As a young Vice President I found myself continually positioned to present my ideas.  I was running meetings involving those who worked for me, collaborating with team members on my level, and most importantly partaking in Executive Meetings.  I had surpassed the stage of my career where just accomplishing tasks was my main source of recognition.  No longer did people just want to know what I could do; they wanted to know what I thought.  My profession was beginning to transform from actions to ideas.

Luckily one of my most important mentors was my Mother.  She spent her career as an Executive Assistant and started to groom me for business early on.  She saw from the inside what made the difference between respected successful leaders and those who were quickly discounted.   From Junior High School on, she encouraged, forced, and cajoled me to participate in public speaking classes and speech competitions.  As painful as it was, she made sure anytime there was a family gathering I was strutted out to give a speech for all of the relatives.   If you thought your niece’s dance routine was trying last Christmas, you should have been there to hear one of my original speeches or my rendition of General  Douglas Mac Arthur’s Farewell Address.  Through public speaking, debate club, rhetoric studies and extemporaneous presentations, I learned to hold my own in a discussion.

Equipped with these tools, I thought it would be effortless in the Boardroom to reap the same praise for my ideas as I graciously received from my aunts and uncles in years before. But instead,  I discovered that I was not the only one with ideas and I certainly wasn’t the only one who knew how to talk about them.  I found my ideas competing in a battle with other manager’s agendas.  Unfortunately, I quickly realized the best idea in the room didn’t always “win the day”.  Often the survival of an idea was dependent on the quality of the presentation.

I would see some colleagues present great thoughts in a utterly boring fashion, only to be flattened by better orators.    Or I would watch the financial gurus present brilliant analysis (spreadsheets were still relatively new) while sideline discussions broke out and everyone clamored impatiently to get to the “bottom line”.  I listened to the post meeting gossip as we left those conference rooms.  And more often than not, Bob who gave a great presentation was being talked about as an “up and comer” and people were questioning what Tom was even talking about.  The dirty little secret was that often the opinions had more to do with persona and presentation skills than with content.  I knew I worked hard on my ideas and realized my career as a Leader depended on getting them on the table, focusing other’s attention on them, and bringing them to life.

I began to study presentations and what I noticed, was how everyone stopped and gave their attention when a picture or graph was put forward.  The graphic captured the conversation and immediately added credibility to the idea being presented.  So, I set to learning everything I could about graphic presentations.  This was in the days before Powerpoint and the only programs available were some mongrels named Freelance and Harvard Graphics.  But their primitiveness forced me to learn about graphic presentation from the ground up.  Armed with my charts and graphs, I walked into the Executive Conference Room and watched my ideas become realities.

WORD CLOUD GRAPHIC

To be a Leader you must be able to build supporters for your ideas.  The most effective way to accomplish this is to be able to “show” the idea to someone and create a picture of it in their minds.  Exceptionally crafted graphics in your presentation allows you to create these visions.  In some ways good graphical presentations have become much more difficult than when I started.  They are no longer unique.  We have become over-run with poor mundane Powerpoint Presentations and the same over-done templates.  The problem is presenters just pop open the program, pick a template and begin a brain dump of bullet points.  Do not confuse fancy bullet points with good graphics.  They are polar opposites.

Good graphics are a visual pictogram of an idea.  They focus attention and bring clarity to the conversation.  When you present a quality graphic on the screen, people stop their shifting, quiet down and stare.  When you try and switch to the next slide, they ask you if you can wait a second while they absorb the image.  They say things like, “that makes sense”, or “I get it now.”   Worthy graphics grab imagination and elevate your message.  They are Billboards for your ideas and they sell you as a Leader!

In your search to improve your graphics begin with simple things.  Look at your spreadsheets.  Do you use color and borders?   Is attention immediately centered on the points you are trying to make as compared to a data dump?  Next start concentrating on the graphs and charts you encounter.  Spend time at a bookstore on a Saturday and page through all of the books in the Management Section.  You will see hundreds of professional examples.  Copy them in a notebook like an art student sketching in a museum; this is your artistic medium.  Get serious about drawing ideas and practice.  Look at the different charts and ask yourself, “How could I use this one or that one.”  Make a scrapbook of the charts you come across.  Duplicate the interesting ones you see in other’s presentations.  Understand and learn the tools necessary to create these charts yourself.  Know what a Venn diagram and PERT chart are.

As an example, I have been doing this for about 25 years and I am still finding new and interesting ways of graphically presenting my thoughts.  A few months ago I ran into a new concept called Word Clouds. And just the other day, I came across this Bubble Chart below.  I can’t wait to incorporate these into my future presentations.

 

BUBBLE CHART

Here is your challenge.  Next time you have a great idea, do not open Word and start writing about it.  And please don’t open Powerpoint and start making bullet points.  Instead take out a blank unlined piece of paper and “draw” your idea.  That s right!  See if you can get your idea graphically displayed on one piece of paper.  If you can do this, you will have something to talk or write about.  Then see if you can make your next presentation without using any bullet points at all.

These days there are great programs to help you make your ideas look professional.  Actually if you stop using bullet points, Powerpoint has strong graphical capabilities most people never use.  In the end, what counts is your ability to get your idea into a picture.  You should be able to make a convincing presentation on a blackboard … or more importantly, on the back on a napkin.

I am amazed at  how when I catch up with former colleagues, they are often able to recount a diagram I drew for them in the past.  Very few talk about the prodigious 50 page White Paper I wrote.  Your ideas are your lifeblood.  You need to create a Vision of them and give them life.  My Mother was right.  Having strong verbal communication skills and being able to write about your ideas is a mandatory leadership requirement.  But if you want to control the room, make a great impression, display your expertise, and get people enthusiastic about your idea, show them a picture.  A Street Smart Leader knows there is a competition for ideas in the world and learns how to guarantee his ideas win!

To make your own Word Cloud go to wordle.net.  Click the create button and type in a group of words and hit “Go”.  The number of times you repeatedly type a word determines its size.  Now just click the randomize button to see dozens of variations.  Have fun!

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