Communication skills for project managers – Presentation skills


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 Read Part one    Read Part two

Presentation skills – Part three


As part of a series on soft skills for project managers, last week I wrote a section on communication skills. It may seem that it is a little odd not to include presentation skills as a communication skill and I will certainly not argue with this. I have also delivered a section on persuasion skills separately for the simple reason that these are key skills that require individual treatment as opposed to a short paragraph in a single blog about communications, also because it would be impossible to give communication a reasonable coverage in a single instalment  and because in the world of Project management,  lot of people will associate communications with the communication plan as opposed to recognizing it’s importance in an every day sense.

Critical for project managers

Charts used in project management

In my early days as a project manager I survived some very gruelling relationships with programme managers and sponsors as a result issues around presentation and reporting and since then I have seen other project managers and  Business Analysts driven to distraction by bosses demands for reports that they could understand.
Not only do the normal rules of presentation apply, but the project manager also needs to be able pinpoint the concerns that stakeholders need updates on and exactly how they can be reported to in order that they feel satisfied and comfortable. Above and beyond all other aspects of project management, this one is critical to survival of the project manager.

First of all you need to try and reach an agreement on your KPIs at the outset, or as soon as possible. KPIs can vary quite substantially for example, you may be in a situation where budget is critical and the critical factor is that you don’t go over budget. In this case the stakeholder will need very reliable KPIs to warn you as soon as you begin to slip. In this instance EVA might be a useful approach.

It allows you to plan a cost schedule for delivery of the product over time and plot against that costs accrued and value created so that you can easily see when the budget exceeds target or the value creation misses it’s target. Creating a simple graph and explaining it carefully to your stakeholder may be the perfect way to give her a warm and comfortable feeling about the project.

On the other hand you may find that this idea is a good one, but your stakeholder just doesn’t understand graphical reports and you have to grind it out with columns of data and a slow painstaking presentation. See paragraph on styles. The safest way is to prepare your props to be ready for all types of communication and be aware of the reactions of your audience so that you can switch modes if needed and place the emphasis on a different method of delivery when it is required.

One rule is universally applicable to project management. Responsibility for the audience understanding the message correctly lies with the project manager.
Ed Taaffe

If you ever find yourself tempted to blame it on the denseness of your audience, you are very close to the time when you should consider an alternative career path. The buck stops with you.

Progress against schedule.

Gantt chart

The great universal way to represent this key KPI is the ubiquitous Gantt chart. They are the most used tool by project managers and mostly because they are the one thing that allow you to combine data with a graphical view in one place.
The Gantt however, has many weaknesses. Not the least of it’s weaknesses is it’s ability to cram too much information into a small report. Unless you audience have the ability to drill down then most of the information it shows can be as good as useless.  The fact is that very few people have access to a tool that will open and manipulate these files.
The commonest mistake made by PMs is to assume that their audience also have spent years working with Gantt charts and understand them well. In reality very few people are entirely confident with them and some of those have oversized opinions of themselves, the remainder are generally embarrassed to admit it i public and sit quietly nodding. These people will come back to haunt you.

The next common mistake is to assume that your audience are interested in performance over time, they may be worried about risk of slippage against budget, or looking for indicators of inaccuracy in your forecast.

Slack, and accuracy of prediction

A great way to analyse and communicate the accuracy of your predictions and show your progress against these is the PERT chart.

Pert chart

The pert is fundamentally a network diagram that shows your key products being deliver, or milestones being met in the order that is necessary. It demonstrates the difference between products that depend on others and products that can be delivered independently, thus creating a critical path.
The critical path is the longest route you can take from start to finish of the project. This is extremely important to be aware of, because the tasks that make up this critical path can not be delayed without delaying the project. Provided the time needed for each task in the critical path has been sufficiently estimated for in terms of time then the project will hit it’s target.

Estimation of the critical path is done by entering three settings for each task or product. The settings are Optimistic time (OT), Pessimistic time (PT) and most likely time (MT).  By manipulating this chart a little you can very easily display the best and worst case scenarios and keep a close eye on the most likely completion dates.  The commonest calculation used to start out with is:

ETA =(OT +4* MT + PT)/6

It should be clear by now that the message delivered by the PERT chart is very different form the one delivered  by an EVA graph or a Gantt.

Progress against budget

To present a report on your project’s progress against budget, one of the easiest graphical tools is an EVM chart.

EVM chart
EVM or Earned Value Method  is a fairly simple way to compare the  projected use of time and budget with the actual use of time and budget for the work completed. It is very easy to see a project delivering on time and not notice that it has used too much budget in doing so, or to see a project that is within it’s budget profile, but has not delivered sufficient value with the budget already spent. In both of these circumstances, the project will eventually run into trouble.  Without EVM or another tool to keep track, it is almost impossible to reassure stakeholders that ll is well.

EVM start out by defining milestones in terms of work done y date within cost and then records actual time, cost and work completed  to determine whether the project is on target. The tricky bit with this method is estimating the value of work in progress for incomplete products. Even a poor estimate at EVM will still provide a clearer view into the project’s true state than relying on Gantts and guesswork and should help to reassure your stakeholders.

Traffic lights

Traffic light report

RAG for red, amber, green is a very simple yet powerful way to report on a programme or portfolio so that people can quickly get a feel for the state of play. A simple dashboard can contain one clock for each project with just the three settings. A quick glance will then tell the stakeholder whether there are issues and how big they are likely to be.
Red reports will need detailed reporting, while Amber reports require a paragraph of explanation.
RAG reports overlaid on a programme PERT can be a very powerful tool for seeing instantly the likely consequences of a localised issue on the overall programme.

Innovation and customisation.

The key to good communication is to get to know the requirements of your audience and customise the delivery to suit them.  If there is no well trodden method out there then don’t be afraid to ‘innovate. Analogy is the key so create pictures and sounds that help them compare the subject to some concept they are more familiar with. Traffic lights, measuring jugs, barometers and all types of household concepts are regularly called on for help.

Critical to all presenters

There some rules that apply to everybody called on to make a presentation and here are a few of the key issues. The most important bit starts before the presentation. Prepare, Prepare, prepare. It’s that simple. Do your preparation well in advance so you can put it out of your head for a few days and then look at it again with a fresh viewpoint. Never deliver an important presentation for the first time to important people. Get some opinions first from knowledgeable people or a small subsection of your audience.


PowerPoint and it’s equivalent have become an institution in the business world.  It has it’s fans and it’s haters, but it is still indispensable in many situations.  The key to using PowerPoint well is to use it only as a central roadmap for your argument and only for the visual aspects of your presentation.

NEVER write out your speech and read it out form PowerPoint, especially not with clever little animations on every line.

NEVER substitute PowerPoint for a paper or brochure or for speaking t your audience. Each communication tool has its own job to do.

DO stick to one idea per screen and one image per idea and limit text to one line per screen.

DO use your slides as a roadmap for your presentation

DO write out your presentation and practice it using the slides as your cue cards. Write extra notes in for your own purposes if you wish.

DO provide separate handouts that include your slides AFTER you presented NOT before.

DO use your slides as a backdrop and engage the audience directly, not via reference to the slides. YOU are the presenter  not PowerPoint.

DO agree in advance whether you are inviting questions as you go or you are providing for fixed periods when questions can be floored.

Presentation Structure

There is a very simple set of rules for presentations that work well and are easy to follow, here it is:

Start middle end presentation technique

It’s very simple and proven.  Introduce yourself and the presentation by telling them what your goal is and how you are going to do it then sum up what you have told them.

E.G.  My name is Ed Taaffe, I am an expert in presentation techniques and I intend to make you more confident in presenting to your stakeholders by walking you through some very simple but effective tools for making your presentations more successful.

Then show them the examples and finally close the presentation by saying something like.

So today we have seen three key techniques used by pros all over the world ton make their presentations more effective.

  • 1. Understand your audience and their needs and use analogies that will appeal to them to explain the concepts that concern them.
  • 2. Use a good mix of visual and oral delivery and encourage questions in a controlled way
  • 3. Use reports for written presentation, use PowerPoint for visual delivery and use your own presentation skills for oral delivery. The right tool at the right time in the right way.
  • 4. Prepare well in advance and seek and pay attention to feedback at every opportunity.
  • 5. Project management throws up it’s own unique communication challenges, be aware of these challenges and don’t be afraid to innovate to get your point across.

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Communication for project managers

Introduction to the series.comms encoding

This series was inspired by the growing concerns expressed by project managers about the demands being placed on them to be communicators, ambassadors, PR experts and even Marketers as they attempt to deliver complex change projects into organisations, especially in the IT field but not exclusively.
Whether you are moving 1000 people to a new location or asking them to stop doing things the way they do and trust you that a new system will work better, the challenge has been raised and if you are not equipped to meet it your project stands a poor chance of succeeding.

About the author
Before you even consider communication with any audience from one person to 100 million people, you need to first gain their respect and trust. If you don’t, why should they listen to you.
Just like you they are bombarded with messages all day every day and they only have time to listen to a choice few that come from trusted sources , that gain their attention and arouse their interest.
Gain  their respect.
Don’t assume that these people know who you are and respect your knowhow, or your authority as the case may be. If you are sent by the CEO, then tell them up front and try to get some demonstration of this from the CEO. If you are offering them expertise, then tell them about your skills and background so that they can judge it for themselves.

Gain their trust

Trust is the most important part of communication by a long shot. Respect and trust are related, but not the same. You can win respect through winning trust, but not necessarily the other way around.
If I am to interrupt my busy day to listen to what you have to say, I need to feel I can trust it.
The best way to win trust is to genuinely be interested and concerned about the other person or the audience. You can’t fake this, unless you have shared experiences and shared fears, hopes, or aspirations, then you will struggle to be convincing. Unless you already have this shared experience, then the simple and the only way to achieve it is to clear your mind of all preconceptions and start listening, start asking questions, questioning the answers and listening with every fibre.
The more you listen, the more you will learn. The strange thing about listening is that not only do you learn a lot, but you start to make a lot of friends effortlessly.

What  you are listening for

First what you are not listening for, you are definitely not listening for hooks to  let you push your story down their necks. You should be listening to what they are saying at face value. You should also be listening for the unsaid things, the little gaps in the logic and the things left for you to imply. These latter are the things you need to question to make sure you get the truth. If you are a walkover and you get it wrong, you won’t win much respect.

Be truthful. If you don’t agree say so. This way you will still find many that agree and others that make allowance, you might even learn something.  If you are false, you will be caught out and lose all credibility.

You are also listening for communication styles the way they express ideas, the vocabulary they use, any analogies they use when discussing the issues and the general attitudes that prevail in that audience to prepare you for how to word your communications. More about this later.

You are listening for differing groups in your audience, I.E different perspectives or different ways of framing the same thing. E.G. Board directors probably have a very different viewpoint on a shop floor issue than the blue collar workers do. Later you will need this knowledge when we come to segmentation.

You are also listening for their motivations, you want to know what would be the thing that would make them most enthusiastic and what would be least motivating to be able to offer to them.

You are also listening for indicators of who their influencers are, who else do they listen to and trust and why. It may be Unions, it may be certain newspapers or magazines, or a TV show. Knowing this will help you to communicate effectively with them.

Listening is a learned skill and only practice will perfect it, it ,may also be a bit of a change for som people, I promise you that if you will try it out for a week, with no motive other than to see what happens, you will never regret it.

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