Thursday, March 22, 2012

Use Visual Aids That Work For, Not Against, You

PowerPoint gets blamed unfairly for much of what's wrong with most business presentations--boring, impersonal, unmemorable. The problem isn't with the software, however; it's how it gets used. That's not to say there aren't advantages to putting the slides aside on occasion. But overall there's no better tool for supporting effective presentations.

In oral presentations, visual aids can play a critical role. Research suggests that three days after an event, people remember only 10% of what they heard, but 35% from a visual presentation and 65% of a presentation combining both oral and visual. Educational studies indicate that about 83% of learning occurs visually. Visual images can also increase attention levels, aid persuasion, and clarify messages.

But the above outcomes are contingent on your visual aids actually serving as aids. Most PowerPoint slides I see would be more accurately described as visual distractions. They work against, rather than with, the speaker. I explain how below, while offering a few pointers on creating and using effective visual aids:

Don't make the audience read. Keep this fact in mind: People can't read and listen at the same time. Your slides should contain few words. Use short phrases, not sentences. Better still, use simple graphics and pictures instead. It helps to remember that your slides are for the audience's benefit, not the speaker's (i.e., they're not speaker notes!).

Stick to one main point per slide. Slides help add structure to your talk, much as headers do in a document. They typically have a title that describes the main point of the slide. When you veer off that topic, the audience can lose focus or become disoriented. The same is true when you linger too long, whether covering too much ground with a single slide or going into too much detail. Keep it simple and to the point.

Bring up one bullet point at a time. As a general rule, try to use as few bullet slides as possible. But when you do, don't throw all your bullets on the screen at once. Remember the can't-read-and-listen-at-the-same-time rule? While you're still talking about the first point, many in the audience will be reading ahead. Or tuning out the slide altogether because there's too much information on it. Reveal the bullet points on your slide in sync with your talk.

Plan on four minutes per slide. This is a general guide to help you determine how many slides you should have for the allotted time. Four minutes assumes there will be some dialogue with the audience. I've used this guide for years and it works. When I try to slip a few extra slides in, I usually get in a bind time-wise. If you're using additional visual aids or other deviation from the slides, of course, adjust as appropriate.

Balance consistency and variety. Your slides should have a consistent background and color scheme (normally), but avoid being too predictable. Mix pictures, graphics, and words to retain interest. As I alluded to above, don't overuse bullet slides. In fact, your goal should be to eliminate them as much as possible. Illustrate your points instead of writing them. When you must use a bullet slide, add a relevant visual element to increase interest.

Consider other visual aids besides slides. Use of PowerPoint has reached something of a saturation point, largely due to misuse and poor design. So it's worth using other options when you can, either alone or as a complement to your slides. These include posters, handouts, props, plan sets, etc. I encourage drawing things on a whiteboard or sketch pad for variety; it can make you look smarter than talking to a canned slide show. Don't make your choice arbitrarily. Design your presentation first and then decide what visual aids will work best.

Don't allow your visuals to take center stage. To quote the title of a book by communication specialist Roger Ailes, you are the message. Avoid standing in the dark while your computer-generated images capture most of the attention. Don't turn and read from them either. Make judicious use of slide animations. Consider inserting a few plain transitional slides at key points to bring the focus back to you the speaker.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Planning: Elevators and Gravitators

Planning is an essential business activity, but usually falls short of expectations. There are several reasons for this, but most lie not in the plan but the execution. Alas, in many cases more attention is given to formulating the plan than to ensuring it is carried out. This results in many plans essentially recycling unfinished action steps from previous plans.

For this post, I'm going to address one aspect of plan implementation that perhaps you've never considered. In the typical plan, action steps are identified for the purpose of achieving specific goals or solving particular problems. It outlines what the company thinks will enable them to succeed.

But rarely does a plan address the reasons why it won't happen, and I've found this to be a significant oversight. Understanding and mitigating the causes for failure can be every bit as important as outlining steps toward success. After all, which is more likely to happen? (Consider that about 70% of corporate change efforts fall short.)

I believe it was Stephen Covey who first gave me the analogy of change being like a rocket launch. The Apollo spaceship, for example, consumed 99% of its fuel just to escape the earth's gravity. The rest of the 4.5-million-mile flight required only the remaining 1%. That's much like overcoming the initial resistance to corporate change. Most of the effort involves escaping the "gravitational pull" of entrenched habits and norms.

Thus I coined the terms "elevators" and "gravitators." Elevators, like the thrust of the rocket engine, are those factors (including planned actions) that facilitate forward movement. Gravitators are those factors that hold us back. NASA engineers had no choice but to deal with the full brunt of gravity. But firm leaders can usually take steps to reduce the gravitational pull of the status quo.

So in preparing any kind of action plan (even a personal one), let me suggest the following:

Once you've identified your action steps, ask, "What will keep us from doing this?" In other words, what are the gravitators? Some of the common ones include: lack of buy-in, too busy, inadequate leadership, no accountability, fear of change, poor cultural fit, conflicting policies and procedures, insufficient skills. When your list is compiled, identify the 3-5 gravitators that are most likely to subvert your plans.

Determine how to eliminate or mitigate the biggest gravitators. Prioritizing these actions should balance importance (which have the greatest impact?) and implementability (what interventions are most feasible?). You won't be able to remove all your gravitators, but you can substantially reduce them when you give them adequate attention.

Don't forget to leverage your elevators. There are undoubtedly factors that can facilitate your carrying out the prescribed actions in your plan. You want to fully take advantage of them. For example, use available news, research, and data to help create a sense of urgency. Feedback from clients often carries more weight than management mandates. Putting people in the right roles, based on their capability and enthusiasm, is also important.

Bottom line, don't just focus on what you need or want to do. Also address why you won't do it.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Why Negative Reinforcement Seems to Work

If you want employees to do something, you tell them what to do. If you want them to continue doing it, you'll need to use appropriate consequences. The steps you take to start behaviors--preparing a plan, assigning tasks, providing training, implementing a new policy--are not very effective in sustaining those behaviors. Consequences are.

There are two primary types of consequences, or ways we reinforce behaviors: positive and negative. Which is more effective? Most everyone will agree (and research confirms) that positive reinforcement is the better approach to influencing behavior for the long term. But which is more common in the workplace? There's no question that negati
ve reinforcement is more prevalent.

Why do managers favor negative reinforcement when they readily admit that positive is preferred? I suspect it's because negative reinforcement often seems to yield better results. There's a reason for that, which is the topic of this post...

The efficacy of reinforcement is influenced by three key factors: (1) positivity, (2) proximity, and (3) probability. Positivity is the degree to which the reinforc
ement is viewed as positive or negative (or somewhere in between) by the recipient. Both positive and negative reinforcement can increase desired behaviors, but there is a substantial qualitative difference in the results.

Positive reinforcement helps promote discretionary effort, going beyond what is required because the employee wants to. Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, produces compliant effort--the minimum required to do the job or avoid punishment--b
ecause the employee has to. Obviously, discretionary effort is preferred. Yet research indicates that less than 30% of American workers regularly give discretionary effort. That's a reflection of the predominance of negative reinforcement.

So positivity is important, but what really affects the power of reinforcement is the combination of proximity (how soon after the behavior the reinforcement takes place) and probability (the likelihood that the reinforcement will occur). The two go hand in hand. When reinforcement (or consequence) comes shortly after a behavior, the probability of it is obviously higher. When it is delayed, it becomes less certain.

The chart below, adapted from Aubrey Daniels' excellent book Bringing Out the Best in People, illustrates this dynamic. Positive reinforcement that is immediate and certain has the greatest influence on behavior. Negative reinforcement that is immediate and certain comes next, ahead of positive reinforcement that is future and uncertain.

This chart reveals why negative reinforcement often seems to work best. It's because it's typically more immediate and certain than the ways firms commonly attempt to use positive reinforcement. If an employee messes up, the criticism, threat, or punishment usually follows shortly.

What about positive reinforcement? The first problem is that it is in short supply. One survey found that an astounding 65% of American workers claimed that they had received no recognition for good work over the past year. When I've done
employee surveys at A/E firms, I've always included a question about how well employees are recognized or rewarded for a job well done. And this question has consistently produced one of the lowest scores.

The other big problem with positive reinforcement, as practiced, is the tendency to delay it. When I ask A/E firm leaders what steps they take to improve performance among their employees, the first thing mentioned is usually their bonus or incentive compensation program. Indeed, according to ZweigWhite, 9 out of 10 A/E firms have some such system in place and widely believe it improves performance.

But traditional bonus or incentive programs are more accurately called rewards, not incentives. They fail to meet the basic criteria for positive reinforcement, which are:
  • It must be valued by the one receiving it. Of course, everyone appreciates getting more money. But studies show that monetary rewards are typically not as effective in influencing performance as other, less tangible forms of reinforcement.
  • It should be contingent on performance. There should be a clear connection between the reinforcement and the desired actions: "When you do this, you get that." Bonuses are usually more contingent on corporate or team performance than what the individual does.
  • It needs to occur regularly. Infrequent or inconsistent reinforcement--or incentives--are not effective in sustaining behaviors.
  • It should be immediate. The closer the reinforcement follows the desired behavior, the better. We're all familiar with the power of immediate gratification. Delayed reinforcement is less effective in large part because it is less certain. This certainly applies to incentive compensation paid out annually.

When your attempts at positive reinforcement fail to meet the above criteria, negative reinforcement--which tends to be more immediate and consistent--can easily become the default standard. Rather than reinforcing desired behaviors, managers often find themselves devoting more attention to trying to mitigate or eliminate undesired behaviors.

Let me encourage you to assess the prevailing approach in your firm, office, or department. How much positive reinforcement do you see? How much negative? How much neglect to provide either type of reinforcement? And what is your style as a manager or leader?

In a tough economy, can you ignore proven steps for improving employee performance?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Plan to Win Key Sales Opportunities

In my earlier post on maximizing your sales leads, I stressed the importance of developing a plan for your best sales opportunities. This post expands on that recommendation:

Identify those sales opportunities that warrant extra consideration. You would think that the need to give special attention to must-win sales opportunities would be obvious. But when other work activities are planned and budgeted, and your best sales efforts are not, which do you think tends to take priority? It's crucial that you single out those sales opportunities that warrant your best efforts.

Manage the sales process like a project. This is my standard advice for any important nonbillable activity. The fact is that most firms manage project time and outcomes much more effectively than they do anything else. So why not apply the same basic approach to other critical functions like sales--especially when we're talking about your most important sales opportunities?

This will involve--for key sales opportunities--assembling a sales team, appointing a team leader, devising an action plan, allocating and managing resources, tracking performance, and holding people accountable for expected results.

Assign an account manager and team. Once a sales lead is designated as worth special attention, it should be treated as a key client account. Appoint an account manager to lead the effort. Usually this will be the individual in your firm who knows the client best. But if that person is not an effective team leader, assign someone who is. Then assemble a team of 3-5 people who have familiarity with the client, the project, or the type of work involved. The value of a team approach is the collective brainpower and joint accountability that typically results.

Prepare a Key Opportunity Plan (KOP). Planning enables more effective management of the sales process. Drawing on the approach outlined by Miller and Heiman in their popular book Strategic Selling, I've created a template that you can use in developing a KOP. This plan includes the following major elements:
  • Review of the client needs driving the sales objective
  • Identification of the decision makers and what's most important to each
  • Evaluation of your firm's positioning for the award
  • Definition of the specific actions needed to advance the sales process

Identify and complete the best next 3-5 actions. The primary value of the KOP is helping you determine the optimum course of action in successfully closing the sale. Because the typical sales process is dynamic, it's best to take an incremental approach: Identifying the next few steps and then reviewing where things stand before choosing your next actions.

Be sure to select an individual to take responsibility for each action, even if others are involved. And set a deadline for completing that action. You'll notice that the template encourages you to establish your entree for any meeting with the client, which is your justifiable reason for taking the client's valuable time.

Update the KOP as appropriate. As noted above, you'll need to periodically update your plan as new information is revealed or the situation evolves. Usually this involves getting the account team together for 20-30 minutes every 2-4 weeks.

Be diligent in your follow-through. In my experience, using a tool like the KOP helps bring better discipline in carrying out sales tasks. Of course, persistence in selling is critical. One study across multiple industries found that 80% of purchases were made after the fifth contact with the buyer. But 90% of salespeople quit before the fifth contact. One the team's most important duties is to push each other to complete the assigned tasks.

Among the many tools and practices I've introduced to my clients over the years, probably none has garnered a more consistently positive response as key opportunity planning. Why? It works, not only in improving sales success but in better allocating effort for various sales opportunities. So give it a try, and let me know if you find it helpful.