story with data


It isn’t very often that the CEO of a $100 Bn fund (who’s been called “the most powerful person in Silicon Valley“), makes a public presentation, just a month after his biggest investment has suffered an embarrassing debacle.

The stakes don’t get higher than this.

What does the iconic Masayoshi Son do? Beat around the bush and ignore the core issues? Or come up with a detailed nuts-and-bolts plan to fix the issues?

He does something in between.

This post is my attempt at deconstructing the recent SoftBank earnings deck (released on 6-Nov-2019).

Going past the initial shock …

I got to know of the deck through an IIMA Whatsapp group (one of the fastest news dissemination sources of our day).

Like many others, I was taken aback by some of the slides.

Here are 4 of them bunched together in one image:

Select Slides from the SoftBank Earnings deck

My first reaction: ‘Really, is this how the CEO of a $100 Bn fund presents? These slides seem like the work of a first-year MBA student!

I searched online for reactions and found that some news articles concurred. For instance, this one from Vice (‘These Delusional PowerPoint Slides Show How SoftBank Wants to Save WeWork‘) and this from NY Mag (‘Here Are Some Insane Slides From SoftBank’s Presentation Explaining (?) How It Will Fix WeWork‘).

But then (after a friend’s contrary reaction) I realised – I shouldn’t pass judgement without examining the entire picture. And so, I ended up watching the presentation by Mr Son himself, online.

(He’s speaking in Japanese and a voiceover is translating. Here’s a transcript I found later).

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 heart of the SoftBank Presentation – the WeWork turnaround plan

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).

I’ve explained the difference between the two in this earlier blog post (point #5).

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?

Two options.

i. A SlideDoc: SoftBank could have uploaded a slide with some text narration (the ‘SlideDoc’ version).

ii. Disclaimer with 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?

Featured Image: From Wikimedia Commons by nobihaya [CC BY 2.0]

Some disclaimers (I’m a CA after all):

  1. This is not a comprehensive analysis of the entire deck – it only covers the WeWork Business portion.
  2. 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!

What is wrong with the below slide*?

The slide from hell

Everything right?!

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:

One of many iconic scenes from The Matrix (Produced by Joel Silver)

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:

  1. The type of comparison factor in your message
  2. 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.

Three most common comparison parameters

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:

The Descriptive Words Cheat Sheet (by Ravishankar Iyer)

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 ravishankar@storyrules.in.

Happy describing!


* 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!

Featured image by Pisit Heng on Unsplash

This post is about a most common activity that business leaders engage in: attending review meetings. I think the existing format is ineffective and needs a significant overhaul. Let’s look at two examples that I came across.

Story 1: An emerging technology company

“Whenever a presentation needs to be made, the CEO calls me” stated Frank* proudly, as he browsed through his laptop to show me some decks he had made. He was part of a 20-participant batch undergoing training in better storytelling techniques at a rising technology company. Frank opened a document and ran me through the slides. He was clearly impressed with his work.

I, on the other hand, was gobsmacked. Each slide was absolutely filled to the gills with text and numbers. It was like a detailed word report on a slide. How were the audience meant to read (much less absorb) this, while the speaker would be holding forth during the session?

And if the company’s CEO was referring to this as the ‘good presentation’, what would be a bad one, I shuddered?

Story 2: A leading services company

In another company I worked with, the quarterly business reviews would consist of presentations packed with detailed data-tables, copy-pasted from Excel. Clearly, the leadership team would’ve been overwhelmed looking at them and were unlikely to have meaningful discussions.
But there was another issue. By just showing the data in raw form, and not diving deeper into the underlying drivers of performance, there were multiple instances of inaccurate diagnoses. Business leaders would routinely attribute Factor X as the performance driver, when in fact, it was Factor Y or Z. This was not deliberate – but it was still happening. Why?

What’s the issue: Skills, Masochism or Obfuscation?

Why do CEOs/business leaders settle for (and sometimes actually encourage) such complex, cluttered outputs? There could be three reasons:
1. Lack of Skills: They don’t think their employees have the skills to craft a story from the data, and so they ask them to show everything
2. Masochism: You read that right. Some leaders believe that they can just ‘power through’ the discussion and extract meaning/insights from the data despite the cluttered slides, not because of them
3. Fear of Obfuscation: Leaders worry that if the employee isn’t showing ALL the information at once, he/she might be hiding something
Let’s go in reverse order on the reasons above.
– Regarding #3 – it is a genuine concern. I have attended many business meetings where employees would selectively highlight positive business metrics and conveniently leave out the troublesome ones. (It’s a natural reaction – ‘If you can’t convince them, confuse them’!). To address this, it is important to have a format/template of the base minimum metrics to be covered. But having such a template doesn’t mean just dumping these metrics on the audience on one big ‘Dashboard’ slide. Underlying the metrics, there would be a story in the data – it is the presenter’s job to unearth that story and present it clearly and visually.
– On #2, there’s not much that can be done to address the bravado of a masochistic leader! All I would say is that we need to recognise that all of us have limits to our information-processing ability. Let go of the bravado. Demand clear communication from your colleagues… Your busy, information-loaded days don’t need to be hijacked by cluttered slides and long-winded, unclear emails.
– Which brings us to #1. Can your employees learn to become better storytellers even if they naturally aren’t so? Of course they can. With encouragement from the top, desire to learn from their side and the right storytelling coach (ahem), you can transform the quality of your review discussions.

An example

Let’s take an indicative example to illustrate the above. Abacus Tech is an IT services company and runs a process for a US based client. Its project manager makes a quarterly presentation to the US Client coordinator about Abacus’ work. This primarily involves dealing with ‘tasks’ raised by the clients employees and how well does Abacus service them.
The last quarter was especially busy for Abacus’ team as they did 441 tasks. The project manager (let’s call her Sneha) prepared the usual ‘dashboard’ report for her client counterpart.
That’s got all the information, sure. But imagine the client coordinator trying to make sense of all those numbers, while Sneha talks through the slide. Definitely not impactful.
On the other hand, let’s say Sneha applies storytelling principles to extract and then present the story from her data. Here’s how the same slide could look:
Let’s assume the above slide was emailed over to the client before the review. Imagine if you were the client, reading through this slide. Would you have any confusion in understanding the story of Abacus’ performance? I don’t think so.
Admittedly, the slide does look packed if we were to present it in person/over a call. However, even in that situation, there are two options:
– Sneha can keep each chart on a separate slide, so that the audience isn’t overwhelmed with too much on one slide
– If there is a restriction on number of slides (and she can use just 1 slide), then she can animate the charts, so that they come in the right sequence.

Time is money

Business leaders – you are right. You may be able to ‘extract’ the story yourself even from a cluttered, data-heavy slide. But it will take you much longer than it should. Your time is precious. You need to spend more time discussing the root causes of performance and not in trying to derive them yourselves.
Ensure that your presenters (and you yourself!) are skilled in the art of crafting, preparing and delivering an impactful story with their data. You will get insightful presentations, richer discussions and ultimately better business outcomes.
* All names changed
Featured image from Wikimedia, By FAEF Wiki