Prologue

Nitish Saxena* is a typical corporate senior manager. He runs a multi-crore business unit for his company, which is in the travel space. Like most of his colleagues, Nitish is conscientious, target-oriented and professional. But there’s something different about him – his drive to learn is unparalleled. And it would really help him in an upcoming competition.

But first, the context.

Client context

Nitish’s company (let’s call it Vayu) is India’s leading player in its space and belongs to a highly-reputed group (part of the Fortune-India 100). Vayu is led by Sam*, a genial, smiling CEO with twinkling eyes and a ready quip. Sam was proud of his team of direct reports… but there was one concern. He wasn’t happy with the quality of presentations made by them during the quarterly or annual performance reviews. Sam found these presentations to be complex, data-heavy and lacking a clear story.

A sample set of slides from a Vayu business review presentation

He wrote to me later:

Personally, I was concerned with the quality of presentations prepared by my colleagues and would suffer a heartburn each time I saw a new one. We were stereotypical, tended to ‘cut and paste’ from previous ones, said almost the same thing to varied audiences with diverse purposes. This frustration gave rise to the need of reaching out to you for help.”

I was super-enthused, because this was that rare situation that trainers like us look forward to: genuine top-management need and buy-in for the intervention.

A custom-engagement

Through detailed conversations with Sam and a wonderfully involved HR team, we built a custom program for coaching Vayu’s senior business leaders. Normally in these programs, we use external case studies for the participants to practise the key storytelling concepts. While these case studies are often custom-built for the client, ultimately they remain that – case studies, not reality.

In case of Vayu, we decided to alter the script. Instead of artificial case studies we got the participant-teams to work on their actual business presentations (the ones presented in the previous quarterly review meeting) instead. Sure, this approach made my job more challenging  – since I did not have a ‘scripted’ case study, which I could prepare for. But it was more effective for the participants, since they found the storytelling principles more tangible and relatable when applied to their own real-life work.

There was an unexpected side benefit – during the session, as I was looking at their numbers I realised that I could apply a different analysis technique (called Variance Analysis) which resulted in more insightful and contrasting conclusions on their business performance drivers, as illustrated in this earlier post. (Note from Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: This was possible because of my background as a Chartered Accountant plus 7 years as a management consultant, something you may not find in many storytelling trainers!).

Overall, the feedback from the program was great… here’s Sam:

As you know, I was present for the first half day and was pleased to see that, without any feedback from me, you were addressing the same issues of which I have been apprehensive. As an illustration, your pantomime of greeting different people in different ways at the airport hit the right spot prompting need to change with different audiences...  I wish to thank you for conducting the workshop ‘Effective Storytelling with Data’. I think you may have heard from our HR Head regarding the feedback from the participants who rated  that program 4.50+ on a scale of 5, my kudos to you.

However, having said that, this workshop could’ve stayed as a one-time ‘program’ had the client not taken the next step.

The next step: reinforcement

To reinforce the learnings, and to prove that they work in real-life business scenarios, we created a follow-on project: handholding the participants for the upcoming Quarterly Review Meeting, which was due in a couple of months. As part of the handholding project, I would mentor and support the business leaders in preparing better review presentations.

To make it interesting, an award was announced for the best QRM presentation. The stakes had been raised.

What followed was a well-coordinated effort – regular calls were scheduled with each business leader to go through the performance data and jointly come up with the presentation. As the storyteller, my job was to question the leaders and nudge them to use the relevant storytelling principle. Templates were prepared for analysing the data and presenting the story (these templates can be used by the leaders in future QRMs too). The end-result was a set of presentations that were a vast improvement from their previous versions. A clear story supported by simple, visual slides and a far more richer discussion.

Sample slides pre-intervention
Sample slides post intervention

The outcome

The team was highly enthused with the new-look presentations and the better quality of discussions that resulted from it. Here’s a senior HR representative on the project:

We could observe vast improvement in all the presentations given by the business heads…. The best thing about having a good understanding of the data in the presentation is that it comes out very clearly in the narratives. It makes the job of the presenter so much easier to comprehend and to narrate the highlights when one has the right information presented neatly… Once again, you have gone above and beyond in your efforts to bring out the best in each of them! My sincere compliments!

And what about Nitish? Remember him as the learning-focused leader? During the fortnight when all the business leaders were reaching out to me for inputs on their presentation, one person outdid everyone else: Nitish. He was relentless at getting this right. He’d call to discuss how to prepare a particular chart, how to word a message, how to get the right presentation flow etc. He probably put in 2X of the time put in by his peers.

And so, it wasn’t surprising that it was Nitish who won the award for the Best Presentation at Vayu’s Q2-QRM. A well-deserved winner for sure.

Conclusion

You also have many Nitish Saxenas in your organisation – you can help them take-off, achieve their potential as impactful storytellers and deliver better business outcomes.

You know which flying school to reach out to!

*****

* All names changed

Featured image credit: By Duch.seb (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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