Talk to the suits: How to sell IT outside of IT

Less is more when it comes to bang-up business presentations. Here are five tips for better tech talks.

Thomas Murphy needed a new ERP system, and he needed $300 million to buy it.

With a price tag that large, you'd think Murphy would add every justification he could think of to his presentations for his business colleagues. But even though he had enough data to fill 200 slides, Murphy, senior vice president and CIO at AmerisourceBergen Corp., resisted that temptation.

Instead, he sold his plan -- to IT employees, line-of-business colleagues and C-level executives at the Valley Forge, Pa.-based pharmaceutical services company -- with a mere five slides that used impressive images and just a few persuasive facts to get his point across.

For example, he showed an image of an iceberg to demonstrate that little issues with the company's current processes were symptomatic of much bigger problems to come. And when he told audiences that the company's supply chain application was older than Pong, up came a screen shot from the ancient video game.

"It always got a big laugh, followed by a look of dawning realization and fear," Murphy says, explaining that "good sales people use analogies or powerful references, because people don't remember the numbers. They remember the story."

Three years later, and halfway through the implementation of the ERP system, IT people still talk about the iceberg. "I have always said that the CIO's role is primarily a sales role," Murphy observes. "That's really what we do. We have to sell to people who don't know they want to buy."

Techies get talking

By and large, IT types aren't known for their smooth communication styles or savvy presentation skills. That used to be OK. Now, though, as board members want more details about IT spending, and business colleagues want more information on what technology can do for them, technology employees at all levels need good presentation skills -- particularly if they want to move up in the ranks.

There's a lot at stake, says Lori Michaels, chief technology officer at The Economist Intelligence Unit Ltd., a New York-based research and advisory firm. Michaels says she's seen great projects passed over because no one could present a compelling case for them, while flash-in-the-pan "bubblegum tech" that was presented well got funded.

Good presentation skills can help IT professionals reach not just their organizational goals, but their personal goals as well. As communication becomes increasingly important, presentation-savvy tech employees are often called upon to carry IT's message to the rest of the company, simultaneously increasing their visibility and their perceived value to the organization.

Want to create a message that others will remember years later? Consider the following tips for putting together a killer presentation.

Give your audience an action item

If you want to make a persuasive presentation, start by defining its purpose, says Kimberly Douglas, president of FireFly Facilitation Inc. in Atlanta and author of The Firefly Effect: Build Teams That Capture Creativity and Catapult Results.

"Get extremely clear about what you want to get out of the presentation, from these particular people, at this particular point in time," she says. Ask yourself: Why is this project important? Why is this project going to help those around me? And what do I need from this group?

If you are making a pitch to develop a new application for your company's marketing department, for example, you need to demonstrate what the application will do for marketing, articulate why it will be money well spent and spell out the actions you need them to take -- all from the audience's point of view.

"What do you want them to know, think, feel, or do differently?" Douglas asks. Answering those questions will help you articulate what you need to convey in your presentation.

Michaels asks her team members to sum up in one sentence what they want to convey in their presentations and what they want their audience to come away with. The exercise helps shift the presentations from a regurgitation of technology facts to an action that the audience can rally behind, she says.

Michaels once worked with her vice president of technology as he was preparing a presentation to stakeholders about a new database architecture. His original presentation had about 30 slides, mostly detailing the benefits of the new technology. To help him tailor his presentation, Michaels asked him to define his audience and explain what he needed from them.

Tips for better tech talks

* Think of a presentation as a story with a beginning, middle and end. AmerisourceBergen CIO Thomas Murphy says he has built presentations on storyboards like movie directors do.

* Start with a headline, says Suzanne Bates, president and CEO of Bates Communications. "Figure out the problem and the solution, and then present that big idea in the first minute or two. That's backward for many technical people, who don't understand how people can make a decision without hearing all the facts." But with this approach, she says, "you'll be far more successful in getting their attention."

* Understand your topic thoroughly. You don't want to present everything you know, but having detailed knowledge about the issue will help you present with confidence, answer questions effectively and build credibility with your audience.

* Prepare a condensed version. Even if you've been told you'll have a certain amount of time, you might be told to cut it short for myriad reasons, Bates says. So know where you can trim if you have to. She recommends having a three-minute version ready to go.

* Test the technology. Abbie Lundberg, president of Lundberg Media, attended a recent meeting where the first 15 minutes or so was spent waiting for someone to get the video working. Not the best way to engage an audience, she points out.

* Ask "What questions do you have?" rather than the "Does anyone have a question?" It's a small rephrasing, says Kimberly Douglas, president of FireFly Facilitation, but the first version is much more inviting and likely to elicit audience responses.

* Practice. Douglas recommends asking someone who can give you honest feedback to watch you run through your presentation to ensure you've got it right.

"His audience was all high-level stakeholders from business management," she says. "What he needed from that group was to get approval for funding and set expectations on a timeline that would satisfy the business goals." That produced a very different deck with points on ROI-related information, goals that related to the business's timelines, and examples of features to be delivered that accomplished their strategies."

In the end, the presentation didn't mention architecture or relational database structures -- and he got the funding he needed.

Say what the technology does, not what it is

"The majority of presentations I see are, 'We're going to go with Java and it will solve the problems,' whatever the problems are," Michaels says. "But the CFO just hears, 'I want $5 million to make my life easier.' "

That's why you need to leave out technical jargon and focus instead on explaining what that technology will bring to those in front of you, says Abbie Lundberg, president of Lundberg Media LLC in Gloucester, Mass., and former editor in chief of Computerworld sister publication CIO magazine.

"Where a lot of IT people fall down is they talk about what the technology does. They tend to talk about the functioning of the systems, which is a big mistake. Most others don't understand it, and they don't care about it," Lundberg explains. "IT people have to be more audience-focused. They have to ask, 'What does my audience care about?' "

Think about what you want the technology to do for each audience.

If it's going to help sales deliver goods to customers more quickly, that's what you present to sales. If it helps your call center people handle calls faster, that's your key talking point, Lundberg says.

AmerisourceBergen's Murphy, who needed two years to sell his $300 million ERP project, honed his ability to describe technology in business terms by meeting one-on-one with his counterparts in other departments. It wasn't until he framed the need for the ERP project in the terms that his business colleagues focused on -- describing it in terms of revenue vs. profit -- that he was able to really engage his audiences during presentations, he says.

Use more images, fewer words

As Murphy learned with the success of his iceberg picture, images speak louder than words.

"Audiences can only read or listen. They can't do both," says Suzanne Bates, president and CEO of Wellesley, Mass.-based Bates Communications Inc. and author of Speak Like a CEO and Motivate Like a CEO.

This point is particularly important when speaking in front of a live audience, which is often forced to squint while looking at small type squeezed onto slides by a presenter desperate to cram it all in.

Bates tells her clients to resist that urge. "You want people to walk out of the room remembering your presentation and what you said, and the only way you can do that is with powerful imagery and good stories."

Bates suggests that clients write a script before compiling any visuals. And then, before they log onto PowerPoint or a similar program, she has them get out crayons -- yes, crayons -- and draw images based on their messages. Those images then become the basis of a photo or more polished design.

Think beyond plain-vanilla slides

Despite the high-tech communication tools now at our fingertips, experts say most presentations still feature slides with bullet points and more bullet points. It's time to expand that basic menu to deliver maximum impact.

Michaels, for example, has used PowerPoint's animation feature to help illustrate the transformations that her proposed IT projects can bring. "We're almost always decommissioning and rebuilding, so what better way to illustrate that than to put a picture up and morph it?" she asks.

She once needed to deliver a presentation on agile development and why it would work well for her business colleagues, who were still wedded to a two-year development-and-delivery cycle.

Michaels knew that her audience didn't care about the process of agile development as much as the results it could bring. So she designed a slide featuring a block arrow with the project's name on it. The arrow was made up of smaller arrows that at first all pointed right (Figure 1).

Then, when Michaels talked about how agile development delivers pieces over time, the smaller arrows turned and pointed down to individual business benefits listed along a timeline (Figure 2).

"Good presenters are able to pull on the right tools at the right time," Lundberg says, noting that video and other visuals usually have more impact than bullet-point presentations. Lundberg says she uses video in the same way as graphics -- to highlight a point in a memorable way. She recommends keeping video clips to under 30 seconds, going as long as a minute "only if it's really good."

"I tend to use video for humor, too," she says. Lundberg cites a presentation she prepared on IT's ability to drive both efficiency and innovation. In it, she noted that though it's possible to do both, it can be hard for an immature IT organization to achieve. She used an analogy: "Can you pat your head and rub your belly at the same time?" alongside some YouTube clips, first of a 3-year-old having a tough time and then of a daredevil teen doing that and much more.

"Video is also good if you need to show a demonstration of some kind. In that case, you might want to hire someone to produce it for you. Again, though, you need to keep it short," Lundberg says. "A mistake I've seen a lot of CIOs make is to run a long promotion-type video about their company. Really, nobody cares how fast your cars go or how big your ships are. It just looks like a commercial to them, and we all know how much people love commercials."

On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes nothing works so well as a good, old-fashioned analog prop. For example, when Murphy had to talk about business transformation to 650 salespeople from his company, he opted to unroll a supersized printout representing the company's systems and its complexities.

"It was probably four feet wide and 10 to 12 feet long. I rolled it out in front of me on stage and let it roll over the stage floor," he recalls, explaining that the highly detailed technical chart showed all of the data connections among 300 or so master applications. "It wasn't the drawing but rather the act of rolling out the scroll that amplified my point about complexity," Murphy says.

Props like that, he says, get the point across in a way that words and data charts can't.

Show your passion

Most techies are used to developing highly detailed, well-documented reports and requirements, making it extra difficult to switch from that scientific frame of mind to an emotional one. But Douglas says just such an adjustment can help IT folks connect with their audience.

She cites the case of one IT manager from a large financial institution speaking out at an IT managers meeting. At a point where the meeting seemed to be going off track, the manager rose and issued an impromptu plea regarding the critical need to work more cooperatively.

"I can see him standing, I can see the room. He stood up and called people up by name, saying, 'We are here to come together.' He was passionate about the need for people to leave their own silos behind," she recalls.

What made the moment so memorable, Douglas says, was the manager's obvious emotion. "When he talked about the excitement of being in that organization's IT department, there was a transparency, a vulnerability," she says. "He made great eye contact with people. He commanded presence from both the tone of his voice and the passion that came through. It was just riveting."

Douglas doubts it would have had the same impact if he had put up a pile of slides and talked through critical data points.

AmerisourceBergen's Murphy would agree with that assessment wholeheartedly. "It's hard to sell if your passion about what you're selling doesn't come across."

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

This story, "Talk to the suits: How to sell IT outside of IT" was originally published by Computerworld.

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