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How presentation technology can support internal comms

Simon MortonSimon Morton·
internal comms

The harsh reality is that internal comms and presentation technology do not typically make good bedfellows.

On one hand, you have the need to reach a large audience quickly and, most importantly, consistently.  Initially this would seem tailor-made for a PowerPoint presentation design, perhaps delivered online through a service like GoToWebinar.  But then add the confusion of the ‘feedback loop’ that is so vital to internal presentations (and internal comms as a whole) and suddenly the broadcast presentation technologies like PowerPoint, Prezi or Keynote don’t look quite so attractive.

It’s the equivalent of shouting at an audience through a loudhailer from a rooftop and then rushing inside and holding a glass to the wall to see if you can pick up any feedback.  It’s just a bit rubbish…

It was with this quandary in mind that a large pharmaceutical company approached us to support them with the communication of some wide-ranging changes within the business.  The senior team had made the tough decision to push ahead with job cuts to safeguard the majority of the jobs while also realigning the business to address issues with cheaper foreign competition and a tightening of customers’ budgets.  This was a high profile, high stakes internal comms challenge so they pulled out all the stops.

To support messaging and sustain these changes, they’d commissioned a design company to create a new internal brand that would form the background of their messaging and path the way to future changes.  The branding was strong and certainly delivered on the brief however there was an obvious problem – it was being delivered as a ‘broadcast fait accompli’ – one hit, one message and no feedback loop.  It was bound to fail and had every chance of turning a difficult communication into something more toxic.

Our customer was savvy enough to spot the pitfall before it became a real-life issue and called us in.  Now don’t get me wrong – the teams involved were all focused on delivering the best message in the most palatable way.  Great minds had been at work – money had been spent and many long hours had been put in by some very senior people but ultimately the net result was a very pretty but ultimately ineffective PowerPoint presentation.

“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”

A distinct case of PowerPoint Presentation myopia had set in within the internal comms team.  They knew their message, they had the branding and they were galloping towards what they had always relied on – a ‘broadcast’ PowerPoint presentation that would be delivered from on high to the entire business across a number of remote sites.  It seemed like a natural fit – after all, this was the process they used for communicating company results every quarter – so they’d decided to push ahead with the same approach this time around.  It was only when it dawned on them that the sensitivity of the message was such that a general town hall meeting style could turn a difficult message into a panic and pandemonium did they think again…and ultimately think beyond a one-hit broadcast PowerPoint.

As is so often the case with presentations, the solution centered around the audience.  How would we ENGAGE them rather than talk AT them?  How could we deliver this information to them in a format that not only ensured the consistency of message that was vital for this exercise but also provided a platform for the audience to question, understand and, ultimately, support the wide scale changes afoot?

The answer to this issue (and indeed many others in presentations!) is recognizing something called the Presentation Landscape:

As with most proven models, this is not brain surgery but a source of personal frustration.  My frustration stems from the fact that most presentation books, blogs and opinion focus all their time on what we would term ‘Formal’ presentations.  You know the kind of thing – ‘I speak, you listen and, if you’re still awake at the end of the presentation, I will deign to provide you with a Q&A session which will be so intimidating that most people keep schtum’.  While this is a very efficient way of informing people of your message, it gives little opportunity for the audience to engage or contribute.  Sadly, many Town Hall presentations fall into this trap – the shame and missed opportunity of internal comms.

Our client, and indeed their audience, deserved more than a simple box ticking exercise.  They wanted to deliver their message in a clear and uninterrupted way but then provide opportunity for the audience to engage.  Sticking purely to a ‘Formal’ approach would have limited this to a brave few voices in the Q&A session, ultimately sparking frustration and resentment among the audience.  So we prompted the presenters to look beyond the norm and think about the rest of the Presentation Landscape.

We equipped the presentation team with a suite of different tools to maximize the impact at each section of the Presentation Landscape.

The beauty of this particular project was the story was already in place, tested and strong.  No matter what the presentation tool used, the story and presentation structure remained the same, we simply pulled upon different delivery mediums based on audience needs.

For this particular project, we pulled upon five different presentation technologies, all familiar to the presenters thus minimizing the need in for training or acclimatizing to new tools:

  1. PowerPoint – a standard linear presentation, crafted to maximize impact through a revised story structure and visualization of key messages
  2. Prezi – used at a point within the formal presentation to visually demonstrate key elements of the story (process and timelines)
  3. Interactive PowerPoint – based on the original linear presentation but with more detail available through a series of hyperlinked ‘custom shows’
  4. Whiteboard – a series of simple visuals that could be easily drawn out to demonstrate key changes in the organization.  These needed to be easily replicated for presenters of all levels and experience.
  5. Hard copy presentation – a detailed document crafted from the original linear presentation using a carefully designed version of PowerPoint’s ‘Notes’ section.  Subsequently printed/exported to PDF as a presentation tool.

Outside of the different technologies in play, we worked with the customer to agree a schedule of presentations.  We recognised that consistency was absolutely key to the success of this entire programme so crafted the following ‘cascade’ approach:

Stage 1 – Formal Presentation

Audience:  The entire staff
Objective:  To deliver the barebones of the changes to all staff at a single time in a consistent and digestible manner
Tools employed:  PowerPoint & Prezi (delivered in person for Head Office staff and via GoToWebinar for remote sites/workers)
Presenter(s):  UK Managing Director and HR Director

Stage 2 – Interactive/Informal Presentations

Audience:  Local teams
Objective: To add further ‘meat to the bones’ at a local level, prompting discussion around the changes and addressing any specific questions
Tools employed:  Interactive PowerPoint, whiteboard graphics and hard copy presentations.
Presenter(s):  Heads of Department

Stage 3 – Informal Presentations

Audience:  Typically small teams or one-to-one
Objective:  Detailed clarification of impact of changes
Tools employed:  Whiteboard graphics and hard copy presentation
Presenter(s):  Heads of Department/Team Leaders

All three stages of the communication were delivered to all staff within a two week period.

The net result was a carefully controlled programme of presentations that used appropriate technology to support the different internal communications requirements at each stage of the process.  This not only ensured clarity and consistency of message to the wide-ranging audience types but also provided the audience with a voice and an opportunity to provide feedback or simply ask questions in a non-threatening environment.

In addition to supporting the customer through a potentially tricky internal comms challenge, there were a number of lessons learned from this particular project:

  1. There is life beyond PowerPoint!  By putting your audience at the core of your presentation preparation, there are some obvious quick wins from thinking beyond a ‘broadcast’ presentation format.
  2. Presenters appreciate flexibility as much as their audience.  By giving the presenters ‘permission’ to step away from the restrictions of ‘Formal’ presenting and freeing them up to interact with their audience proved a boon to each interaction.
  3. Having a strong story that can be delivered consistently across the Presentation Landscape is a key foundation.  The absence of a strong story can never be disguised by clever use of presentation technology – get the basics right first and build from there…

My question to you now is simple – how could you be using presentation technology more effectively in your internal comms programmes?

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