Experienced program managers and project managers know the importance of good planning. Yet, do they all know how to structure a compelling presentation?
At first glance, you may wonder about this analogy. After discussing with Aspirent’s Visual Analytics Practice Lead Dan Gastineau and reading Data Story1. I noticed that the thought process applied to creating effective Charters can be used to communicate learnings, results, and recommendations on any topic. Each requires time to think through what is to be achieved and how to best organize thoughts and messaging. Each requires a flow to breakdown the communication and support how to achieve the end goal.
However, I have observed that many who do not plan well do not invest the proper time to communicate or present well. Communications management is critical to a project manager’s role. There have been many articles written informing that communications management is greater than 50% of focus for a project manager. The PMI® 2013 Pulse of the Profession2 provided an in-depth look, which continues to resonate today. Consider, in 2019, Gartner, Forbes, and others wrote about project management trends including artificial intelligence and data intelligence solutions. At the same time project manager relationship skills, including communications, remain prevalent.
If program managers and project managers are continuously taught to practice all forms of communications, why don’t we as a community do the same with all presentations?
Following are a few analogies and tips for applying program/project management skills to good presentation communication.
Many have written about the effect of poor planning on program or project results. Good program and project managers appreciate the value in planning. One aspect is taking the time to understand why a Charter is important; it is not only to complete the document and check off the task, but to gain alignment on what is being delivered to achieve the business goal.
(Note: If you are interested in why planning is important and best practices for cross-enterprise planning, refer to this article.)
When creating a Charter, a program or project manager first understands its purpose and importance: to deliver results aligned to business goals. Determining how to achieve the results is an outcome of conversations and questions, breaking down and validating what the program/project should produce (e.g., a new product, a process, a recommendation, etc.). “How” we produce, is achieved by identifying the deliverables (service, product and/or result) and understanding the approach and “steps” required to define and create each deliverable. Once the Charter and schedule are completed, a best practice is to ensure that top down alignment (objectives à deliverables à phases à activities and tasks) and bottom up alignment (activities à phase/stage gate completion à deliverable creation à objectives) result in what is needed to achieve the program/project objectives and ultimately the business goals or strategies.
Work Breakdown Structures
Work breakdown structure (WBS) is a common technique used in project schedule management. Its format is hierarchical, where the deliverables (e.g., defined in the Charter) are decomposed into smaller, more manageable pieces of work. The roll-up results in completing all deliverables for the project.
Sprint Planning results in the definition of the Sprint Goal. The Product Owner communicates to the Scrum Team what the sprint should achieve in its product increment. As the development team determines what will be completed in the sprint, the defined goal assists the Product Owner in validating and developing the Product Roadmap.
The thought process includes understanding the user stories that best satisfy the product objective.
How do the above ideas translate to presentation communications? Not unlike Charter and Sprint Planning, there is a main topic to convey. This message resembles the project or product objective. The remainder of the messaging supports the overall message. The messaging should not go off on a tangent (i.e., include something out of scope in a traditional mindset or a product backlog item that is not achieving the product objective in an adaptive mindset).
The decomposition technique applies to the overall flow of a presentation in support of the key message. The top of the project WBS is analogous to the overall point to be conveyed. Each level below expresses points in support of the level above. Resembling a team exercise using post-it notes to create a project WBS, a presentation WBS can be created. Each post-it note communicates one point in support of its “parent” in the layer above. (If there is a three-layer hierarchy, the main message resides at the top, the sub-layer has multiple post-its with one point on each, and the sub-sub-layer follows the same approach. The sub-sub-layer messages support its sub-layer parent’s point. All sub-layer points support the overall main message, substantiating the overall intent.)
A program or project manager can apply techniques from project initiation and planning to develop the flow of a presentation. It may be more a matter of investing the time to organize thoughts into a structure that helps the audience. What I concluded from my discussions and reading is that you do not need to have a journalism or communications education to follow such a process and create good presentations. Our program/project management community has techniques that can help translate to this form of communication.
1 Duarte, Nancy. Data Story. IdeaPress Publishing, 2019.
2PMI (2013). “PMI® 2013 Pulse of the Profession.” The Essential Role of Communications.