The Nature of the Beast

The trumpet sounds and the matador, dressed in gold, parades into the ring as a band plays for his entrance. So begins the ritual of bullfighting. Highly structured and stylized, bullfighting demands a tremendous commitment in study, practice and personal risk.

Who is the matador trying to impress? Certainly not the bull.

Your computer beeps, alerting you that a meeting is about to begin. You stand and walk toward the conference room, wearing one of your nicer shirts and a decent pair of shoes, carrying a laptop with one arm, coffee with the other. So begins the ritual of the business presentation.

Who are you trying to impress?

Your presentation is thoughtfully structured. You are prepared to present a well-rehearsed narrative supported by strong analytics. In business, presentations have one goal and one goal only: persuasion.

The matador is not bullfighting because he wants a steak sandwich. He’s in it for the adoration of the crowd.

Your goal, your only goal, is to persuade the decision maker to take the action you recommend.

Just as the bull will fight for his life, there are challengers whose interests differ from yours, challengers prepared to go down fighting. These challengers will interrupt, question, and even insult you to protect themselves. Yet, without them, your presentation would have little influence. Indeed, it is only by being challenged that you will have the opportunity to become truly persuasive.

Such are the hecklers.

The Opportunity

Your ability to handle hecklers makes or breaks your presentation. To begin, understand what “heckler” means in this context: a heckler is any person whose questions or remarks play against the point that you want to get across. The heckler may be a respected senior staff member or a new intern, a windbag or someone who rarely utters a word, a fellow analyst or the decision maker.

The motivation behind challenging questions and remarks may be as simple and appropriate as a sincere desire to understand and make the right choice, but often the heckler’s own desire for attention, admiration and security is in play. While this is true for any type of presentation, the problem is exaggerated when analytics are an important part of a business case. Why? Most ofyour audience feels insecure about interpreting analytics, and possibly threatened by the increasing influence of analytics in decision making.

Think about it – if the boss has made decisions in the past by asking for Charlie’s opinion, Charlie isn’t in any hurry to give up his influence in favor of data-driven decision making, is he? Your opportunity to persuade, to fully convince a decision maker of your case, lies in your artful handling of challenges.

How to Handle Hecklers

Artful handling of challenges to your analytics, like ritual bullfighting, requires considerable study and practice. You will take risks, but at least the risks are not mortal. Get it right or get it wrong, you’ll always survive for another chance to perfect your art.

So, how do you go about it? You must come prepared. Never plan to include all the information that you have in the presentation. Plan a simple, spare presentation focusing only on the clearest and most persuasive evidence that you have. Bring additional material with you to have available as needed. Know both the presentation and supporting material inside out. (For more on this, see my earlier post, Talk Analytics with Executives: 4 Things You Must Understand.)

Now the tricky part – you are speaking, presenting material that you have rehearsed, when someone asks a question. A question that you feel is tough, or unreasonable, or dumb. Maybe the person is after your job, or doesn’t want to change routine, or just craves attention.

The First Law of Handling Hecklers: Ignore the heckler’s motivations.

Respond to every question or remark as if it comes from a sincere desire to understand and do the right thing.

Remember, the bullfighter isn’t trying to impress the bull. Look the heckler in the eye and respond directly and clearly. It’s not your job to address personal motivations. It’s your job to make a business case that impresses a decision maker. Even if the decision maker is your challenger, bring it back to straightforward business talk.

The Second Law of Handling Hecklers: Presentations are performances.

The decision maker is the audience. Everybody else is just a performer.

Very little of your persuasive power comes from your planned presentation. If a prepared presentation were persuasive on its own, you could have just emailed it. The live presentation is your opportunity to step into the ring and artfully handles challenges to your business case.

There is no single best response to any challenge. The responses that work best for you depend on your own strengths and weaknesses as an analyst and a presenter, to be sure. The true artist of the analytic presentation will account for something more, though. Achieving maximum persuasive power depends on understanding the decision maker. What business issues are on the horizon? Is the decision maker familiar with analytics? What sort of education and experience does the decision maker have?

Consider an example.

HECKLER: How many degrees of freedom did you use for that effect?

[Who the heck cares, right? But you will never, ever say that in a presentation. You can say that later over coffee with a pal.]

Here are a variety of responses which might get the discussion back on track. Use these examples to help you think of some that you feel comfortable using yourself.

RESPONSE  1: Why do you ask?

RESPONSE  2: The degrees of freedom for that effect is defined as the number of groups minus one. So here we have four groups, four minus one equals 3, so the degrees of freedom here is 3. What is your concern?

RESPONSE 3: I can provide you with that and any other calculation details you would like. I will send you a copy of those notes after the presentation.

See? You have many options. Each time you are challenged, come up with just one response that you can say in a respectful tone of voice, showing that you take the question seriously, understand what it means, and have the ability to respond in a direct and knowledgeable way. Each challenge that you handle well enhances your image as an expert in both analytics and business.

Remember, the presentation is a performance, and the audience is the decision maker.