Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Lost in Translation

Apart from my CTO job, I am also a mentor in Columbia University's Masters of IT program in continuing education. A former boss introduced me to Art Langer, who co-runs the program which is novel in that every master's student (fully employed technologist on management track) gets an executive mentor who works with them over 3 semesters on a business presentation of their final thesis. This presentation is grueling, as the students get just 10 mins to make the business case.

Having worked with 2 students prepare for 4 presentations, and having sat as a judge/executive for dozens of others, I've observed a recurring theme for technology presentations to business executives, that is that they get "lost in translation". This is not restricted to students, I've personally experienced this for my own presentations.

Technologists are great thinkers, but frequently don't know how to make their case to non-techies. My favorite student example was 5 mins into a presentation, I asked "do you mean water?", to which the other judges exclaimed the same thought. The presenter had never once said water, even though the proposal was about selling excess water for power generation. Make it simple! Techie's get so complicated and sophisticated so quickly, they leave out the simple explanations.

Here's an idea. Show your next presentation to your aunt, spouse or next-door neighbor, and then ask them these questions:- What is it (ie subject-matter)? What is the proposal or goal? Why? If they can't answer, then your executive audience probably won't either.

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