Spruce up your presentations -- and your profile in the company

To keep your audience engaged, give them engaging material -- and show off your strategic thinking skills at the same time

Dear Bob ...

One of my less enjoyable responsibilities is delivering a monthly update report to the IT Ruling Council (officially it's the IT Steering Committee, but I believe in calling things what they are).

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My part in this charade is the operations review, which means showing the RC a bunch of statistics related to uptime, performance, spare capacity, and so on. I do this every month because the RC asked me to, but when I'm presenting, the fidgeting is obvious -- and fidgeting is how the polite members of the RC respond.

I'm seriously thinking of asking for a demotion so that I don't have to put myself through this anymore. Before I do, do you have any sage advice to give that will save both my sanity and my career?

- Dreading it

Dear Dreadful ...

You may be familiar with that tiresome, often-repeated phrase we've been hearing over and over again for the past few decades: "People have to take responsibility."

Don't blame your audience. It isn't their fault they're bored by your performance. If you want them to stay engaged, give them material that's engaging.

Here's the trick: No matter what the official subject, every successful presentation is an exercise in storytelling. It's a narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end, connected by an overall theme and sequenced through transitions that showcase each point you make as a logical follow-on to the preceding point.

Start with the take-home message: "This month, uptime, performance and capacity were within the normal range. The big story is that we're spending more and getting less for it. There are three reasons for this: A, B, and C. Here's what's happening in more detail." Follow that with the specifics for A, B, and C.

Or: "The story this month is prevention. Uptime, performance and capacity were within the normal range, but it wasn't automatic. Some of the steps you approved last January paid off, because we had several equipment failures that would have led to outages before we installed our new clustering technology, but now just led to our replacing failed equipment we were able to take offline without affecting production."

Or make a list of subjects that should be of interest to your audience and update it whenever another subject occurs to you. To figure out what the theme should be for a particular month, decide based on which of them will have the most supporting material. Then organize your facts and figures around that theme.

Here's another way of looking at the situation: It's up to you to tell your audience what it needs to know. You've been showing them a collection of individual measurements, but they don't seem particularly receptive to these numbers. At the Steering Committee level, they're supposed to be dealing with concepts that are supported by the measurements, and it's up to you to tell them what those concepts are.

Here's the great news: Once you get the hang of this, the Steering Committee members will stop thinking of you as the annoying nerd who insists on giving them page after page of numbers and will start thinking of you as a peer -- someone who knows how to think strategically and buttress their conclusions and recommendations with appropriate evidence. Even better, you'll stop having to deal with flop sweat every month.

- Bob

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