there’s no harm in watching just one more ‘Key and Peele’ video, reading one more Cricinfo article, or one more Instagram story.
Trust me, I’ve been there. The moment I’d get stuck on a tough proposal or a mundane expense report, my hands would instinctively reach for the ‘Alt-Tab’ key and begin scrolling through the endless joys of the internet.
I’ve listed below some of the tactics that have worked for me – but make no mistake: This is a constant battle and it never gets easier.
I categorise leisure distractions into two categories:
Passive interruptions: You are working on the final deck. Your phone pings. It’s a funny link on Covid-19. You open it. 2-hours later you emerge from the internet rabbit-hole, shame-faced. The worst part: you were actually working without any need for distraction! That’s the insidious nature of distraction – it pulls you in, even when you don’t want to. Here are some strategies I have tried:
Turn off ALL sound and vibration notifications on your phone, except for calls
Do the smartphone asana. Take your phone, and place it face down on your desk. This simple trick will stop you from getting distracted by the dim blinking notifications light. If possible, keep the phone in another room!
For distractions on the computer, it’s trickier. If possible switch off notifications from chats and emails for brief periods of time when you want to concentrate and work (say, your Pomodoro time).
Desperate measures: I had once installed an app called Freedom on my laptop. With this, you can block certain sites (for example all social media sites, Youtube, Rediff, Cricinfo etc.) for certain blocks of time – essentially during your BPT. It’s a drastic measure, but my problem was no less drastic!
Active interruptions: This is when you actively seek out entertainment options when working. Your coping tactic would depend on the source of the distraction:
Difficult/unstructured task: We have mentioned before that you cannot work on a project – you can only work on a task. If your task is too difficult or unstructured (e.g. Work on final report) you may be stuck… and a stuck mind looks for escape which the internet provides. One way out is to break-down the project into SMART tasks and start on any one task. Or you could discuss the project with a senior/colleague. Don’t hesitate to ask for help!
Boring: Sometimes you may get distracted if the task is ultra boring (e.g. expense reports, time-sheets!). I’ve found that two things work – you can gamify it (How many can you get done in 15 mins!) or temptation bundle it. One of my favourite temptations: put on some of my favourite Rahman albums and get immersed in them with my Sennheiser headphones.
Some of you may be wondering: Isn’t listening to music while working “multi-tasking”? According to me, it isn’t, unless you are actively trying to understand the lyrics etc. If you’re just listening to music in the background, then only one of your activities (your work) is causing you active mental strain. Real multi-tasking is when we juggle 2 or more activities (at the same time) each of which take up some active mental bandwidth.
Lacking meaning: If you aren’t finding meaning in your work, your mind would constantly throw distractions at you. Here’s what you can do:
Try to make your ‘non-meaningful’ task meaningful by connecting it with the outcome and its impact on the end-user. Tell yourself – “I’m not just writing some lines of code, I’m building a tool that people can use to make their lives easier”
If you still can’t see meaning in your work, then perhaps you need to question if it’s the right place for you!
Others-generated leisure distractions
While the vast majority of leisure distractions are self-generated, there would be others-generated distractions too.
From office friends/colleagues: The chances of these happening in a WFH situation is lower, since no one will travel from Andheri to Thane for a sutta break with a friend. But with chat apps, Whatsapp et al, there’s enough scope for distraction. For the sake of popularity, don’t lose your productivity. Learn to say the magical two-letter word (No!) and if at all, schedule breaks on mutual convenience.
From family: Inform them about your schedule, especially your BPT. But (and here’s the tough part) you need to respect your schedule as much as them. Make the most of your time saved from the commute – and schedule more time with family – you owe them your presence!
Here’s a visual summary of how to cope with leisure-related distractions:
d. Mood: Avoid unnecessary conversations and keep your mood positive
The final factor which impacts work is your mood. Despite having the time, the attention and the energy, you may still not be able to work – because of negative emotions flooding your mind.
Now this is a vast topic by itself, but I’m going to do a quick overview of the reasons:
Work-related mood-dampeners: We all have ‘difficult’ work interactions – with our boss or other colleagues. Some folks are able to compartmentalise and get on with the task at hand; while others (including yours truly) let it fester and ruminate in their mind, impacting their work. How to cope? Slightly beyond the scope of this article, but here’s a quick question that you can ask: Is it a one-off incident … or forming a pattern indicating a toxic relationship?
If it’s the former, you should communicate with the person about your concern and how you can avoid it going forward
If it’s the latter, you should consider whether to continue with the company/relationship.
Mood-dampeners arising from outside work: This could be a situation at home – which is beyond the scope of this article. What I’d like to focus on here are the toxic interactions that arise from non-family-non-work sources. Essentially conversations with friends and those online. Let me be more specific: Conversations on Whatsapp, Twitter and Facebook.
Twitter: Ah, Twitter. The place where the internet goes to get angry. I’ve wasted many hours learning the various ways in which I should be getting outraged about the world… I used to tell myself that it was important for work… until I realised that I was just spoiling my mood reading it. And so, about a year ago, I quit Twitter (despite being an incessant user). And no – the world didn’t come crashing down. Unless it’s a part of your job, I don’t see any reason for using Twitter.
Whatsapp: Whatsapp is critical for communication – but the groups are the challenge. Ever so often, some political discussion would break out in a group. For every 10-minutes wasted reading or typing in the group, you might end up wasting almost 3X that amount thinking about it. And adversely impacting your work… The worst part? No one’s opinions would have changed after reading your carefully constructed arguments. And so, about 3 months back, I left all Whatsapp groups except for close family and logistics related. Again, I’m not missing anything.
Having seen the presentation, I did see some merit in the slides being so utterly simple. (But also found some areas of improvement).
So here goes: My take on the 3 things that I liked about this deck and the 3 things that could have been better.
(Note: To keep this simple, I’m only reviewing the ‘WeWork Business’ portion – slides 48-61 – and not the entire deck).
3 things that were good
1. Start from Point A: Take the bull by the horns
For SoftBank’s investors, the over-arching concern was clear: WeWork.
And Son takes it head-on.
In storytelling, I call this ‘starting from the right Point A‘. You may have a thousand things to say – but you need to acknowledge the first/biggest question in the audience’s mind, at the beginning itself (you may answer it later – but at least acknowledge it).
2. A simple, clearly articulated plan
Instead of a confusing mass of plans and action-items, Son utterly simplifies the recovery plan into three initiatives: Pause new offices, reduce expenses and terminate unprofitable businesses.
In fact, this entire ‘symptoms-diagnosis-cure-outcome’ part of the deck really simplifies, what undoubtedly must have been some complex number-crunching.
Here’s my summary using the Pyramid Principle.
The above messages are delivered using the simplest visuals possible – such that anyone would be able to understand them*.
3. Use an analogy to combat another
Analogies are powerful tools for a business storyteller, as we have previously discussed. Great communicators make frequent use of this technique to simplify complex topics and situations.
In this deck, Son uses two analogies (interestingly, both are inadvertently related!):
i. Stormy / calm seas: In order to indicate that SoftBank is indeed facing difficult times, he likens it to being in a storm (in the first slide). He mentions the starkly negative media coverage… and uses that as a starting point to explain why things are not all doom and gloom.
Towards the end, he indicates that the storm is a perception issue (“We don’t see any storm, rough orders. It’s just a soft order, to be honest.“) and they they would continue along the same path (“But from my perspective, no change in the journey, no vision change, no strategy change. All we will do is to just keep going, keep moving forward.“)
I thought that it would’ve been better to acknowledge that “yes, we are facing stormy weather now, but don’t worry, we got this ship under control and will soon be sailing in clear waters“.
But honestly, I don’t know enough about the business/sector to comment (read disclaimers at the end!).
ii. Sinking ship or basket of apples: The other analogy that Son employs is to combat one used by the press – who liken WeWork to a sinking ship, which might take down the entire SoftBank fleet with it.
Son acknowledges that this maybe what the external world thinks, and then counters with his own analogy – about apples!
According to Son, WeWork’s portfolio is like a basket of apples. Some are red and ready for eating (the 40% of buildings which are more than 12 months old), but most are ‘unripe green apples’ which will take some time to become ripe and edible. His point: As they ripen, WeWork’s revenue and profitability will increase.
Analogies are tricky^ – if used well they can be impactful. In this case, they seem to work to explain the simple concept of early-stage assets. The important thing to note is that by changing the analogy (from sinking ships to a basket of apples), Son completely changes the frame of reference for the discussion.
Those were the good parts. What could have been better?
3 things that could be better
1. Two separate slide decks – one for showing and one to download
There’s a saying in Hindi – ‘Haathi ke daant, khaane ke alag, dikhane ke alag‘ (An elephant has two sets of teeth – one for eating, one for showing) – which essentially means, don’t go by appearances.
I’m twisting the original meaning here – but my point is that a storyteller also needs to have two sets of presentations – one for presenting (Presentation) and one for downloading/email (SlideDoc).
In SoftBank’s case, the same slides that were used to present were then uploaded by them on the website. When such slides are seen without the accompanying narration, they lack meaning (and in this case look ridiculously simple – almost insulting the audience’s intelligence).
Also in today’s age, one needs to anticipate that a deck as important as this will be disseminated all over through social media – again without the crucial accompanying narration. Leaving it open to criticism of this sort. And this.
So what could have been done?
i. A SlideDoc: SoftBank could have uploaded a slide with some text narration (the ‘SlideDoc’ version).
ii. Disclaimerwith link: Alternatively, a simple disclaimer could have been included (a bit prominently) in each slide: “This document is incomplete without reference to, and should be viewed solely in conjunction with, the verbal briefing provided by SoftBank” (I should know – as consultants, we used to include this disclaimer on every presentation!) along with a link to the video on the website.
2. More detail about the turnaround plan
Given the magnitude of the WeWork debacle, and the extent of the hit on the valuation (and reputation), I think SoftBank could have provided more details about the rescue plan.
Just saying “Give it time – and we’ll soon be profitable” seems a bit superficial…
I understand that WeWork is a private company and doesn’t need to disclose numbers (which is why the ‘Hypothetical’ tag on the slides). But given the context, some details (especially on cost reduction initiatives) would have added credibility to the presentation.
3. Better preparation
Perhaps there was a time when a CEO could just land up on stage and share his/her thoughts extempore. Not any more. Since decades, business leaders (especially from Silicon Valley, led by Steve Jobs) have mastered the art of the scripted, rehearsed presentation. Why? Because they believe that the occasion, the audience and their company deserved the preparation. Otherwise, they would be doing a disservice to all the hard work that was done behind-the-scenes.
You could call Son’s presentation many things – but rehearsed and prepared would not be one of them.
Admittedly, he’s speaking in Japanese while a voiceover translates into English. If we go by the transcript however, there are many places where the lack of preparation is evident. For instance:
Getting basic numbers wrong (“Let me restate my earlier comment. Wasn’t that 4 out of 9? No? 5 out — so in final conclusion, it’s 5 out of 10. So sorry, let me restate once again, it’s 5 out of 10 Board seats.“),
Ad-nauseam repetition of some points (he narrates the logic of the impact of increase in occupancy ratio, twice!)
Mix-up of analogies (mentioned in footnotes)
Definitely you’d expect better from a senior leader for such a high-stakes presentation.
Overall take: This apple is neither ripe nor unripe
Overall it’s tough to give my take on the deck. I have very little context of WeWork and other investments of SoftBank, the business numbers, valuation details et al; and so, I cannot say if this deck does a good job of answering all investor questions. (On face value, it doesn’t seem to do so though).
In sum, it’s like a half-ripe apple? Some aspects to admire, and some to avoid.
All in all, good learning no?
* (About the need to keep the slides so simple) Honestly, I didn’t understand the need to make the slides so simple. What was the target audience here? Savvy investors can surely understand more complex slides. Was this made for a layperson audience? I’m not sure.
^ (About analogies being tricky) Incidentally, Son gets tied up in his own analogies here. In his fruit analogy, green apples are unripe (bad) and red apples are ripe (good); his slide visuals are exactly the opposite. In the slides, red stands for the ‘unripe’ assets (which are ‘in the red’), while green is used for the older ripe ones (with yellow indicating an in-between stage). He acknowledges the mismatch during his talk (“Green apples will turn. Actually, the color indicates the opposite, but green apple will be in red…“) Perhaps he could’ve used another analogy – maybe, using a traffic signal analogy?
This is not a comprehensive analysis of the entire deck – it only covers the WeWork Business portion.
I haven’t been following the news/analysis about WeWork or SoftBank’s investments and so I don’t understand the investment, business context as well as I’d like to! Happy to know your thoughts in comments!
In front of 50,000 raucous spectators and millions more tuning in, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a historic speech to Indians and the world on 22nd September 2019 in Houston.
Acknowledged as a stirring orator, Modi used all of his rhetorical flourishes to mesmerise the audience.
But apart from his oratorical skill, what impressed me was the speech’s content itself.
Sure it had the usual suspects: the playing-to-the-gallery lines, the too-clever-by-half puns (“Energy at NRG stadium is a witness to the growing synergy between the two nations…” Groan) and the exhortations for standing ovations…
But if you look beyond these (essential) crowd-pleasing manoeuvres, you would find a solid, structured talk, with five clear points made – each supported by clear numerical evidence^.
What are these five messages? Let’s find out.
Using the Pyramid Principle to decode the Howdy Modi speech
In the past, I’ve used the Pyramid Principle to analyse letters by business leaders – such as Jeff Bezos (2019 and 2018) and Warren Buffett (2019). This is the first time I’m applying it to a political speech – and it’s surprisingly robust.
Here’s my take on the speech:
Just to clarify: All the ‘higher-level’ messages in the slide above (the ones numbered 1 to 5), have been ‘derived’ by me – as per my reading, these are the over-arching points that the speech is making (without actually spelling them out). When you read them though, you ‘get’ the clarity of thought.
3 things that impressed me about the writing:
Clear flow and structure: which is apparent – whether you read the five messages ‘horizontally’ or delve deeper into them, ‘vertically’.
Strong use of norm-variance: Almost no number was given without a relevant norm. I have written earlier about the importance of this critical storytelling principle.
Balancing multiple audiences(with the need for editing): The speech was addressing 3 audiences at the same time – the Americans, the NRIs and most importantly the domestic Indian audience. It managed to masterfully engage each of them. In doing so, it could have become a long, unwieldy mess – instead, the content was sharp and focused. Great editing!
What could have been better?
Tough to say – but one area where they could have elaborated more is message 4: on the Way Forward.
I would have liked if the speech had a point on “These are the 3 big areas where we would focus our attention going forward” (for e.g. infrastructure, health and education/skills).
(Incidentally, my choice of these three areas has nothing to do with my past experience of having worked in the infrastructure, healthcare and skills sectors!)
Anyway… overall, I found the speech-writing stellar.
In a gloomy global scenario, India has a relatively good story to tell. This speech ensured that it was told well.
^ A disclaimer: This post is not attempting to endorse the speech’s content or verify the accuracy of its claims. Assuming the points are accurate, my endeavour is to study the storytelling principles used.
Featured image credit: By The White House from Washington, DC [Public domain] from Wikimedia Commons
Let’s start with the most glaring issue – it has no ‘message’ on top. A neutral header does nothing to tell the audience what the slide is actually saying.
Now, in a previous post, we have seen the importance of crafting clear, surprising messages from your data. Messages that get the audience’s attention using the principle of norm and variance.
When you attempt to do this, however, you may get stuck at the next hurdle: choosing the right adjectives.
Adjectives? Do you mean like ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’? Well… yes, but slightly more nuanced. Consider the following messages – especially the italicised adjectives:
Sales have shown whopping growth (whopping – too dramatic)
Our performance has been super impressive (too informal for a corporate presentation)
Attrition rates have been bad (Really? ‘Bad’? That’s really nuanced…)
The issue here is that we tend to gravitate between two extremes when it comes to choosing such adjectives:
We use a small set of ‘standard/banal’ words to describe these metrics (e.g. revenue went up, NPS is the same as last quarter, profitability is lower than competitors etc.), or
We go for dramatic words, that may work in informal settings or in news headlines (tremendous, super-high, the pits etc.), but aren’t appropriate in a formal corporate setting^.
We are essentially using a very limited vocabulary for a very wide range of performance phenomena. Wouldn’t it be good to have a readymade list of potential words, to choose from, to describe various performance scenarios?
A bit like that scene in The Matrix, when Keanu Reeves says – “Guns, lots of guns” and immediately he’s in this cavernous room filled from floor to ceiling with every kind of firearm imaginable.
(I know – even I wanted to watch that scene again, after writing this. Here you go:
What. A. Swag.)
Imagine saying “Words, lots of words”, and having a rich collection of words to choose from…
The Descriptive Words Cheat Sheet
Presenting the ‘Descriptive Words Cheat Sheet’ – a ready reference guide for you to choose from, based on two factors inherent in your message from the data:
The type of comparison factor in your message
The intensity of the performance difference (low, medium, high)
What do I mean by comparison factor? Well, there are three basic types of comparisons we can do with data – over time, across other items (competition, internal teams etc.) and as a component (share) of something.
Here’s a quick overview.
So then, based on the comparison factor and the intensity of the change, you can choose from the following set of words, to describe your key finding:
Now, a couple of disclaimers for the above:
The comparison factors can be more complex (you could be looking at more than one factor – such as increasing share over time). Use your judgement in such cases.
Also, this is clearly not a comprehensive list of words – feel free to keep adding to the list.
If you’d like a PDF copy of this to print and stick on your soft-board, I’m happy to share the same. Please drop me an email at email@example.com.
* Incidentally this is a slide from my first presentation during my consulting years. Let’s just say I’m happy I started rock-bottom – the only way was up.
^ A disclaimer – formal corporate setting doesn’t mean the use of stifling jargon and global corporate-speak such as ‘synergistic’, ‘value-addition’ and ‘paradigm-shift’. Plain, informal speak is great, especially in internal conversations. But often with clients, one needs to maintain decorum of speech. It’s a fine balance!
The phrase ‘Death by PowerPoint’ returns an inordinate 75M hits on Google. The reason? Many users just consider PowerPoint as ‘MS Word plus Headers and Bullets’ and end up creating dense, soul-draining slides.
That’s a pity, because, if used well, PowerPoint is a great tool to tell a compelling, visual story. And you don’t need designer-level skills for that – these 10 guidelines are a great way to super-charge your presentation.
I have divided these ideas into 3 sections: Narrative, Visuals and Delivery
– Narrative: Your story in words and messages – what it is that you are trying to say?
– Visuals: Graphs, pictures, icons (and tables, text) that illustrate your narrative messages
– Delivery: Your verbal delivery of the presentation (either face-to-face or remote)
A. Narrative guidelines
1. Start with Pen+paper and Word: Don’t start off your presentation on PowerPoint. You read that right. Before even opening the application, you need to firm up your presentation narrative on paper.
What is your ‘narrative’? It consists of messages (insightful and surprising findings), that are strung together to form a written story. Here’s an example of a Narrative for a presentation.
The best framework to build your narrative is the ‘Pyramid Principle’ (illustrated in the above example). I have blogged about how leaders like Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet have used it.
There are three advantages of crafting your narrative on Word before starting work on PowerPoint:
– You can review just the narrative with your boss/peers, test it for completeness and flow and get clarity on what is your overall story
– With a robust narrative, the job of slide-making becomes much faster and simpler
– You also avoid rework and extra work (making unnecessary slides for instance)
2. Use the headline space for your message: Once the narrative is done, you start work on individual slides. The most critical portion on a slide is the top-left header. Many slides leave it as a title or neutral header. Instead, you need to craft a clear message that distils the slide’s meaning into one line. The main principle to use here is norm-variance, as written about earlier. A good message does one of three things vis-à-vis the information on the slide
a. Provides a one-line summary (or synthesis) of the slide’s contents
b. Prioritises one or two key findings among several on the slide
c. Calls out the implication/recommendation arising from the slide
The examples below show how a message adds value to a slide.
3. Use Outline & Slide sorter views to ‘review’ the narrative: An underused feature of PowerPoint is the Outline view (View>Outline view). The feature is especially useful if you receive a presentation for review – you can use this view to quickly check the narrative flow. If you feel the there is no flow, or it is completely broken, then don’t bother modifying the slides – revise the narrative first.
Another useful view is the ‘Slide Sorter’ view (View>Slide Sorter) – I use it to get a birds-eye overview of the slides and move them around to get a better flow.
4. Use story tools to make complex concepts relatable: If your presentation has slightly complex, technical stuff that your audience may struggle to understand, you need to use story tools such as ‘human stories’ and ‘analogies’ to make it relatable. This earlier blog post would give you a quick primer.
B. Visual guidelines
5. Know which mode to use – Presentation or Slide-doc: A key question to answer is – Would you be actually presenting your deck to the audience (face-to-face/virtually), or would you be just emailing it to them? If the latter, then your slides need to be self-sufficient, i.e. like a document. Most consulting presentations come under this category. Here’s a sample slide.
But when you are actually presenting your deck, then, apart from the slides, there’s a crucial extra ingredient – your voice! In this situation, if whatever you are saying is also present on the slide, then you end up completely overwhelming the audience: Should they read the slides? Listen to you? Look at you?
And so, most often there’s a mismatch between what you are talking about and what the audience is reading. And then they get onto their phones. It’s a mess.
Which is why you need to have a different type of slide in case you are presenting it – visual, simple and with minimal text. Here’s an example of a slide under both modes.
Of course, this means that, when you present a slide, you will need to prep and know your material well. But the preparation would make it significantly easier for the audience to understand.
6. Make your slide comic-book style!
Would it be fun reading a comic strip like this?
Not really? But isn’t the material all there…? I’ve just mixed them up! You say, ‘But, we need to figure out which message fits with which visual, and what is the order… That’s a pain’
I agree. But then, why do we create slides like these:
In such slides, you are making the audience play ‘Match the following’. The poor guys are trying to figure out which message goes with which visual.
Comic books get it right.
We need to replicate this style on our slides. Here’s how it can look:
To do this, you’ll need to ignore a lot of non-critical messages and focus only on the most important ones… and then make them flow like a story. Not easy, but rewarding for the audience.
7.Use pictures and icons: There’s an old saying in storytelling: Show, don’t tell. Our brains are wired to comprehend visual information much faster than text. So, in your presentations, when you are tempted to use words to explain something, ask yourself: Can I use a picture or icon to explain or add-value to what I am saying? Icons especially are great, since they are vector images – which means you can change their colour to keep it consistent with your overall slide’s colour palette. I will do a separate post on the use of images and icons on slides, but for now, just keep this simple principle in mind: Show, don’t tell. Here’s a sample slide.
C. Delivery guidelines
8.Prepare a script for each slide: When presenting a slide, we normally tend to say the first thoughts that come to our mind when we look at it. It’s almost as if we are grappling with “oh man, now that this slide is here, let me figure out what to say”.
The moment you are unsure about what to say on a particular slide and hesitate (or worse, try to over-talk your way through it) you risk losing the audience’s attention. The best remedy: prepare a script for every slide. For the script you’ll need to consider 3 things:
What to say
What not to say
In what order to say
9.Ensure smooth transitions between slides: A presentation is a conversation that has breaks in between – the gap between two slides. In this gap, if the flow isn’t strong, you risk losing the audience. Observe the 3 slides shown below. Does it seem like it has a clear flow?
It doesn’t right? Which is why you need to ‘prepare’ the audience for the upcoming slide. This is best done by ‘planting’ a question in their head, as to what the next slide will be covering. For e.g. here’s how I would transition between these three slides:
This simple act – of asking a question before moving on to the next slide – leverages the audience’s innate curiosity and prepares them to absorb the information on the next slide.
10. Know when to keep the slides off: A presentation is just a visual aid – the real objective is to have a meaningful discussion that leads to better decisions. If you find the audience engrossed in discussion with you or each other, feel free to switch off the presentation screen. There’s a simple hack to do that – when in full-screen mode on any presentation, just press the ‘B’ key. Go ahead, try it. The screen turns black. Want to bring the slide back? Just press B again – it is a toggle key. In my training sessions, I’m pleasantly surprised by how many folks don’t know about this (and they invariably find it very useful)!
Another cool under-used trick is the ‘Hide Slide’ feature (right click on the slide and select ‘Hide slide’). These hidden slides won’t appear during the slide show. It’s useful when you want to ignore some slides while presenting (without deleting them or pushing them to backup).
There you have it – 10 simple but powerful tips to super-charge your next set of presentations!
Give it a ride and let me know how it goes. Happy to provide inputs if you need them.
Jeff Bezos published Amazon’s much-awaited annual shareholders’ letter on 11th April. It made the headlines for one particular inclusion: his ‘challenge’ to retail competitors, to match Amazon’s $15-an-hour minimum wage and employee benefits.
deeper into the document though, there are some critical storytelling lessons that can be gleaned. Here are my top three:
Make it Surprising
Make it Structured
Keep it real and relatable
examine each one.
1. Make it surprising
I have blogged earlier about the value of surprise (using the principle of norm-variance) to get the audience’s attention. Bezos uses it multiple times in the letter:
Start with a surprising fact (almost shrouded in mystery): He starts with a startling fact of how their third-party business has grown at a 52% CAGR (compounded annual growth rate), more than double their first-party business. That surprising fact gets our attention and we are curious to know the underlying reason.
Continue to use norm-variance throughout, to make facts stand out
eBay comparison: While the 52% CAGR sounds impressive, what if that was the standard industry growth? In order to make that number stand out, he had to give a norm. And what better norm than the growth rate of eBay – the original third-party marketplace. eBay’s CAGR number turns out to be just 20%, making Amazon’s third-party growth rate massively higher. (Incidentally, Amazon did get a snarky response from eBay… but that’s how these things get more fun right?!)
Busting myths: To show how much headroom is available for growth, Bezos states that “90% of retail remains offline; more in other countries”. While there’s no ‘norm’ given in this case, it isn’t required. It is a surprising finding since many of us would assume that online retail is in a dominant position compared to offline.
Failure needs to scale too: On the face of it, this statement is surprising. Which leader would openly state that they will increase the scale of their failures? Bezos does. And then goes on to justify the same with clear arguments.
2. Make it Structured
We had earlier dissected the structure of Amazon’s 2018 letter. The 2019 one is shorter, but a bit more ‘wandering’ (keeping with the theme!). Having said that, it does have a clear flow, with 5 main points being made. As always I have attempted to build the Pyramid structure for the same.
Here’s the detailed version of the same:
Amazon’s success is driven by listening to customers and wandering on their behalf; and
taking care of employees with all heart
We’ve had some stunning outcomes driven by new initiatives
Third party sellers have grown at a stunning 52% CAGR; more than double our first party sales
AWS is now a $30 billion annual run rate business and growing fast
Thousands of customers are building machine learning models on top of AWS with SageMaker
This success is built on listening to customers…
E.g. Amazon Aurora: Companies felt constrained by their commercial database options and had been unhappy with their database providers for decades – these offerings are expensive, proprietary, have high-lock-in and punitive licensing terms
E.g Amazon Go: Checkout queues
…But more importantly, by guided wandering on their behalf
Some of our biggest successes are from guided wandering
Prime, Fulfilment were key drivers of the Third Party growth
Echo was a product of guided wandering
This is needed because customers don’t always know what they want
No one asked for AWS or the Echo
We had the ability and courage to innovate to give clients breakthrough products
Ability: A culture of builders
People who are curious, explorers, like to invent
Courage: Guided wandering needs heart
Programs like Prime and Fulfilment were extremely radical when launched and were taken up at significant financial risk and after much debate
The path is messy and tangential
However, as we scale, this policy would mean our failures would also scale
As we grow our failures will also grow – we will occasionally have multibillion-dollar failures.
We won’t undertake such experiments cavalierly; but not all good bets will ultimately pay out.
However, failures can be the stepping stones for success – e.g. the Fire phone’s failure gave learnings when building Echo and Alexa.
Finally, innovation is built on people; we take care of ours with all our heart
Current employees: 15$ min wage
Current employees: Career Choice and Career Skills training programs
Future employees: STEM programs and Vets education
3. Keep it real and relatable
Just because you are
making earth-changing moves, doesn’t mean that your language has to be a
mystery to decipher. Bezos talks in conversational, everyday English and uses
simple analogies where needed.
Pithy, everyday language.
“Kicking our butt badly”. No MBA speak like “proving to be significantly challenging competitors”
“No one asked for AWS. No one.” Emphasising the point, like how we would do in a conversation.
By employing so many storytelling techniques Bezos vividly illustrates the thought and effort that goes into crafting this critical document. And by the way, he must have been really busy with the personal developments during this period. Despite these distractions, he’s put out a stellar document.
Having said that, what could be better…
always we will look at what could have been better. Three things according to
1. Flow breaks down: The letter’s structure was fine for the first two points (success and its drivers). But the third one doesn’t really flow from the first two. It seems like Bezos just wanted to highlight those points (higher wages, impact on community etc.) for building some good PR. This article from Fortune surmises it could be because of the threat of ‘anti-trust’ legislation against the Big Tech companies. Whatever be the cause, the letter suffers from not having a clear one-line theme (as compared to last year’s letter – which had a clear connecting concept)
2. Way too much technical detail: In the
discussion on databases, the geek in Bezos takes over. We could have used some
editing there, as well as an analogy, to explain to us non-techies!
3. The human element: Like last year’s
letter, this one too skips giving any anecdotes or human stories underlying the
numbers. How about putting the spotlight on a third-party seller who
exemplifies the impressive growth? Or an employee who’s maximised her potential
after taking the Career Choice program? These stories make your data more
The final word
In sum, despite not being the tour-de-force that the earlier letter was, the 2019 Amazon Shareholders Letter packs in a mean punch in making its points… and leaves us with valuable storytelling lessons as always.
Warren Buffett may be one of the most
envied guys on the planet – for his unparalleled wealth, that magic touch in
picking stocks, and decades of consistent outperformance.
But he also has a most unenviable task:
to write a 12-page
annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders.
Why should that be so difficult you may
ask? Consider the facts.
75 companies, 365 days, 12 pages
Berkshire Hathaway is not your normal investment company. It’s the world’s third biggest by revenues ($247B) that owns an incredibly diverse set of companies – seventy-five entities across insurance, manufacturing, utilities and services (as he puts it, making everything from ‘lollipops to locomotives’). Take a look at this list below:
Now imagine writing a detailed document that talks about all these varied enterprises, and the overall economy, and the impact of key accounting/tax policies and the future outlook … and (here’s the really difficult part): making sense of it all to the average shareholder.
Not an enviable task? That’s what I
Buffett’s approach: Storytelling
Warren Buffett employs two masterful
storytelling techniques to take on this daunting task:
Get the ‘Big Story’ right
(think of this as the basic pizza base and sauce)
Embellish the Big Story
with key story elements (think of these as the toppings that add flavour, texture
and colour to the pizza)
Let’s look at each one in turn.
I. Getting the Big Story right
I had earlier blogged about Jeff Bezos
(just two steps higher than Mr. Buffett on that Forbes list) who used
the ‘Pyramid Principle’ in constructing Amazon’s succinct annual letter.
Not surprisingly, Buffett’s approach is similar.
While he takes some liberties with the
format, the broad flow is clear, and he makes three key points:
Main message: Berkshire Hathaway has consistently outperformed, driven by
its unique structure, approach and American tailwinds; it is likely to continue
Berkshire has consistently outperformed the competition
We normally use two measures to state this (net profits and Share Book value) – but both have lost relevance
On the measures that matter however, we are doing great
There are three key reasons for our success
Our unique structure: We are a ‘forest’ of companies with five ‘groves’ – where the whole is greater than the sum of parts
Our approach: Long-term shareholder oriented; prudence in use of debt
The American economy tailwind: which has propelled us for the last 77 years and will continue to do so going forward
(Unsaid) You should (continue to) invest in Berkshire Hathaway to enjoy outstanding returns
In addition to this, he does cover a couple of additional aspects – e.g. a fond farewell to Tony Nicely (the retiring CEO of GEICO, Berkshire’s flagship insurance player). But these are add-ons. His Big Story consists of the key messages above.
Clearly a good Big Story is not enough though; you need the little elements – the toppings – to enhance your story.
II. Adding the Key Story Elements
1. Analogies: Explaining the
performance of 75 companies across multiple sectors was going to be tough.
Buffett brilliantly simplifies it using the analogy of a forest. Asking
analysts to resist the temptation of doing a company-by-company analysis of
Berkshire’s value, he likens their holdings to a forest filled with five
‘groves’. Here he goes:
“Investors who evaluate Berkshire sometimes obsess on
the details of our many and diverse businesses – our economic “trees,” so to
speak. Analysis of that type can be mind-numbing, given that we own a vast
array of specimens, ranging from twigs to redwoods. A few of our trees are
diseased and unlikely to be around a decade from now. Many others, though, are
destined to grow in size and beauty.
Fortunately, it’s not necessary to evaluate each tree
individually to make a rough estimate of Berkshire’s intrinsic business value.
That’s because our forest contains five “groves” of major importance, each of
which can be appraised, with reasonable accuracy, in its entirety. Four of
those groves are differentiated clusters of businesses and financial assets
that are easy to understand. The fifth – our huge and diverse insurance
operation – delivers great value to Berkshire in a less obvious manner, one I
will explain later in this letter.”
Analogies are powerful when they are:
Simple: Easy to
understand and visualise for the reader
Deep: Have multiple
connections with your underlying concept
times: In the story, indicating depth and continuity
(For some more examples of the use of
analogies – especially a dancing geologist – you can read this earlier
post I’d written)
2. Aphorisms: These are concise sayings (told sometimes in the form of a story) that pack in a lot of wisdom. Buffett is a past master at such sayings himself (e.g. “Price is what you pay, value is what you get”).
In this letter, Buffett is critical of companies which don’t show ESOPs (Employee Stock Options) as an expense. Here’s how he uses an aphorism (from another famous dude) to make his point:
“For example, managements
sometimes assert that their company’s stock-based compensation shouldn’t be
counted as an expense. (What else could it be – a gift from shareholders?) And restructuring
expenses? Well, maybe last year’s exact rearrangement won’t recur. But
restructurings of one sort or another are common in business – Berkshire has
gone down that road dozens of times, and our shareholders have always borne the
costs of doing so.
Abraham Lincoln once posed the
question: “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have?” and
then answered his own query: “Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make
it one.” Abe would have felt lonely on Wall Street.”
Someone described proverbs as “Short on
words, long on meaning”. I concur.
3. Norm and variance: We have written about this powerful storytelling concept before (and how Steve Jobs and Elon Musk used it). Buffett uses it at multiple places – for example in the below instance where he talks about the right (and wrong) performance measures:
“In the first and fourth quarters, we reported GAAP
losses of $1.1 billion and $25.4 billion respectively. In the second and third
quarters, we reported profits of $12 billion and $18.5 billion. In complete
contrast to these gyrations, the many businesses that Berkshire owns delivered
consistent and satisfactory operating earnings in all quarters. For the year,
those earnings exceeded their 2016 high of $17.6 billion by 41%.”
I’ve tried to represent the above through some simple graphs:
In another example, he extols the virtues of the American economy’s tailwind – that has propelled growth across sectors, through good times and bad.
“If … $114.75 had been invested in a no-fee S&P
500 index fund, and all dividends had been reinvested, (the) stake would have
grown to be worth (pre-taxes) $606,811 on January 31, 2019.… (if you had) opted
instead to buy 31⁄4 ounces of gold with your $114.75… You would now have an
asset worth about $4,200, less than 1% of what would have been realized from a
simple unmanaged investment in American business.”
He then finishes with a flourish of
“The magical metal was no match for the American
4. Pithy, conversational humour: Buffett never misses an opportunity to poke some harmless fun –
especially at himself and his business partner, Charlie Munger. Here’s his take
on their age:
“We continue, nevertheless, to hope
for an elephant-sized acquisition. Even at our ages of 88 and 95 – I’m the
young one – that prospect is what causes
my heart and Charlie’s to beat faster. (Just writing about the possibility of a
huge purchase has caused my pulse rate to soar.)”
“In addition, certain shareholders
will simply decide it’s time for them or their families to become net consumers
rather than continuing to build capital. Charlie and I have no current interest
in joining that group. Perhaps we will become big spenders in our old age.”
And that’s not all – there are more. For example, when explaining the reasons for why the ‘Share book value’ metric isn’t relevant anymore, he uses another storytelling concept: ‘The Rule of Three’ – and gives three reasons for why it doesn’t work.
(I thought of including it as a story element, but it was, well, violating the same rule, so I decided to keep it as an ‘extra’ item!).
Another striking aspect is the use of
everyday conversational English, and not drowning the audience in business and
What could be better?
Superlative as the letter is, it could still be better in … three ways (there you go):
Spell out the Big Story more clearly: As of now, I am inferring some of the bigger messages. It would be nice for Buffett to clarify those himself
Reduce the preponderance of accounting terms: These may be a put-off for the non-financially savvy reader. I could get most of what he was saying (I’m a CA, guilty as charged), but someone who doesn’t understand financial analysis may struggle in some sections.
Some visuals: The letter is worded evocatively – but perhaps some visuals/charts would make comprehension easier (such as the norm-variance one).
Unenviable task, Enviable result
Buffett may have a tough storytelling ask, but he sure proves his ‘magical mettle’ at it. I’ll be looking forward to many more such letters from him.
Featured image credit: From Wikimedia Commons by USA International Trade Administration
Do you get stuck in any of the following situations:
Your team has just completed a kickass project and wants to tell a story that does justice to their effort and outcome
You are pitching your company/product to a key institutional client
Your six-year-old never tires of asking you: “Papa/Mamma, can you please tell me a story”
In each of the above situations, the issue is not that you don’t know what to say (ok perhaps in the third one it is). The issue is you don’t know how to structure your thoughts in a simple, engaging story format. If only there were an easy to use, and yet comprehensive story framework that you could use…
A Cheat Sheet for the 7Cs
In an earlier post, we had seen how most major blockbuster movies use a simple yet reliable story framework to engage the audience – I coined it “The 7Cs Framework”.
Now while that construct is powerful, it can be a bit challenging to use, especially if you are a beginner at storytelling.
Once upon a time there was _______. Every day, _________. One day _____________. Because of that, _________. Because of that, _________. Until finally _________.
While this format is great, for me it is a bit too spartan to create a business story. And so, here’s my adapted 10-line framework that can get your thoughts flowing smoothly and enable you to craft an engaging, comprehensive story:
Once upon a time there was a:
Until one day:
Because of which:
Because of which:
Let’s explain what each of the above lines stand for (and you’ll see our familiar friend – the 7Cs making their appearance here):
The structure is best understood through a couple of examples. Here’s a real-life business story:
That’s the Netflix story in 10 lines! (By the way, if you want a more vivid narration, go no further than this absolutely fabulous podcast series, called Business Wars, recommended by a friend, Rahul Tawde. It brings the whole story alive.)
Here’s another example of the 10-line story. This was inspired by a discussion in a recent classroom session:
In the above example, notice that the tool (Trello) which helped the Hero, made an appearance only in the 6th line! Most often our solutions and products occupy prime space in our story – when instead it should be our customer and her problems. We come in much later.
Go forth and create stories
And so, you’ve been given the power to craft your own stories. Go wild, be creative, mix things up. It may help you get unstuck the next time you need to tell your project story.
A good way to practise this structure is to conduct a ‘story circle’ exercise (I underwent this in an improv training session organised at Storywallahs). You form a circle with 3 or more participants and one person starts off the story with line 1. The next person in the circle builds on the story by adding line 2… and so on. Sooner than later, someone introduces a funny twist and the entire group is laughing. You may not come up with the next blockbuster idea, but the exercise is a great stress reliever.
Finally, a disclaimer, in case you are planning to use this to tell stories to your kids.
I once played the story circle game with my wife and my six-year old during a car ride and it was fun. A few months later, when he was pestering me for a story during sleep-time, I started off… “Once upon a time there was a _____ and everyday he would ______”.
I was probably on line 3, when he asks: “Appa, are you using that story format again? Please can you tell me a proper story”