Pitch. Presentation. Proposal.

Getting people to say they’re interested in an idea is easy.
Getting people to commit to an idea is hard.

Let’s talk about the difference between a Pitch, a Presentation, and a Proposal.

First, some definitions:

So, let’s say you have the core of an idea. You haven’t really looked at it all that hard yet, but you really want to tell someone about it. You corner them in their cube or the elevator, and you fling the idea at them to see if it sticks. That’s a pitch. You’re effectively throwing the idea at them to get a basic reading on whether it’s worthwhile at all.

Next, suppose you’ve looked harder at your idea, understand a bunch of its shortcomings (and have come up with irresistibly clever answers for all of them), and you have some thoughts about what you’d need to make it a reality. You write up a small document (e.g. slides, a two-pager, etc.) and ask for 15-30 minutes with someone higher up to get a reading on it. That’s a presentation. You are placing an interesting idea out there in the world and showing people how it works, in the hopes of getting things moving.

Time passes and you’re even further into your idea. You’ve committed time to understanding the problem better, and you probably even revised it a few times when you realized you were violating the laws of physics. You write up a detailed document of some kind, have a bunch of backing data available on command, and are able to answer some pretty deep questions around the material, including why other people should care (i.e. give you resources to do something). That’s a proposal. You’ve refined your idea, understand what you’re actually asking for, and are quite literally proposing that they take action and commit resources to your idea.

With that in mind, what makes each of those unique?

The pitch requires the least commitment from you or your audience. You’ll get instant feedback, especially if you’re a decent listener. It’s quick and effective… just make sure you know what it’s effective for.

The presentation is the way you bootstrap yourself into getting the attention of interesting people. It’s where you’ll show you have just enough understanding of the idea to get a further conversation. It’s also where you’ll start to get the hard questions, which may or may not deal a mortal blow to your idea, no matter how well you cared for it.

The proposal is the only time you’re asking someone to take real action that could cost them money, time and/or their reputation, because you’ve shown them that you’ve spent your own time/money/reputation figuring out enough of it that you’re committed to its success. The other two might get interesting nods, but the proposal is where you can get legitimate answers about getting other people involved.

There are times and places for each of pitch/presentation/proposal.
The heartburn comes when you do one, and expect the results of another.
Here are a couple of examples:

Doing a proposal and expecting instant meaningful feedback. You’ve just dumped a ton of information in the lap of someone who’s probably used to seeing great ideas on a regular basis. You’re asking for something big. Getting someone to commit resources takes time; respect that.

Doing a presentation and expecting people to commit anything more than some extra time. You’ve worked on your idea a bit, but it hasn’t hit any really rough waves if you haven’t previously given people the forum to ask the hard questions. Having your friend say “I don’t see anything wrong with it” over a couple of beers is a pretty low bar to clear.

Doing a pitch, hearing a favorable grunt, and assuming that’s a green light. Everyone loves feeling accepted. Having someone approve the idea you thought of in the shower that morning is a great little feeling, but talk is cheap. Anyone can say something is a good idea if it’s not objectively horrible, and they won’t be affected by it. A nod of appreciation is not a commitment.

So, to review:

  • The pitch: Low development, quick turnaround, no commitment.
  • The presentation: Medium development, medium turnaround, nearly no commitment.
  • The proposal: High development, slow turnaround, possible commitment.

A note of caution: If you have good ideas on a regular basis and just keep pitching them without developing them, you’ll get known as having “the idea of the week”, and people will lose interest. If you don’t give your ideas any attention, why should they? A little bit of development goes a long way.

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Filed under Tech Life, Working With Grownups

Full Resolution

This is a story about a plumber and a photographer.

First, the plumber.

My wife relates the following story about dealing with The Joys Of Home Ownership ™:

Not too long ago, we had a plumber come to work on the house because a toilet was only mostly working. I’ll spare you the specifics of the problem.

One of the first things he did was flush the toilet and listen. A few seconds later, he said “Aw, man. Yeah. Cheap and cheaply made. You heard that gurgling sound about 5 seconds in? Here’s what’s happening…”

So we talked more, I learned more, and now I know about The Gurgle. I also now know more about how toilets are put together, and will know what I’m hearing when I hear it…. every single time.

Put another way, she now has a higher-resolution perception of her world.

This happens for anyone who has invested the time in learning something; the world becomes a little more detailed and vivid because you know what to look for and why it’s important.

An archivist looks at a book and can tell you about the binding, how it was stored, and how long it’s likely to last.

A wedding photographer looks at a function hall and can tell you the optimal lanes they’ll want to use for taking shots during the ceremony.

I can look at a waterfall chart for a website and make some educated guesses about the org chart of the group that put it together.

Higher resolution also kicks in when you interact with objects in that way that typically gets you called a “[noun] whisperer”. You know, the kind where inanimate objects just seem to work/bend/move correctly when you’re working with them.

Which brings me to the story about the photographer.

A few years back I had a photo exhibition, and was working with a couple of friends to hang the photos. This involved a 15-foot-high ceiling, a picture rail, wires, hooks, and other fiddly things. The fiddliest thing of the bunch was getting a semi-flexible wire to hook around the picture rail, and we were short a ladder. This was by turns annoying, frustrating, and a general pain. After much mumbling and swearing, I realized that wanting the wire to go someplace by sheer force of will wasn’t going to work; it had no sentience, and I had no psychic powers.

So I stopped and just sat with the wire for a few minutes. I figured out how it behaved. How far could it be guided upward before gravity took its toll? How much flexibility did it have? Could it be guided in some other way, etc. That is, gradually increasing my resolution of that little bit of my world.

Fortified with this knowledge, we hung the pictures in record time. To someone on the outside, it would look like the wire was just magically behaving for me; maybe I had a better piece of wire, or the picture rail was just easier to deal with where I was.

The reality was that I needed to change myself in order to make the wire do the right thing. As a bonus, the “There is no spoon” scene in The Matrix made a lot more sense.

The world is always out there at full resolution. It’s upon us to learn enough to experience it.

Query: What have you done over the past year to increase the resolution of your world?


Filed under Tech Life

What is a Website?

There are questions that are simple, and then there are questions that are merely worded in a simple way.

One of my favorite “worded in a simple way” questions lately is: “What is a website?” Don’t answer right away. Think about it for a second.

The more I started looking at the question, the more I started thinking about it as the story of The Blind Men and the Elephant. A networker will see the network elements and connections. A DevOps adherent will see the systems, automation, and deployment infrastructure. A developer will see the code of the website itself and possibly the overall structure of the webpage. One of my friend’s kids called it “A page in the book of the Internet.” All of these are important and interesting, but none of them are correct on their own. After turning it over for a while, I came up with the following working definition:

“A website is any part of your infrastructure (or someone else’s) that creates, transmits, or processes bits in order to put pixels on the user’s screen.”

So, what does that mean?

  1. A website covers a lot of territory. It’s annoying but true. Some parts are more important than others, but the fact stands that there are a number of factors that will determine website performance, and they’re distributed down the full length of the path from your origin to your user.

  2. A lot of it is out of your control. See above. Your infrastructure, the user’s browser, and everything in between are all needed for someone to think that your website isn’t down, but you typically only control the first one of those.

  3. Unless you’re a user, saying “the website is down” is not precise enough. I’ve seen websites considered “broken” due to coding issues that made it unworkable on a single browser type, as well as some that made the site inoperable on all browser types. They can be broken in a geographical region due to network issues, or just flat-out down for everyone if the origin infrastructure isn’t working properly. The flip side is that if you are a user, then you don’t actually care why the website is down; it just doesn’t work.

In short, Your website is made out of everything, you don’t control most of it, and not a single user cares about what has gone wrong.

That’s where you’re starting.

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You Must Try, and then You Must Ask

I like working with grownups.

Here’s an example:

When I was a wee little New Hire at my current employer, one of the things that came up a lot was the “15 minute rule.” That is, if you’re stuck on a problem, take a solid 15 minutes to bash your brain against it in whatever manner you see fit. However, if you still don’t have an answer after 15 minutes, you must ask someone. I shorten this down to “You must try, and then you must ask.” It’s a simply-worded rule, which works something like this:

  1. If you’ve hit the point of giving up, you have to push yourself for another 15 minutes. The pressure is now off. You know that in 15 minutes, you’ll be able to take what you found and talk to another person about it and get their help. For right now, all you have to do is step back and look at the whole problem from the top. Maybe you’ll find the solution that was sitting there all along. Maybe you’ll convince yourself it’s completely unsolvable. Whatever you end up doing, those next 15 minutes are where you look at the problem one more time.

  2. During those 15 minutes, you must document everything you’re doing so that you can tell someone else. So, what does “look at the problem one more time” mean? It means taking notes. Lots of them. I’m a big fan of using a paper notebook with an excruciatingly fine-point pen, because I don’t need to move windows out of the way to keep writing in it, and I can fit a lot of words on a single page. Use what you like, but keep writing. Write down all the steps, all the assumptions, everything you tried, and anything you can do to reproduce the problem. More likely than not, you’ve now probably figured out at least one other way to solve the problem, just by getting it out of your head and onto paper.

  3. After that, you must ask someone for help. Okay, you’ve decided you need help, and you’ve spent another 15 minutes looking at the problem again (and again (and again)), and you’ve documented your approach.

    Now, stop.
    Stop trying to solve the problem, if only for a moment.

    Call for help. Even if you think that you almost have it, stop. Even if you think that an incarnation of the wisdom of the masters is perched on your shoulder whispering the answer in your ear, stop. Write that email or walk over to the office/cube/etc. or cast the appropriate summoning spell, but make sure that someone else knows that you need help. Request assistance, state the problem, and show your work. You may not get help right away, but now you’ve employed at least one other brain in helping you, and now they have a great head-start, courtesy of you.

So, that’s the 15 Minute Rule in 3 easy steps.

Here’s why it’s important:

  1. Your paid hours are costing someone money. You can be in a Professional Services Organization, an internal IT organization, or an independent contractor, but it all works out to the same thing; someone is paying for your skills. While it may feel good to figure out the answer on your own, there’s no medal for wasting 3 hours worth of money on a problem that doesn’t merit that kind of time. In a sneaky way, this also helps you value your own time, if only by making you ask yourself “Is this problem worth this much of my time?”

  2. Your colleagues will help you because they’re playing by the same rules. This means they’re used to asking and listening to informed questions, and they’ll be expecting the same from their peers. Needless to say, use your common sense… find someone that isn’t heads-down in a problem of their own; no one likes to have their flow interrupted. That being said, your colleagues will know that if you come over to ask for help, you’ll already have taken time to look it over and documented your findings so they can help you figure out the problem faster or point you in the right direction. It’s possible you’ll end up Rubber Duck Debugging the problem, and the act of talking through the problem will help you solve it.

  3. Last but certainly not least, You have to interact with your colleagues because they have the answers you need. Building and maintaining an enterprise software platform (to choose something of appropriately fiendish complexity) is not a solo sport. Your colleagues have different ways of understanding problems and different ways of using the knowledge they have. This goes for many definitions of colleague and many definitions of knowledge.

This eventually turns into a virtuous cycle. People value each others’ time and their own, so they do their own homework before asking a question. In turn, people are more likely to answer questions because they know the person asking will give them the interesting part of the problem to solve.

Put another way: by explicitly taking enough time, everyone saves time.


Filed under Working With Grownups

The Buttermilk Problem

Sitting in a business school class on leadership, we were asked to count off into groups of three.

Each group got handed a cup with some buttermilk. Two people in the group had to convince the other one to drink it in the next 5 minutes.

After time was up, a quick poll showed that most of the groups convinced the person to drink the buttermilk. Of the three groups that didn’t, two of them said “their arguments weren’t convincing.”

When my group was asked, I replied “The win condition was not drinking the buttermilk, so I didn’t listen and kept saying ‘no’ until they gave up.”

During the ensuing “step into my office, because you’re being a space alien again” discussion with the professor, we pulled apart what I’d said. After much back and forth, we came to the following:

At the point that I decided “I win if I don’t drink the buttermilk”, I was no longer playing the game.

I had created, on the spot and with no one else knowing, a new game called “I need to tell my peers that I won, because that confirms my self-image of being clever.” That new game had only one rule: “Don’t drink the buttermilk,” which then carried the optimal strategy of “Don’t listen and just say ‘no’ until they give up.” QED.

This goes for the general discussion of ideas as well, and I’m not immune to slipping back into that mode of thinking. So, I ask a few questions of myself every now and then:

  1. Am I willing to be wrong or to “lose”?
  2. What changes if I’m wrong or I “lose”?
  3. How much of my life/self/work/etc. do I feel I have to re-evaluate if I’m wrong or I “lose”?

I’ve found that honest answers to those questions mean that the stakes are typically quite low…. and that has made it a lot easier to just, well, live.

In the past three years of working in a professional services role, I’ve learned how to tell when a customer is actually engaged and listening, or if they’re playing their own internal game of “Don’t drink the buttermilk.”

What does it look like when someone has started playing this game in their own head?
In short, they look bored and disengaged. If someone in front of you was saying words that were completely irrelevant to you and you couldn’t leave, you’d be awfully bored, too.

Psychology Today has a good article on how to know if you’re boring someone. A few of these are:

  1. Repeated, perfunctory responses (e.g. “Got it.”, “Uh huh.”). The less variation, the more boredom.
  2. Simple/simplistic questions (e.g. “Then what?”, “Really?”). See #1.
  3. Imbalance of talking time. Interested people take more airtime because they want to know more.

What if you notice that a person has disengaged like this?
If you don’t just want to walk out of the room, what can you do to continue or end the discussion gracefully?

  1. Address them by name. Use the name/honorific with which they introduced themselves. The processing of proper names is pretty deep down in human hardware, and it’ll break them out of the “bored” mindset, at least momentarily. Once you have their attention, ask them to contribute (e.g. “What do you want to know about the buttermilk?”). This will give you a chance to reset the conversation.
  2. Acknowledge the situation. You didn’t wake up thinking that you’d be a threat to someone’s self-worth, but there you are. They feel like they’re backed into a corner, and acknowledging your point means they’re a lesser person. Remove the pressure by lowering the stakes, possibly with humor. (e.g. “Yeah, I’m supposed to convince you to drink the buttermilk. You’re clearly not interested, though. Can we get agreement on there being buttermilk in front of you?”)
  3. If all else fails, go random. If they’re transparently not listening (i.e. they’re staring at their smartphone while saying ‘uh huh’ a lot.) say something completely unrelated to the subject. It could be just a change of topic, or something completely nonsensical (e.g. “spatula woodchipper empathetic buttermilk”). You’ll probably get their attention, but they’ll also probably feel embarrassed and mocked. It works, but you’re rolling the dice.
  4. If that fails, reschedule. Okay. Nothing has worked. They’re not listening. Bring the conversation to a natural close, and ask to reschedule for another time when they’re ready to talk. Being courteous rarely goes wrong.

In short: Self-worth is a complex phenomenon; pay attention and handle carefully.


Filed under Working With Grownups

The Tennis Ball of Time

In general, having authority doesn’t mean that you can make people do what you want; it just means that they’re more likely to listen when you ask. Ask any manager about this one, and you’ll get a laugh, a resigned sigh, or both. Here’s an illustrative example:

Imagine a tennis ball; this represents your time at work. As an individual contributor, all you’re responsible for is this ball. You can throw it, roll it, bounce it, and generally get it to go in the direction you want it to without help from anyone else. That is to say, you have sole and direct control over the ball. If you’re asked to roll the ball somewhere, you put it on the ground and roll it there. So far, so good.

Now, take 10 tennis balls, and put them in a mesh bag. This represents a first-level manager’s time at work. As a manager, they’re responsible for (say) 10 people’s time, and what they do with it. You can still hold the bag in your hands, and generally throw the bag in the direction you want, but it’s harder to directly control. It’s not going to go very far if you throw it, and it’s going to be all wibbly-wobbly if you try to roll it. If you use all your strength, you might be able to make it go generally in the direction you want, but you’re going to get tired eventually. You can also take a ball out of the bag and throw it directly where you want it, but that takes time away from dealing with all the other balls. You can try using rubber bands around them to get more group cohesion, but that only gets you so far because tennis balls are spherical and this bag you have is most certainly not.

Now, take 7 of those mesh bags, and put them in a larger mesh bag. This represents a second-level manager’s time at work. They’re responsible for the work of their managers, and indirectly, the time of the 70 people below those managers. You’re now getting to the point where you’re not actually holding the bag as much as hefting it and trying not to drop it. In fact, it takes all of your concentration to put it down on the ground and use both hands to keep it rolling in a single direction. Even at this level, you can see that getting control of any one ball is close to impossible. The best you can really do is try to pack the individual bags of tennis balls in such a way that you minimize them rolling. If you pack the bag too tight, you won’t be able to fit more balls in if you have to, and the more likely it will break over time.

Keep going out from there. There’s now a person faced with a mesh bag filled with bags upon bags upon bags, filled with tens of thousands of tennis balls, in a spheroid edifice several stories tall. This person has supreme authority, but they have no direct control. They have to trust that all the bags inside their bag have been fashioned correctly, are of the correct size, have their respective bags bound together correctly, and so on. They can control the big picture, and over time move the bag (of bags(of bags(of bags))) in a new direction, but nothing happens overnight. In the end, they’re responsible for all of the tennis balls and all of the bags. Depending on how big the structure is, the primary goal could just be to make sure it doesn’t break.

So, the next time you hear someone say “I want to be a manager because then I can finally get people to get things done around here.”, ask them how far they can throw a bag of tennis balls.

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The Whiteboard Essays. #4, “Training Montage!”

Jump To:
Essay 1: Feedback // For the whole story, start here.
Essay 2: The Do-Over // The Helpful Safety tips start back here.
Essay 3: Bringing It

[Written two weeks after the previous posting.]

Time passes as progress is made. I’m most of the way through the certification process, partially delayed by a bunch of work-related travel in the middle. As it tends to happen, I’ve been de facto mentoring someone in an overseas office, helping him with presentation skills, and going through a few of the things I’ve learned so far. The process of mentoring has clarified a bunch of things I already knew but never got a chance to say, so here we go:

Tell your story. Presenting a technical overview to a customer roughly works out to telling a story, but one that is put together only at the last minute. The beginning and ending are mostly set, but you’re not going to know which chapters to throw in the middle until the customer tells you what actually interests them. It follows that you probably need about three book’s worth of chapters in order to assemble your story on the fly, q.v. previous point about having to have a very deep well of knowledge in order to speak breezily and competently about a topic.

Listen to the words of the question. It’s awfully tempting to hear a customer question, listen for a keyword, and queue up the next narrative in your head while they finish. After all, it’s nice to feel one step ahead of the game. However, while you’re just waiting for them to finish, you’re discarding a ton of information. How technical are they? Are they actually convinced by your last answer? Do they want to drill down on something else you talked about? Do they feel you’re wasting their time? All of these and more can be puzzled out by just listening to how and what questions they ask. I’m not going to give a dictionary, here… just give yourself a chance to react to what they were saying, not what you think they said.

Choose three proxies. This is something I was taught, as opposed to figuring it out. If you’re talking to a larger group of people, choose three people in the audience, preferably on the left, the center, and the right sides. While talking, rotate between looking directly at each of these people. It gives you a place to focus, and people will generally think you’re looking directly at them. More importantly, these three people become your proxies for the audience. If Mr. Center is yawning, the whole center is yawning. If Ms. Left is engaged, the whole left side is engaged, and so on. It allows you to get an active read off of the crowd, while limiting the input you need to take in during your talk.

This is a skill like any other. There’s no magic. There’s just work, and the desire to improve.

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The Whiteboard Essays. #3, “Bringing It.”

Jump To:
Essay 1: Feedback // For the whole story, start here.
Essay 2: The Do-Over // The Helpful Safety Tips start back here.
Essay 4: Training Montage!

[Written a week after Essay #2]

So, the third and fourth whiteboard talks have come and gone, and I believe I’m finally getting the hang of these. My pacing is better, the presentation flows reasonably nicely, and I’m generally better at talking about the material.

Observation: The name of the game here is not to “absorb and recite all the information ever”. First off, it’s a pretty unrealistic goal, and secondly, no one cares about my ability to regurgitate a large body of knowledge; most of my colleagues do that five times before breakfast. Rather, the goal is to come up with a strategy for understanding (and then teaching) an overwhelming amount of new material. Once I figured out a strategy, it was about rendering down the Sap of Knowledge to the Grade A Dark Maple Syrup of Wisdom, and then lovingly pouring it over the French Toast of Customer Expectations.

Other random things I’ve learned and/or done:

I bought a watch. There are many ways to keep track of time, but having to fumble at my phone every time was ungainly, and it discouraged me from doing time checks with the frequency required to wedge in a lot of material. So, I bought a watch, the process and results of which are a posting in and of themselves. Short form: large plain face w/ second hand, narrow circular bezel, thin profile, and is in proportion to my wrist and arm. Also, I like wearing a watch, and haven’t done it since I wore a Swatch in high school.

Control the complexity level. I picture a successful whiteboard talk as occupying a very tight band of complexity. Within that band, the customer will go along with the narrative, with the understanding that they’re being given the whole picture at a certain level of abstraction. If the band is too large, the presentation gets very hard to follow due to the amount of domain-specific knowledge needed to keep up. If I break out of it too high, I’m handwaving and will invite questions to probe my knowledge (and assert status). If I break out of it too low, I’ve painted myself into a corner and no one is actually getting the information they need.

Avoid negation. This is more of a general debate skill. People tend to forget the articles in a sentence, so saying “We will not melt down your pet rock” works out to “We… melt down your pet rock”. Even if intellectually they know that you put a “not” in there, it crossed your mind that you might want to melt down their pet rock, else why would you have said it that way? Find a way to state your assertion positively, e.g. “We will protect your pet rock.”

The fifth whiteboard talk is tomorrow, and it promises to be the trickiest one, yet.

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The Whiteboard Essays. #2, “The Do-Over”

Jump To:
Essay 1: Feedback // For the whole story, start here.
Essay 3: Bringing It
Essay 4: Training Montage!

[A few days after the previous episode.]

In a previous posting, I mentioned that I had done my first whiteboard talk at the new job, and it went… not as well as I would have liked.

The do-over was much better. Here’s what I did more/better/at all, in order of importance:

1. Control the conversation: Most of my friends are thinking: “Matt, isn’t some small integer percentage of your metabolism permanently committed to controlling conversations?” I’d like to think the answer is “no”, mostly because that percentage is useful for other things sometimes, but it is a skill I have. I just didn’t know that I had to employ it in the context of a whiteboard talk, the first time around. Here are a few things I did on the second try:

1a. Formalize the Interaction: Have an agenda, drive the agenda, stick to the agenda. Have opening and closing statements prepared and rehearsed. Setting the tone at the beginning and formally closing the discussion at the end (even if it’s just “Thank you all for coming. Have a good afternoon”) is something humans are really into. Just ask any spiritual leader.

[Note from the Present: Another thing about agendas is that you can blame them. That is, you can tell your audience to temporarily hold off on questions because there’s a lot on the agenda, and it’s important to cover the topics at hand. If the question is really important, the audience will hold onto it for later. If it wasn’t, it will be forgotten.]

1b. One Hit, One Kill: Some things will need detailed technical explanations, but for the most part, a Whiteboard is a high-level technical overview. Answering questions with accurate one-liners is preferable to diverting into a deep technical discussion which will detract from the topic at hand. The gotcha is that answering with accurate and satisfactory one-liners requires a large amount of knowledge, because it indicates comprehension of the material to the point where a concise explanation will suffice. Additionally, when I didn’t know the answer I admitted it quickly, noted it down, and kept the conversation moving.

1c. Bring Them Back: When the group started asking about specific technical details, I had to make a decision: was this specific point really important to them, or was there an overarching issue where they already decided on implementation, and the question was in their comfort zone? At a few points during the discussion, I said “So, I hear all of these questions, and we can answer them in specific in a future implementation meeting, but there appears to be a common theme regarding concerns about $subject. So, let me speak to that directly.” Hence, acknowledging the questions, showing comprehension of the larger issue, and keeping the discussion out of the weeds. I will admit that I didn’t make the correct call all the time, and I was dinged for tabling a couple of questions that should have been answered in depth, but in general I was making the right calls.

1d. Keep Moving: There’s a certain momentum in these kind of talks. I’m giving information, the audience is receiving information, and I’m able to answer questions quickly enough to keep everyone interested. Which is to say, there’s a tempo to a talk like this, and I break it at my own peril. It’s very similar to meetings where two people get bogged down in minutia and the meeting can not continue until they’re done; people stop paying attention, zone out, and everyone loses focus. I think the biggest challenge for me was keeping the meeting within a very narrow band of technical abstraction. Too high, and there’s no content. Too low, and I end up bogged down like the first time.

2. Time Management: This is a role-play exercise, and having a cheat sheet is verboten. However, everyone has a cellphone, and having it on the table with a stopwatch and/or a clock is completely allowed. Evidently, my audience/colleagues had never seen a new hire actively manage time during a discussion. This includes telling the audience how much time is left in order to set expectations for levels of interactivity in the rest of the discussion. I have a feeling that active time management is going to become part of the standard routine from now on.

3. Audiences Are People, Too: As mentioned above, it’s okay to say “I don’t know”. I kept a corner of the whiteboard for “questions to answer for people later”. Now in reality, this meant “homework for me to do”, but as a general approach, it means that your audience sees that you’re listening to them, and that what they asked is important enough to write down and recall for later. I can say in my own experience that I’ve been very impressed when a sales team committed to getting me information in an afternoon meeting, only to have relevant, non-canned information only a few hours later.

The next whiteboard talk is in approximately 14 hours.

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The Whiteboard Essays. #1, “Feedback”

Jump To:
Essay 2: The Do-Over // To get right to the Helpful Safety Tips, start here.
Essay 3: Bringing It
Essay 4: Training Montage!

[10 days after being hired, nearly 2.5 years ago.]

I just received my first lesson in salesmanship, and I’m a little singed around the edges, but I’m fine.

“Okay. Today we’re going to be shoes.com, and the topic is [product]. You have 45 minutes, starting now.”

This is all about “Salesmanship 101”. In short, part of the certification process for me to get in front of customers is for me to do a bunch of whiteboard talks on various parts of my employer’s technology.

The twist is that these are role-playing discussions, where I’m the first post-sales person they talk to, and they’re playing the “web guy”, the “security guy”, the “CTO-who-had-no-idea-this-got-signed”, and so on. It is not meant to get ugly, but they’re skeptical.

[Note from the present: As I was to later find out, Salesmanship 101 is only a part of it. The Whiteboards are also a test of how well you can integrate everything you’ve learned into a cohesive whole. Memorization of facts will not save you, young Jedi.]

I completely forgot that this kind of talk is a storytelling session, and because I have a very large range of knowledge, I entertained and discussed all questions that they asked, as opposed to diverting the question and continuing with the story. I was given the 3 minute warning on a 45 minute presentation, and I spent maybe 5 minutes total talking about the product, and doing such technical digressions on it that I completely skipped over the most significant features.

During the feedback session at the end, they said “We didn’t have to distract you. You distracted yourself, which is a new one.” Every person on the panel said something like “You have an exceedingly deep well of knowledge, and you felt compelled to display it, as opposed to using it to inform your storytelling approach.”

I will admit that I felt pretty beat-up at the end, and I’m getting a do-over on Tuesday. No one thinks poorly of me for it… I fell into a standard-issue smart-person trap that others fell into before me, just with a double-twist and a half-gainer (difficulty 2.6).

It’s very much like the Neo-Morpheus fight scene in the The Matrix, where Morpheus said “How did I beat you?” I could see what was happening while it was happening, but I couldn’t find a way out in real time. This is all Salesmanship 101.

The funny part is that I’ll probably be able to look at sales pitches much more analytically, now. Practice Increases Resolution.

Okay. Back to prepping. I have a story to tell.

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