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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Salesmanship - or lack thereof
Watching technologists sell their ideas to customers is like an evening at a Moscow State open-air strip club in January.
Most of us have suffered 'death by PowerPoint' at some stage. So why is Peter Cochrane particularly upset when he sees technologists bore an audience?
It seems to be that PowerPoint is single-handedly responsible for the demise of the human race's ability to tell a story. Every presentation session I seem to attend sees the audience subjected to 'death by PowerPoint'. This method of presentation has become the dominant mode in all company meetings and conferences everywhere on the planet.
Time and again I see people reading the words that are already on their slides, failing to get to the punch line quickly and delving into far too much irrelevant detail just because it is possible. They also seem to have lost the ability to adapt and step out of the A-Z sequence. More often than not, it is about as interesting as watching an automaton.
The worst example I can recall of technology misuse, and a complete lack of imagination, was demonstrated at a conference on virtual reality. The first three presenters used overhead slides containing only words, without a single picture. What a great opportunity they missed, to inject movies, animation, diagrams, excitement and a physical demonstration of what was being described. It might be that they were rushing to publish and had nothing to show but without a shadow of a doubt they imparted more boredom than understanding.
It is important to communicate effectively and to help others comprehend. It is even more important to get organisations to make the right decisions in the shortest possible time. I often despair at the time wasted in discussion and debate predicated by poor briefing, presentations and the sheer inability to adapt to an audience.
It may seem a strange admission for a scientist and engineer but I secretly admire the producers of TV adverts. A strange choice, you might think, but they convince us to purchase things we didn't know we needed, and they get us to part with more money that we plan to spend. If only more people were able to approach their brevity, focus and efficiency of communication.
Over the years I have watched numerous technologists sell their products and ideas to customers and management. More often that not, it is like an evening at the Moscow State open-air strip club in January. The star comes onto the stage to perform the dance of the 99 rabbit skins but by the time she gets to the last one, the audience are so cold they don't care anymore and just want to go home.
Car salesmen don't start with the concept of transport, the invention of the wheel, the detail of the internal combustion engine and traction control. They get the customer in the car and demonstrate the acceleration, the road holding and hi-fi. In short they impress the heck out of the customer and if they should ask a question, then they show them the engine compartment and other features.
When was the last time you looked under the hood of a car you were purchasing, or indeed took the back off a TV, or the lid off the top of a washing machine before deciding to buy? Who cares? They are just boxes we purchase by the colour of their buttons and switches. Design, look, feel, functionality, quality of service and value is what we crave. The how is of little or no direct interest now.
It is really astonishing technologists and engineers seem to be the worst offenders. They have all the technology and opportunity imaginable to present what they have done in an exciting and riveting way. Two of the most cataclysmic examples I have ever witnessed involved a university professor delivering a lecture on multimedia using black and white OHPs and an engineer using mathematical equations to describe a natural language computer interface. How could they get it so wrong? Why didn't they just do a full frontal demo?
Looking at our education inside and outside our formal schooling, college and university system, we are all conditioned by years of A-Z serial progressions, linear thinking. Understanding through logical argument, experimentation, demonstration and blind indoctrination is basically what we have been subjected to. Yet this doesn't sell cars or technology and it doesn't win over an audience who are pressured, preoccupied and in a hurry. We have the technology to produce and present brilliant low cost graphics, animation and simulations. It is hard to find a better tool for communicating what is in prospect.
The most common excuse: "I don't have time." Or worse: "I cannot afford the investment in equipment or training to become competent." I suppose we could apply the same misguided rationale to reading and writing, which most of us invest in throughout our entire lives.
I've always thought there was more than a grain of wisdom in the old Chinese proverb: "I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand."
It is so easy with modern technology to let the customer have hands on time to play, to try out and to ask questions. We should allow them to decide their path of understanding. It is presumptuous to dictate how others might think and understand.
In our entire history there has never been a time when technology and opportunity has been so exciting but it would appear the opportunity to be boring has also accelerated. It is our responsibility to consider our audience - what they know and what they don't, what they are interested in and how receptive they might be, what would excite and interest them. These are the key questions we should be asking.
Dictated in my car travelling from Hull to Ipswich on the A1 late one winter evening after contemplating the conference experiences of the past decade. Received from my secretary via a high-speed LAN in Singapore and despatched to silicon.com via my GSM phone in Bangkok.