Presentations Made Simple – How To Connect To A Non Technical Audience

Yesterday I came across Admin Zen by Michael “Mika” Prokop. Admin Zen is a great collection of habits you should try to master if you are responsible for running any critical systems. If you haven’t read it, you should do so right now. I’ll wait…

Barriers For Communication

I think communication is one of the most difficult things to address for a lot of us. We’re used to thinking in technical terms like Cyclomatic Complexity, eth0 or hme0, packet loss and #!/bin/sh. We use vi, emacs, or #{your_favorite_editor} instead of PowerPoint and hang out on IRC instead of Skype. Unfortunately, from time to time, we have to talk with other earthlings (aka non-techies). Here are a few of the most common reasons to put-off talking with them:

  • It’s so obvious we need that new server! Why do I have to justify to THEM that I need to spend those 10,000 bucks now!?
  • They don’t get it! They’re too stupid to understand the complexity of running a data center.
  • I don’t want to talk to them right now. Let me just finish this sweet bash script…

But not talking to the business owners about what’s going on in the data center is very dangerous. Sooner or later you will need some funding or people will get angry at you over time, just because they simply have no clue what you’re doing all day long. Before anything goes down the drain due to lack of communication, start a dialog with your business colleagues!

Steps To Connect To Your Audience

I want to share with you three steps which can help you connect with your audience and make it easier for you to make your point. In my experience, whenever I fail to follow one of these steps I have tremendous difficulty to reach my goal when talking to business.

  • Get The Numbers: You have a great wealth of experience and a very well established gut feel about how things evolve in your data center. Your business partners are lacking both when it comes to complex technical systems. But they understand numbers and absolutely love graphs. Dan and me had to get approval for a 10k investment in new storage systems. Our data was growing exponentially, but neither of us were sure about the exact time we’d need the new systems; or for that matter, when to even approach the board for getting the investment signed off. If we would have come to them with “Hmm, we have the feeling that we need a new storage system right now as our data is growing really fast”, we probably would have been kicked out of the room. Instead we began graphing the usage of the storage system over time and extrapolated the growth curve for the next couple of months. Additionally we added an 80% capacity threshold line to the graph. Where the projected usage crossed the 80% threshold was when we needed to purchase the additional storage. With this information, the focus of the meeting’s discussion was already shifted to when we needed the funds.
  • Clean Your Slides: As you’re backed up by hard data, your task of convincing your audience is much simpler. Just put up a few bullet points and slide titles like “Storage Pool Usage – Slide 1/12” and you’re done, right? Perhaps, but maybe your audience falls asleep during “Slide 2/12”. There is nothing more annoying and sleep conducing than an armada of bullet points!But you don’t have to do it the Darth Vader way: Garr Reynolds has written “Presentation Zen”, a great book about how to simplify your slides and connect better with your audience.

    He says, that your slides should support you talking but they are not there to read off. Use simple graphs and short, actionable phrases like “We must buy a storage system by the end of November”. Explain everything else verbally.

  • Connect To Business Goals: Showing clean and attractive slides while explaining the details will go a long way towards getting that new investment signed off. But, don’t think you’ll avoid the most basic question of every business owner: “How will it pay off? How does this affect the bottom line?”. You were dreading these questions. You gave everything to make these points clear and they still don’t get the obvious? Unbelievable! But, relax. Swallow whatever words you’d really like to say and show them your final, killer slide:”Waiting to invest in a new storage system for another three months would stop user growth in the next quarter. As we earn $5 per user per month, that would cost us $50,000 in the next three months, not to mention the cascading effects of neglecting new users for such a long period.”

    Wow! They didn’t expect you to know those business numbers. Suddenly, they see that $50k evaporating into thin air and with it their bonuses. Now you finally have their full support – time to take ’em to the bank! 😀

3 thoughts on “Presentations Made Simple – How To Connect To A Non Technical Audience

  1. Dan – What a great post, and an excellent example! Capacity expenditure justifications are something very near and dear to my heart. I can’t believe I just said that. 🙂
    These social and cultural issues (communications) can be so critical to smooth web operations. You nailed this.


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