The Squirrel and The Groundhog


I attended a squirrel fest this week. That’s how my BFF refers to a gathering of managers at a leadership conference. In her lexicon, managers are squirrels, scurrying about nervously as they gather bits of data. I think it’s a charming metaphor, which is good since she refers to me, affectionately, as “Squirrel” in texts and emails. More than 2,500 government managers, supervisors, and others who aspire to nut-gathering preeminence attended the conference to learn about performance measurement and process improvement techniques.

I enjoyed the conference, which may be a result of attending only the first of the two-day event. Two full days of workshops and presentations can be wearying. Inevitably, a large number of the sessions are presided over by people who should not be allowed to speak in public. They mean well, but they don’t know how – or lack the ability – to present information in a way that engages the audience. One of the sessions I attended offered several valuable lessons in how not to make a presentation.

Know thyself

Before you agree to make a presentation to an audience, find out if it’s something for which you have a talent. The presenter of this workshop spoke in a dull, monotone voice only slightly more interesting than white noise. He did not emote or even modulate his speech pattern. The only provocative words he spoke were those that described having started his own consulting firm. I could not imagine hiring this man as a consultant based on his speaking voice. I have no doubt that he has great technical skills as an IT developer – which is his area of expertise – but he is not a strong orator. He did his business no favors by making this presentation.

If you don’t care about the answer, do not ask the question

Our presenter began his talk by querying the audience as to how many of us were managers. I raised my hand and scanned the crowd, noting that only about a third of us were, in fact, squirrels. Next, he asked how many of us were familiar with the Agile software development methodology. I again raised my hand and observed that there were even fewer students of software methodology than there were squirrels. He thanked us and said it was helpful information. Presumably, he would adjust his presentation to ensure the audience comprehended it. This was a bad presumption. He made no changes, offered no translation, and, without hesitation used the terms “scrum” and “refactoring” as if they were intuitively obvious. This did nothing to enhance his likability as a speaker.

If you cannot act, do not act

On occasion, a presenter decides performing a dramatic scene or skit will aid in conveying ideas. This is rarely effective outside of The Actors Studio, and I advise against it when making presentations to squirrels. This is especially true if you speak in uninflected manner. If you are unable to resist the urge to express your inner Brad Pitt, make sure you can write dialog. Even a great actor can’t overcome a bad script (I’m talking to you George Lucas. The things you have made Harrison Ford, Ewan McGregor, and Natalie Portman say are unforgivable). This presenter chose to employ version of the Groundhog Day trope for his bout of strutting and fretting upon the stage. With a similarly oratorically-challenged colleague playing the part of his employee, he was “the manager” asking a set of five questions to evaluate the effectiveness of process improvement efforts. Five times she presented an attempted solution, and five times he asked the same questions. After four rounds of failed attempts, the final result was a meager 15% improvement. As an audience member having suffered through bad acting and dismal dialog, I was hoping for a happier ending.

In spite of these presentational failings, I did learn a few things. In addition to mentally critiquing his performance, I forced myself to draw some meaning from his poorly delivered material and found a few kernels of thought that might be applicable to my work. I’m going to make a presentation about it to my IT team next week. There will be no skit.


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