This is a collection of hints on presenting performance results that have worked for me throughout the years as I’ve presented my results to both friendly and skeptical audiences of managers, technical staff, and executives all the way up to the CIO/CEO level. This is not generic advice on public speaking. You can find that elsewhere.
When presenting your results, in many ways you are like the Crystal Seer. Perhaps the turban and the crystal ball would be a little over the top for your presentation in conference room three, but overall this is not a bad metaphor.
When doing performance work, you are uncovering a hidden truth few can see, and predicting the future.
We have all seen a poorly explained truth go down in flames and a beautifully told lie carry the day. If the inmates are running the asylum where you work, then they are most likely very good at presenting their very bad ideas.
How clearly and convincingly you present your results determines how successful you are.
As Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Look at your results and conclusions and ask yourself how your audience will react.
The more disruptive, shocking, or expensive your conclusions and recommendations are, the more backup data you need and the more effort you want to expend in making an airtight case. If you are claiming bacon is good for you, then you will have an easier time with the National Pork Producers Board than with a group of vegan cardiologists.
However, just because you have 30 backup slides for your shocking revelation, doesn’t mean you need to show them all. Pay attention to your audience. Once you’ve convinced them, forget the remaining 24 backup slides, and move on to your next point.
The Nature of Truth
When preparing to present your report, there can be tremendous pressure to lie. Your work may help justify a purchase everyone wants to make or force unpleasant changes that no one wants to endure. The politics can get very serious.
First and foremost, stick tightly to the data you collected. It is the truth. Everything you do, say, and recommend flows from it. Never change that data. Never cherry pick the “good” numbers. Never ignore the bad numbers. If the powers that be order you to change that data, then start looking for another job because this is not the place anyone wants to work.
Be open to other interpretations of the data. If they do not violate the laws of physics, or performance, they may be valid. A device being 50% busy is a fact. What that fact means depends on the question at hand and the business realities that you have to live within. I’ve done performance work at companies where 30% busy on a peak day was a crisis and others where 95% busy was the norm. Both companies were doing wildly different things with their machines, but they, and their customers, were quite content with the performance they were getting.
You’ve done weeks of monitoring, calculation, and testing, and now you’ve got to explain your work to people who have been (for the most part) blissfully ignorant of your efforts and struggles. There is the natural tendency to show the detail and talk at length about how hard you worked. Don’t do that.
It takes an incredible amount of ingenuity, work, skill, and craftsmanship to lift a raw diamond out of the Earth and craft it into a sparkling gem. The same is true of your work on this performance project. In both cases, the end product is prized for its clarity. That clarity comes from the internal structure, the lack of flaws, and the raw material you discarded. When writing and presenting be a minimalist.
You will be presenting to people who have natural limits. Most people, as a rule, are not that good at holding several numbers in their head simultaneously. People also have a finite ability to give a damn about what you are saying. When you exceed that limit, they stop listening, even if you are explaining how to make perfect $20 bills on a laser printer. What follows are some goals to strive for when crafting a presentation.
Eliminate anything extraneous, as every new thing takes energy to understand. For example, your system might have 15 tuning parameters, but when only three of them matter to this question, put the rest of them (if you include them at all) in an appendix. This gets them out of the main flow of your presentation, and yet it shows you did your due diligence.
Make sure that each point you make requires your audience to remember no more than two numbers at the same time. Having a nicely designed table of numbers is fine, as no memorization is required.
Use consistent terms and introduce the least number of new terms possible. Call a “dog” a “dog” all the way though your presentation.
Since graphs are a key element of most performance presentations, do your audience a favor and label your graphs consistently. Put a title and a legend on each graph, and put them in the same place. Label the X and Y axis. Strive to use a common unit (bits vs. bytes) in all your graphs. Use consistent colors so they quickly learn, for example, that the metered values are always blue, the projected values are always red, and the theoretical limit line is always black.
Lastly, establish a pattern in your presentation so people know what to expect. For example, imagine you had capacity planned the performance of a key computer at a future peak. In your presentation, for each subsystem of that computer, show where you are now, then show the projected peak, then state if this will be a problem, and lastly describe any proposed changes to work around the problem. People like a repeating pattern of information in a presentation. They find this comforting and an aid to overall understanding.
The Invisible Presentation
If your audience has trouble seeing what you are presenting, then it is harder for them to understand your wisdom.
Use a big font (24-30 point), that is easy to read (no funky fonts), and has high contrast (black letters on a white background). Save the small fonts for your written summary, and avoid colored fonts on a colored background like the plague.
In most meetings a significant part of the audience can’t see the bottom 25% of your slide due to the people in front of them. Put the good stuff at the top of the slide. Reserve the bottom for things that are less important to the question at hand, like the page number or the snazzy corporate artwork.
Depending on where you live, seven to nine percent of men and 0.4% of women are red/green colorblind, be sure not to make these the two the most critical colors on your graphs. Also, everyone is colorblind when looking at a black and white printed copy of your presentation.