When Tension Is High, Start With Some Good News

Sometimes the success or failure of your company hangs on your results. When the stakes are high, you might want to think about going to the movies. Specifically an old-school, action movie, like Indiana Jones.

A big reason audiences enjoy an action movie is that they are reasonably sure from the onset that they will like the ending. They are sure that the hero will triumph, and the wrongs will be righted.

There is a temptation to use a dramatic style when presenting the results of your work because you naturally want to tell a story that builds in excitement and drama and finishes with thunderous applause. That is a fine thing to do, but it works much better if you tell them very early in the presentation that all will be well. Then the audience can relax and enjoy the ride. So start your talk with something like this:

With the current configuration, we will not be able to handle the upcoming peak. However, I’ve identified the bottlenecks and I have workarounds to propose for all of them. Let me show you what I’ve found.

I have seen presentations, without this early calming statement, go badly. When the presenter was about half way through the list of all the serious problems ahead some participant will start angrily demanding something like:

Are we screwed?!?
Please Tell Me There Is a Fix For Some Of This?!?

This is not what you want. Whenever possible, lead with the good news that there is a solution to all the problems you have discovered. When you don’t have a solution for a problem, at least tell them that you’ve found the root/cause of the problem they are currently having. People need hope.

Other helpful hints on presenting your results, as well as capacity planning and load testing, can be found in: The Every Computer Performance Book which is available at Amazon, B&N, or Powell’s Books. The e-book is on iTunes.


Judge Not

When you present your performance results, you are not a superhero striking down evil. You are not there to make yourself look big by making others feel small. You are not there to judge.

nosuper noyellnojudge

You are a member of the team, dispassionately presenting well-checked information and potential solutions for problems. Stick to the facts, and leave the judgments to others.

I have seen presentations where the speaker delivered the bad news in a mocking and sometimes directly insulting way that hurt group cohesion and deeply offended people in front of their peers. That approach did not aid in answering the question, but it did unleash a wave of back-stabbing and other bad behavior. Every time I have seen someone be intentionally cruel or hurtful to a co-worker, it has not worked out well for them, especially in the long run.

Care Deeply

The single biggest “trick” I use in every talk I’ve every given is to care about the people in the audience. This is not a trivial closing thought. This is a core truth. You can tell when someone cares about you, and you can tell when they don’t. You naturally give more attention and show more compassion to people who care about you.


When you construct the presentation and in the time just before you start to give it, let yourself focus on deeply caring about the audience. Care about their needs and concerns. Care about the fact that they have been sitting in meetings for two hours before you started. Care about them as people and co-workers. Caring connects you to them in a powerful and positive way. If you honestly care, they can’t help but listen.

Other helpful hints on doing performance work, as well as capacity planning and load testing, can be found in: The Every Computer Performance Book which is available at Amazon, B&N, or Powell’s Books. The e-book is on iTunes.


The Five-Minute Trick

More times than I can count, I’ve been told I have an hour to present my findings and then, at the last minute, have found out that “Mr. Big Cheese is running late” and I’m either being bumped from the schedule altogether or cut back to a small fraction of the time I was originally allotted.time2

For a critical talk I always prepare a second, totally separate presentation that lasts no more than five minutes, and I offer that to whoever is doing the scheduling for the meeting.  99% of the time that offer gets gratefully accepted. Often, Mr. Big Cheese is intrigued with what I have to say in those five minutes, and I’m asked to go into more detail, while the scheduler goes off to tell someone else that they’ve been cut from the schedule.

This short presentation is not just going though your slides faster. It is a completely different presentation developed, edited, and optimized to deliver in that brief time. Please don’t start whining that you can’t possibly do justice to your months of detailed work and analysis in five-minutes. I’ve successfully given executives presentations this brief:

“You will easily make it through your seasonal peak.
The details are in my report.”

“The fix for your current problem is moving one
very busy file to three new disks. Your staff
knows what to do.”

As the performance person you can make a big impression when you are prepared to move swiftly, and can help keep the executives running on time.  That positive impression lasts a long time and is good for your career.

This hint and many others are in: The Every Computer Performance Book which is available at AmazonPowell’s Books, and on iTunes.


Less Is More When Presenting Performance Results

Some questions have too many answers. I’ve watched quite a few meetings spin out of control when the group started open discussion, and participants became confused as they sorted through the myriad of possible choices, while adding new ones on the fly.

Tres manzanas frescas.There is an interesting book called The Paradox of Choice by Schwartz that points out that the typical human response to too many choices is to make no choice at all.

If you offer people three types of food to sample more people will choose to buy something, than if you offer them 30 types of food.

More choices often cause people to believe that it is unlikely that they will pick the right, or best, choice.

When presenting ideas on how to fix the problem, I like to offer people two choices that are clearly named and differentiated. If other ideas pop up over the course of the meeting, that is fine, but I keep them clearly labeled and make sure they are never comparing more than three solutions at any one time.

The Hidden Agenda 

In all talks there are two agendas: surface and hidden. The surface agenda is the subject of your talk.  It is in your slides. You say it out loud. The hidden agenda (e.g., get new hardware, influence the overall design to your liking, keep your job) is why you are really there. It is never spoken out loud.  It is not on the slides, but it is important to you. hidden

When you are presenting, if things start going badly and it is not clear what to do next, remember your hidden agenda. This can keep you from committing career suicide over a point you later realize was small potatoes. To be clear… Even when serving your hidden agenda, you have to tell the truth, be clear, and follow the data to its fortunate (or unfortunate) conclusion. In a tough spot, your hidden agenda can help you with emphasis, focus, balance between competing ideas, and when to gracefully concede to your opponent.

No Bad Surprises In Public

Never plan to surprise the person responsible for a problem in a public meeting. The goals of performance work are measured in response time and throughput, not in how much drama you create when you point your accusing finger at the unsuspecting culprit.    drama

When you locate a problem, the first person you should find is the person who is responsible for that part of the computing world, and discuss that problem with him or her. Why? That person may know a lot more about that part of your computing world than you do, and may have further insights as to the root cause and the reason(s) why things are done this way. Often, I find that when I privately share my concerns and ask for help in crafting a list of possible solutions, that person is quite willing to be helpful.

I have made the mistake of not involving the person I believed was responsible for the problem and have suffered these consequences, usually in this exact order:

  1. The person responsible for that part of the computing world got angry and defensive and worked relentlessly to tear down my work and credibility.
  2. That person points out my ignorance and further points out the real problem is caused by some other part of the computing world owned by a different person. Now there are two angry people in the room.
  3. Now the manager becomes angry with me for creating tension among the staff.

It always works better when I talk to the responsible person privately well before I write up my recommendations. We look at the problem and explore solutions. Then I can walk into the meeting and say something like: “The problem is in this subnet. With the help of your networking guru, we have a few ideas on how to improve the situation.

For more hints on presenting your work see: The Every Computer Performance Book at  AmazonPowell’s Books, and on iTunes.


The Truth That Is Hard To Swallow

There will be times when the meters and your expert analysis show that bad things are in the future. The company is looking at big changes, or spending massive amounts of money, or enduring very disruptive fixes. bad news

I have seen decision makers on multiple occasions, when presented with unrelenting bad news, simply reduce the scaling factor or lower the desired goals so that the problem simply evaporates. The essential nature of business is risk-and-reward. Sometimes a business will just have to hope that next year will be better, but sometimes what you are watching is a very human reaction to staggeringly bad news.

When people are presented with bad news, that contains no possibility of escape, a significant fraction of them will go into denial regardless of the evidence. The key to greater acceptance of your message is to present the bad news with a possible solution, or at least a way of improving the situation.

The XYZ server will run out of CPU at peak, but
we can mitigate some of that that by…

Presenting Your Results: Faith and Practice

In addition to having done good performance work, created a perfect set of slides, and a well written report, there is a mental game to be played as well. You need faith in your results and you need to present them smoothly, or many hours of hard work will be lost.

Build Your Faith In Your Results

checkingI hate to tell you this but, your results and conclusions may not, be correct. Mistakes happen. Things are missed. Calculations are botched. Data can be corrupted. You are usually keenly aware of all of these things just before you have to present your results. Worry creeps into your mind like a cold fog, and you can find yourself unsure you know anything at all.

There is only one way to prevent this.  Start by accepting the fact that you are a regular, carbon-based life form fully capable of screwing up, and then do the hard work necessary to build a rock-solid faith in your results and conclusions.  If you don’t deeply trust in the results, then that lack of trust will show on your face, and whatever you say won’t matter. Much of what we communicate is non-verbal. If they don’t believe you, your results are worthless. This is especially true high up the org chart as they don’t have time to comb through all your data.

Check everything. Check it twice. Look for inconsistencies. If you use a tool to boil down your performance data, recheck by hand a few values to be sure the tool is working. Present your results to a trusted co-worker to debug your analysis. Have someone else look for typos, misspelled words, and grammar glitches. Ninety-nine percent of this work will find nothing amiss, but the work is not wasted. You now have a rock-solid faith in your results, and your presentation has a few less booboos for your adversaries to use against you.


It is a natural human reaction to avoid difficult things, and that is why most people never practice their presentations before they give them.  This is unfortunate and leads to many overlong, boring, confusing, and generally bad presentations.

You need to practice. Really.

When you practice, say the words out loud, don’t just think them. You use a different part of your brain when you speak, and that gives you another chance to notice problems in your logic and in your material. Do you doubt me? Have you ever had some thought that sounded reasonable inside your head but sounded monstrously stupid once you said it out loud? I rest my case. You need to practice. It may feel silly to stand up in an empty room and present to no one, but you need to do this. I’ve been presenting for over 30 years, and I still do this with new material. It helps me every time.


One key thing to practice is getting any presentation equipment you need set up. I can tell you from painful experience that this is important. I remember the flop-sweat trickling down my forehead as a room full of people watched me struggle with a projector. That very, very bad day taught me to always get to the meeting room early and figure out those little things that can make you look like a big idiot.

For more info on presenting results see: The Every Computer Performance Book  on Amazon and iTunes.