Most network engineers are sharp as tacks about networking technologies, even those tricky things like NAT and subnetting. They can be dull as dirt, however, when it comes to pitching their projects to upper management. As a result of these paltry pitches, many networking projects -- even very worthy ones -- are rejected by managers.
Networking pros have to be ambidextrous, having great technology know-how on one hand and major league pitching abilities on the other. In many years of hearing and making pitches, I've compiled a list of project presentation dos and don'ts. These tips could help you win the hearts and minds of your managers.
Do expect to be nervous. Many people rank public speaking above fear of flying and dying. Relax.
Do look sharp when you walk in to do your briefing. Look relaxed, but not comatose! Project confidence, and present your project with an air of competence. You've got about 30 seconds to impress your manager. You can overcome a bad first impression, but it's just easier not to have to fight a bad impression.
Do tailor your language to your audience. This is a critical skill. You don't talk to the IT Department the same way you talk to management. They live in a different world, work with different terms, have different educational levels and need to be approached differently.
Don't forget about company POLITICS, POLITICS, POLITICS. More projects have been shot down due to politics than were ever killed due to technical reasons. You and the CIO are probably the only ones who understand the technologies involved in the project, anyway. Use the grapevine and find out who makes the decisions and what their prejudices, likes and dislikes are. Remember, the organizational chart often doesn't project the true power structure of a company. Sure, this isn't part of the technical arena. Welcome to the real world. Your changes may effect the political and power structure of a company, and people will often vote to approve or disapprove your proposal based on how it impacts their political power base, either in reality or just as a perceived issue.
Do check out the briefing room. Try to get in there and find out:
- Do you need to bring your own equipment (laptop, projector, etc.)? Nothing makes you look like an idiot faster that fumbling with equipment. For that reason, always bring two copies of your presentation slides/CDs/floppies. Don't forget cables, extension cords, any patch cords, etc., that you may need.
- Does your presentation format fit their equipment? The Boy Scouts are right: BE PREPARED!
Do talk about Total Cost of Ownership and Return on Investment. Those topics are well-understood by CEOs and CFOs. Microsoft has good papers on its site that help with TCO and ROI.
Don't be afraid to ask for help from experts in other areas. Often, the financial impact of a project can be best explained by financial people, not network or system administrators. Your boss may not know what a schema is, but he will understand that he might increase profits by so much per share by using your proposed technology.
Don't get carried away with technical effects. Some of the best advice on presentations I ever got came from a crusty Colonel in Korea. He said: "Pretend you're briefing a kindergarten class. Use bright, primary colors, and NO MORE than three to four points per slide."
Don't go on and on and on and on. Don't give your audience slide poisoning. After 50 slides, you might as well hand out sleeping bags.
Do hand out a one-page summary, accompanied by a hard copy of your technical details. Put your hard copy in a folder or binder, tabbed and indexed. Bring extra copies. Unexpected guests almost always show up at presentations.
Don't try to snow your boss. If you don't know an answer, be truthful, but let your boss know you can get an answer. Say something like this: "Excellent question. I don't have an answer at my fingertips, but I can get back to you within X number of hours/days." You'd better remember to do it too, or you'll lose credibility.
Don't get rattled. Remember, some bosses are like kids with short tempers, but no one is going to tell them that. If possible, find out your boss' preference for briefings, and do it that way. Be ready to vary your briefing style if you see you've found a "hot-button" your boss likes, or quickly gloss over an area if you see you've lost your boss' interest.
About the author: Douglas Paddock is an MCSE, MCT, MCSA, A+, N+ qualified teacher at Louisville Technical Institute in Louisville, Ken.