PowerPoint Presentations

September 29, 2012

Few things in business are more rightly feared by the presenters and more properly dreaded by the recipients than a PowerPoint presentation. PowerPoint has rightly been criticized by many, and one of the best criticisms is Edward R. Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint

I’m not going to debate the pros and cons of PowerPoint, but try to share with you a couple of hints on making the PowerPoint presentation to an audience, whether it is in person or, increasingly, over the web.

First and above all, master your material.  The PowerPoint slides should be a reminder to you of what you want to say, and a way of providing your audience with the high points, the findings, the very core of your presentation.  This does not mean you have to write an essay on each PowerPoint slide.  If you have to do that, you are not ready for the presentation and your audience certainly will not be ready to receive whatever intelligence you have to give them.  When you do that, you will soon find your audience is reading ahead of you, and is rapidly getting bored waiting for you to catch up with them.

Mastering your material means that you can give the presentation without ever looking at the overheads, and still feel comfortable with it.  Your job is to face the audience, to make eye contact with them, and to somehow draw at least a few of them into a conversation, even if it is only a one-way conversation.

Two, handle interruptions – which your boss calls his questions. Typically there will be interruptions.  There are three ways to handle an interruption.  One wrong way is to say, “I will be getting to that”.  The worst way is to say that, but then never get to it.  The right way is to give a brief, that is one sentence, response to the question, and indicate that you will expand on it later on – and then do it.  Never, ever have a questioner wait for an answer.  It is very hard getting them to pay attention in the first place.  And by doing that, you risk losing your audience, or least the small number who are actually interested in what you were saying.

Three, realize you are not giving a speech, you are talking with the audience.  But appreciate that speechmaking has some lessons to give you.  For example, a really good speaker causes you to listen because she changes the way she speaks.  She goes from a soft voice to a louder voice, from slow speaking to rapid speaking, from conversational bits to emphatic tones.  By continually modulating your own voice, you are telling the audience that you are talking to them and forcing them, almost automatically, to listen more closely to you.

Four, if you manage to get your presentation done in the time allotted – and you had better do that no matter how little time you are given or how much your time is cut down after you start – make sure you have an ending that summarizes the absolute core of what you are communicating.  That should be on one slide, your last slide of content, and put across the point in such direct terms that even people who were not at the presentation will understand what you meant to communicate.  It is not the audience’s job to guess what you meant; it is yours to pound it in.

You have to understand that while PowerPoint can be a useful way of combining visual, written, and oral communications, none of these methods, nor all of them combined, guarantee 100% reception and digestion.  To put it bluntly, no matter how good you are and how good your PowerPoint slides are, not everyone is going to get the message, so you have to overcompensate. If you have the time, practice.  If not, keep in mind Dale Carnegie’s advice while you are up there:

“Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it; then tell them what you’ve said.”

Near is good (Part 2)

September 25, 2012


For all that we talk about doing research to develop competitive intelligence, rarely, if ever, do we or others talk about where and how to start.

There are a couple of simple rules involving doing this.  First, start with secondary research, that is, the reading, before the primary research, the interviewing.  The reason?  Secondary research not only brings you up to speed on your subject matter, it brings you identification of and information on potential interview targets.

But beyond that?  Frankly, it probably doesn’t make much difference when you start, so the easiest thing to do is to start with that which is closest at hand.  Let me give you an illustration.

We were working with a client that was looking into products that used energy-efficient technology in a nontraditional market niche.  After completing our secondary research, we found that there were a number of companies, large and small, that sold a similar, but not identical, product to an overlapping market.  Sorry to be so vague, but client confidentiality is critical.

One of those companies was a small chain that had an outlet nearby.  Now we were pretty certain that outlet did not carry the product in question, but we had an existing relationship with the outlet, as  customers.  So we started our research there.  Now, as we fully expected, the local outlet had no information for us, but cheerfully gave us a reference upstream within the business, a specific individual at headquarters, who could help us.  We now not only had a live interview target, we had an introduction to that target, a fact which, if you have not learned already, makes getting access and completing an interview many, many times easier.

The moral – start somewhere close at hand, and keep track of your research.  Once your secondary research, and later your primary research, brings you back to sources that you have already checked into or interviewed (or have declined to interview), you should feel comfortable that your research is at an end.  From there begin analysis to develop truly proactive competitive intelligence.


September 17, 2012

Communicating competitive intelligence, assuming that you have to deliver to anyone but yourself, is a fairly delicate matter.  You have to keep in mind that it involves communicating conclusions, which other people may take as facts, which they are not.  You also have to be aware of the fact that you must exercise extreme caution in identifying and quoting individuals that you interviewed, for fear of causing difficulty for them.  It is not that you did or that they did anything improper, it is just that it is better to avoid difficulties by not causing them in the first place.

But, the biggest problem in the communication of that intelligence is often the use of language.  By that I do not mean the choice of language, but the use of terms of art.  These terms of art may be unique to particular business, a scientific discipline, or even a company.  Worse still is our use of abbreviations, acronyms and the like.

In a course that I’ve taught on communicating competitive intelligence, I often put up a slide based on one developed by a client.  The slide is literally papered with acronyms, abbreviations and other shorthand to the point where it is almost unintelligible.  In fact, looking at it last time, I could not fully translate all of it for the class – and I had been involved in the research that generated this report!

The reason?  In attempting to be a member of the in crowd, this individual, communicating with his/her peers at the client, made the presentation almost impossible to understand by (A) others outside the small circle involved with this project, and (B) others who might read it merely months later and not be intimately aware of the entire competitive scene at that precise moment.

To put it more accurately, once the document was prepared, it became virtually useless because it required someone to explain it.  That is not the essence of communicating competitive intelligence.  Your job is not to show your mastery of the English language, or a scientific discipline, or the slang used by the marketing or research and development departments.  In fact, using acronyms and abbreviations can often conceal rather than reveal the essence of your intelligence findings.

In addition, you face another serious problem: the misuse of these arcane languages.  For example, mistyping an acronym ATO as ATC or ITO is something that will slip past your spellchecker.  But to your audience, it will either indicate an entirely different statement than the one you intended to make and/or indicate that, frankly, you do not know what you are talking about

“Speak English!’ said the Eaglet. ‘I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and I don’t believe you do either!”  ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

It is better to err on the side of simplicity than to be viewed as a simpleton.

Write it or dictate it?

September 18, 2012.

A communication issue is rising which has not arisen for many, many years.  That issue is, should you write out your thoughts or should you dictate them?

I say it is not arisen for many years because the widespread use of secretaries who took dictation and transcribed it for all levels of managers is a long gone practice – disappearing in the mists of time, along with suits and ties in the office and keeping business records in cuneiform.

The increasing sophistication of Dragon Naturally Speaking  now raises that question. [Disclosure: I am now using and have been using Dragon for number of years with increasing amounts of pleasure and success]

It is a legitimate question.  You may not believe it, but, we speak very differently from the way we write.  For some truly awful examples of this, consider business or political speeches you have heard that sound awful given by people that are actually just interesting to listen to one-on-one.

For most people, writing a document takes more time than dictating.  The written document is more tightly organized, and the sentences tend to be shorter and crisper.  The dictated document tends to have longer and somewhat rambling sentences.

On the other hand, the written document is often the victim of the author’s overuse of technical or other highfalutin language, an effort, perhaps subliminal, to demonstrate superiority in education or erudition (you can do it on Dragon as well!).

The dictated document is just that, a close reflection of the way we speak, which is casual, and less pointed.  At its extreme, however the spoken word can be extremely blunt, verging on the offensive.  Very few people will purposefully write using the kind of abrasive language they would not think about using when speaking to a other person.

So what is the best way to proceed?  Probably, it is to combine the two of them.  By that I mean type out the headings first, a shorthand way of typing an outline, for the document that you intend to write.  But instead of putting the headings as declarative statements, make each one into a question.

Then look at the questions: do they cover all the topics you want to cover in your report?  If so, begin dictating your answer at the appropriate place in the document.  If you find that your train of thought leads you to another topic while in the midst of one topic, simply pause, move the cursor elsewhere and continue dictating.

When you are done, first read through it just after you save it and before you go on to something else.  It is at that time you will pick up those few mistakes that a dictation program makes in transferring a word from your lips to your page.  Trust me, if you wait even several hours, you will not be able to understand what you intended to write.


Then, if possible, put it aside.  Go back later and then run a spelling and grammar check before anything else.  That will force you to correct odd sentences and paragraphs, and complete partial expressions.

Finally, go through it slowly, first, from the beginning to the end.  Eliminate those long, to your mind interesting, one sentence paragraphs.  Either combine paragraphs or cut the three, four and even five line long sentences into several sentences.  Believe me, your audience will appreciate it. And so will you, rereading it in several months.

Once you have read it to the very end and are satisfied with it, read it from the end to the beginning.  I do not mean literally backwards.  I mean, start with the last paragraph.  Does that last paragraph make sense?  Revise it, if it does not.

Do this gradually. When working back to the first paragraph in that way you will find those times when your casualness of approach through use of the dictated word has enabled you to skip the colder logical connections that writing first generally forces you to do.

Don’t forget about the headings. When you are done, make sure each section answers the question heading it and then convert the question to a statement that summarizes what you actually wrote.

By the way, I did not say that the writing was easy. To write, you must first have something to say.

Say again?

September 14, 2012

Whirling around the stories of the recent assassination of the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans is the issue of whether or not the United States had an intelligence “warning” about this.

The issue seems to have begun with the UK publication, The Independent, which reported.

According to senior diplomatic sources, the US State Department had credible information 48 hours before mobs charged the consulate in Benghazi, and the embassy in Cairo, that American missions may be targeted, but no warnings were given for diplomats to go on high alert and “lockdown”, under which movement is severely restricted.

The White House quickly responded, saying that

“I have seen that report, and the story is absolutely wrong,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “We were not aware of any actionable intelligence indicating that an attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was planned or imminent.”

Well, that’s that, right?  The Independent made a charge, and the White House denied it.  Not by half.  Simply based on reading the statements, slowly and carefully, it is possible that both statements are supported by the facts.  How is that? It lies, among other places, in the important distinction between raw intelligence and actionable intelligence.

The U.K. publication called out the U.S. Administration based on “credible information” that “American missions [unspecified] may be targeted”.  Note that the article did not state that the consulate in Benghazi and/or the embassy in Cairo were targeted, but simply referred to American “missions”.  Also note that the article claimed that they “may” be targeted, not that they “were” targeted.

Now, consider the response.  The White House said that the Administration, at least that is what I assume from the word “we”, was “not aware of any actionable intelligence indicating that an attack on the US mission in Benghazi was planned or imminent”.  That statement contains at least four separate thoughts:

  1. That “we” were “not aware” of something.  What exactly does aware mean?  I guess it depends on who “we” are. The White House? The US Intelligence community? The article said that the US State Department had the information. Was “we” the State Department?
  2. That the lack of awareness was of “actionable intelligence”.  Actionable intelligence is intelligence on which you can take action.  That is certainly a much more precise and refined item than mere “credible information”, which is just another way of saying believable raw data.
  3. That the standard being applied by the White House was that the intelligence had to deal with the US mission in Benghazi.  The Independent article simply referred to unnamed U.S. “missions”, considerably broader and undefined. In Libya? In the Mideast? Worldwide?
  4. That whatever was out there had to indicate that an attack “was planned or imminent”.  The Independent article referred to the fact that some American missions “may” be targeted, but for what was not clear for what. Demonstrations? Blockades? Assaults? Fire bombings? Assassinations?

What does all of this mean? It means that The Independent and the White House are talking at cross purposes.  That’s why I say they could both be correct.

By the way, for those of you who are really into learning about the use and misuse of language, consider Goggling the term “negative pregnant,” and reading what this legal concept says about an answer to a question which is highly, highly specific.  I’m not saying were facing one here, because I don’t know what question(s) the White House spokesman actually answered.

Just connect the dots

September 11, 2012

People sometimes ask, “How is it that you make sense of raw data?”  Well, the short answer we give is that somehow we “just connect the dots”.

Now that sounds very simple, but it really isn’t.  It erroneously conjures up one of those children’s puzzles that used to be on paper place mats in highway restaurants, placed there to keep children who had been cooped up in a car for too long busy for a few minutes.  You remember those place mats, if you’re over the age of 25, as also having other simple puzzles, and perhaps a maze or two.

Competitive intelligence is not that easy.  However, compared to national security intelligence, it is.  Given today’s date, it is hard not to reflect on the terrible losses 11 years ago.  Numerous and extensive postmortems have been conducted in an effort to determine whether or not there was an intelligence failure before 9/11, and if so, what was the intelligence failure, and how can we prevent it in the future? I do not propose to argue about that, nor am I in a situation where I can do so.

But the dot connecting facing our governmental analysts is not what we see in a child’s puzzle.  Rather, it is substantially more complex. In most cases, we know the environment in which we work, and feel reasonably sure that we really understand what is happening and what is not happening.  In business, we usually know when we have enough data to come to a reasonable conclusion.

But for government analyst, the world is very different. Visualize now a swimming pool, Olympic size, if you wish.  We are now going to fill it with beads of 12 (or so) different dark colors, including some with spots and stripes.  In those hundreds of thousands of beads, there will be about 200 which are black, but we do not know exactly how many.  There are another 100 or so that look like they have some black on them, or perhaps they just have a very dark blue smudge on them.  They’re another 50 or so which are broken, but which, at least to some people, appear to have had some black on them before they were shattered.

Your job as analyst is not only to find all of the beads that are black, remembering you don’t know how many there are, but also to determine whether or not these beads are actually black, that is, do they relate somehow to those other black beads which you have already located?  Oh, by the way, you probably have reason to believe that some of the black beads were actually once another color, but have been painted black, just to confuse you.  And you are pretty sure that you cannot find all of the dots. Also, you are doing all of this from the springboard 12 feet above the level of the pool. Okay, now, “just” connect the right dots.

While it is true that the national security intelligence community is now attempting to learn from those of us in the business intelligence community about the effective use of monitoring such new sources as social networks, their job and our job are markedly and remarkably different.

We in business are not facing people and even groups who intend actively and persistently to mislead and to confuse us, to engage in misdirection, and to do us grievous harm.  We may use the same skills, but the price of an analyst being wrong, just once in a month, a year, a decade, or a lifetime, may for us be a loss in a particular market, not a loss of almost 4,000 people.

The Art of the Tele-interview – 20 Hints

September 7, 2012
Ok, you have to talk with someone you do not know about what you are working on. What do you do?
1. Do not just call! Prepare first. Who is this? What are you trying to learn from her: data, where to get a report, a lead to someone else?
2. Figure out where to contact this person. Where is her office? Just because she works for MegaGlobe Corp does not mean she necessarily works at the HQ. Use LinkedIn to figure out where she is.
3. Look him up in LinkedIn, or any other social network, and see if, just possibly, you are linked to him. If so, consider using that link. Also, review his background. Know to whom you are speaking. Anything in common can be used to make the conversation more casual and more productive.
4. When you call, be prepared to tell a gatekeeper who you are and why you are calling. And keep it short.
5. When you call, be prepared to talk immediately. If perchance you get her right away, start. That means you do not start calling when you cannot complete your call/interview without interruption. Trust me – if you try and reschedule it after you have gotten started, your chances of completing it fall substantially.
6. If your interviewee is not available at that very moment, ask for a time when you can call back – and keep that appointment (BTW, your odds are about 50-50 that you will be able to talk on that second call.)
7. If he is not interested in talking with you about your topic, ask if there is someone else he can direct you to. If so, get the name – and direct dial – and ask if you can say that he referred you. If so, that raises the odds you will be able to get through and complete the interview.
8. Do not lie about who you are. You do not have to give your resume, but you are not a “student” calling for help with a paper (BTW – if you do that, not only is it unethical – if you actually get something, it will be the kind of junk she should give to a student).
9. Move quickly into your conversation. This is not about you. It is about him. Be clear about why you are calling.
10. Mention where and how you got her name. Was it from an article, an interview, from an industry contact? Doing that puts you closer to the person you are speaking to.
11. Visualize speaking to him when you are in the same room. Do not call him “Bill” if he answered the phone “William”.
12. If he has a title (Professor, etc.), us it until you are told you can skip it.
13. Use open-ended questions, unless you are seeking to confirm a couple of very specific facts. Even so, be friendly – this is a conversation, not an interrogation.
14. Do not read from a list of questions. You voice will communicate that. And the interview will quickly end.
15. If you asked for 5 minutes, keep it to 5 minutes. When the time is up, thank her. If she wants to keep chatting, let her.
16. Smile while you are on the phone. Your voice will reflect that. Be casual, relaxed and listen to what he says. Respond with open-ended questions and positive comments to keep it moving.
17. Always say thanks. He did not have to talk with you.
18. If appropriate, offer to return the favor. And, if called on, do so.
19. Consider adding her to your contact network. Don’t have one? Start one.
20. As soon as you are done, type your notes. Allow as much time to do that as you spent on the phone. Oh, in case you were thinking — do not record any of these conversations. Why? We do not need to get into that mare’s nest right now.