Wednesday, January 07, 2009

In response to the comments...

As I alluded to in an earlier post, one criticism I have received repeatedly concerning my "Bottom-Up Change" presentation is that it is a bit short on examples and not practical enough.

The critics are right!

Although I didn't anticipate that the need for practicality would be an expectation or need from the audience when I originally developed the presentation, I consciously limited the use of specific examples. Part of the reason is that my intent was to provoke a desire to change, more than providing solutions.

But another reason has to do with the inherent difficulty of using specific examples and/or making things practical in a 45 minute presentation. The challenge is to meet the three criteria that make the core message effective, namely:
  • General: if you want to reach the entire audience, the application of your ideas must be broad enough so that everyone can relate to them;
  • Simple: in a keynote presentation, communication is mostly one-way (as opposed to a group discussion or a dialogue). Since feedback loop is minimal and opportunities to clarify ideas limited, it is best to keep the message very simple in order to ensure it is well understood as it is communicated.
  • Accurate: Whatever idea you are communicating, you want it to be correct, complete, and you hope it will meet the needs and expectations of each person in the audience.
As you can imagine, it can be pretty difficult to meet these three criteria in a short presentation. Most of the time, you must do some kind of trade-off and sacrifice one criterion and go with one of the following combinations:
  • General and Simple: You communicate a message that will be meaningful to all and can easily be communicated clearly and concisely. This also means the idea you communicate may be partial or incomplete, or may not be customized to the specific situation each person in the audience encounters.
  • Simple and Accurate: If you frame the issue you want to address very narrowly, it becomes possible to make the message accurate and yet easy to understand. Obviously, the application of the message will likely be limited to similar type situations, which in turn may not be relevant to everyone in the audience.
  • General and Accurate: In order to meet the specific needs and expectations of everyone in the room and make the message relevant to all, you will likely have to spend time articulating each argument or scenario in greater detail. Ultimately, it may make the messaging much more complex, unless the issue you're discussing is very narrowly defined.
I personally find the last combination the most difficult to achieve in a keynote presentation. I find it even more challenging during question periods, because very often a person in the audience will ask a question stemming from a very specific situation he or she is experiencing, which warrants and "accurate" response (i.e. correct, complete and relevant). But here's the difficulty: since I don't have all the background on the specific situation, it is hard to be accurate in my answer. Furthermore, assuming my answer is accurate given the person's needs and expectations, there is a low probability it will be equally accurate for the rest of the audience.

So there you have it, and that's why my "Bottom-Up Change" presentation is a bit short on practicality and examples.

For the second presentation I have developed - "Living Renewal: How to Turn An Organization Around in 1000 days" - I have taken a different approach. From the outset I compromise on the general application of what I have to say by specifically telling the story of organizational renewal experience in my Directorate. The upside is that it is highly practical and I give a lot of specific examples of things we did, tools we used, etc. The downside is that I know many people in the audience will listen the presentation, recognize we've done a good job, but leave feeling empty-handed because the practices I describe are either too specific or can't really be applied in their organization. Once again, I made a choice when I designed the presentation, and I know it won’t please everyone.

On a positive note, and regardless of the approach I take, these presentations are always followed by multiple and highly productive one-on-one conversations with people from the audience. And that's when I realize that the presentation is almost just a pretext to allow these conversations to take place!

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