For years, the technical teams of a global manufacturer of medical devices struggled to communicate effectively with their business partners. Their messages were overly technical and not audience-centric. But communicating extremely technical information is intrinsic to the company’s work.
Employees regularly communicate critical technical information internally and externally to set context for marketing, to explain the proper use of medical devices, and for other mission-critical purposes. At this company, when information is not properly communicated, the result can have very serious health and safety consequences. Clear and effective communications are a top priority.
Yet, clear and effective communication weren’t happening as often as the company felt it should be. As we all know, this is a problem that many companies in technology face. However, thanks to some very specific communications training, it’s no longer a challenge for this company. After completing The Presentation Company’s storytelling and data visualization workshops, communications at this organization were transformed into audience-centric, meaningful stories and data representations that drive desired actions.
“I sit through an awful lot of presentations throughout the work week. It has been remarkable to see the rapid shift to a much more compelling discussion led by those that have attended the class. Fantastic outcome!”
— Post-training statement from the vice president of IT
Read on to learn more about the challenges this company faced and how communication training from The Presentation Company helped overcome those business-critical challenges.
Getting to the Root of the Matter: Changing the Mindset Around Communicating Highly Technical Information
To be fair, as a global manufacturer of medical devices, this company is constantly collaborating with healthcare professionals around the world to improve patient outcomes. So communicating highly technical information is in its DNA. Yet its teams routinely faced the same problem as many other companies:
- They struggled to clearly communicate highly technical information to business partners
- They failed to deliver messages that were actionable and audience-centric
- Rather than focus on audience needs, presenters naturally led with what most interested them — the technology itself and the message they believed they needed to convey about that technology
Well before connecting with The Presentation Company (TPC), the organization’s learning and development team had been searching for methods to improve the way its IT project managers (ITPMs) communicated, in hopes of achieving better business outcomes. ITPMs are embedded in and deeply connected with the organization’s business units that they support. They serve as liaisons within the business and regularly make in-person and virtual presentations about their teams’ projects and programs to business partners around the world.
Even when they broke down the information into bite-size bits and tried to use layman’s terms, the presentations were failing to effectively convey the technical information that project managers knew so well. They realized their audiences weren’t understanding critical details and had no idea of what the presenters wanted them to do with all of that information.
The company realized it needed to reset the mindset around communicating highly technical information. It had to shift from a focus of communicating their technology and priorities, to an understanding of communication that is audience-focused, has a clear understanding of the audience’s business needs, and humanizes their messages to make them memorable and easy to interpret.
Narrowing It Down: The Three Most Critical Communication Challenges
The Presentation Company worked with one of the company’s talent development managers (responsible for supporting 8,000 employees) and one manager of its IT department to clearly identify three key communication problems to solve:
Problem 1: ITPMs presented information and related data in a highly technical way that didn t result in the outcomes they needed
Like many presentations, the ones from this company’s ITPMs led with solutions and were filled with slides that were text-heavy or filled with data. Their presenters relied on technical jargon and acronyms. Presentations were long and difficult to understand. People told learning leaders that data was often “thrown into a chart” without clear insights and direction on what actions were needed.
While presenting to executives, ITPMs often focused the attention on a single slide — usually holding what they believed was the most critical data point. This would halt further discussion and leave audiences forming inaccurate conclusions.
Instead, audiences needed digestible narratives and easy-to-scan visuals to help them interpret the information they were being presented to clearly understand what they needed to know or do.
Problem 2: Communications were disconnected from audiences needs and perspectives
ITPM’s presentations did not represent a clear understanding of each audience’s unique needs and perspectives, or the factors in their business that would affect their actions after a presentation. Part of the problem was that despite being embedded with teams, project managers often appeared to have an incomplete understanding of projects and their intended business outcomes.
The result was a lack of audience connection and further confusion among audience members about what actions the presenter wanted them to take. Motivation to take any action at all was crippled.
Instead, the project managers needed to better identify the needs of their audiences, to wrap ideas in a story that any audience could relate to, and use visuals to better communicate clear messages.
Problem 3: The organization had no common language or framework for building presentations and communications
Each presenter in the organization had a method for building presentations. Because they often worked under serious time constraints, project managers often leveraged slides from other presentations. The result was presentations that were incongruent and lacked direct relevance.
Instead, the company needed a coherent and consistent methodology for building presentations that would help them quickly and easily develop clear and memorable presentations across teams.
TPC Listened — and Learned
TPC conducted a thorough process of information-gathering and analysis before formalizing a learning solution. This helped us and our contacts at the company clearly identify business problems, learning objectives, and learner-specific needs.
- TPC collected and reviewed sample presentations to identify additional challenges the teams were facing, along with their skills gaps — especially those not immediately apparent to management. This gave our instructional design and delivery team critical insight into the organizational behavior that was contributing to the business problem. It also gave TPC a clear picture of individual learner needs.
- TPC would incorporate relevant “current state” presentations into the learning model, to reinforce the new learning with familiar examples. This would give learners tangible ways of seeing how key concepts and skills could be applied to communications.
- “Before” presentations from learners were overlaid with TPC’s framework of “four signposts of storytelling,” which would be used to illustrate where key story elements were missing or out of order. (This would later prove to deliver truly revelatory moments for participants; they quickly realized where their communications had gone wrong).
- TPC surveyed potential learners about the world in which they communicate — who they present to, what formats they present in, and more — to help better design the training and make the learning stick.
Armed with this information about the organization’s current state of communication abilities, TPC proposed a high-level approach that combined business storytelling (Crafting Strategic Visuals Stories) and data visualization (Presenting Data Visually). These are modular workshops that build on one another’s concepts.
What the Storytelling and Data Visualizations Workshops Entailed
In CSVS, participants worked hands-on to develop business narratives using a practical storytelling framework and technique. Learners began with a historical review of business presentations and storytelling, and learning the challenges and value of using data (and about presenting it intentionally and in a way that reinforces insights). Learners were introduced to the fundamental concepts of storytelling and presentation, including:
- Applying a baseline story structure, which includes the four signposts of storytelling and a BIG Idea (the one thing you want your audience to remember)
- Identifying and addressing unique audience priorities and needs by taking a “walk in their audience’s shoes”
- Writing active and memorable headlines (slide titles) that flow and advance the story
- Choosing appropriate visuals to clarify messages and ensure they are memorable
Each project manager worked on creating a story using TPC’s Visual Story Planner™ (a framework for mapping out stories) and then received feedback from their peers and TPC’s expert coaches.
After learners demonstrated they can build an effective story and visual strategy for their presentations, they applied these skills to their data in the Presenting Data Visually (PDV) methodology. They developed a data visualization strategy that enables audiences to quickly interpret the data insights being presented and to act on the presenters recommendations. Finally, learners fine-tuned their messages, pulling elements from one of their critical reinforcement tools, the Visual Slide Library, to quickly build well-designed visuals that support their message.
To ensure the learning would continue being used on the job, workshop participants received reinforcement tools that made it easy to continue developing stories and data visualizations.
- Example story assets
- Visual Story Planner (interactive tool guides users to identify audience needs, story framing, headline development, and visuals)
- Visual story checklists for effective stories and data visualizations
- Conceptual booklets to reinforce key concepts
- Manager and peer coaching guide
- A Visual Slide Library™ (about 100 grab-and-go slide layouts to jumpstart visual thinking)
TPC Continued Listening and Modified the Design After the Pilot Launch
Post-workshop surveys and a thorough debrief provided data on the initial pilot program’s effectiveness, and what changes would be useful for the greater rollout. What the surveys identified as the most useful components of the training were reinforced more deeply: job-support tools, templates, handson activities, classroom support, and “before and after” examples.
Follow-up data showed that other keys to successful learning retention were:
- Content and program relevance
- Engaging content
- Experienced storytellers as facilitators (with a deep understanding of business problems faced by the organization)
- A well-planned learning methodology
The “delta” items that were noted in the pilot and immediately applied to a wider rollout were a desire for:
- More story examples (specifically internal examples)
- Tips for shortening stories
- Rolling out the training to a wider audience at the company
In response, TPC modified the design of the workshop to allow more participants to share their stories earlier in the process. This provided extra opportunities for peer coaching through the remainder of the workshop. TPC also developed a condensed version of the Visual Story Planner to help participants shorten their own stories, as well as decrease story development time. To make the training available to a wider audience, the model was shifted from intact teams to open-enrollment style, allowing employees from various business units to take part.
Huge Growth — Mostly Through Word of Mouth
The initial audience for the pilot project was 82 ITPMs in the company’s project management development center. Their roles ranged from individual contributors to senior leaders. The first group of ITPMs took the training in late Q4 2017, and the program was expanded the next quarter to an additional 40 project managers.
By the end of 2018, the company had expanded its target audience to 280 learners in its project management development center, with about 300 more employees participating in 2019, 130 employees in 2020, and 420 employees in 2021. The company did very little promotion of the learning program — because they didn’t need to. The growth and interest came almost entirely through word of mouth among peers and leaders.
The program was later expanded to other audiences who continue to fill workshops, including high-potential managers, research and development professionals, and sales and marketing teams.
“This program has simply exploded — there’s no other word to describe it. In my 6 ½ years here, I have not seen this level of interest in a learning initiative. And it was all generated by word of mouth.”
— Regional talent development manager involved in the program’s design and implementation
Measurable Benefits at All Levels
The first pilot session was assessed using 18 postworkshop surveys received from learners. Based on these responses:
- The courseware and instructor were well-received
- Learning was effective
- The program had a high impact on participant’s jobs and business results
- Respondents believe there will be a significant return on investment
Participant feedback post workshop was overwhelmingly positive
would recommend the course to other employees
believed the course will enhance their effectiveness as an employee
said the facilitator delivered the course content effectively
Learning was measured during the workshop, too
Learning and retention were tested during the workshop using quizzes, discussions, debriefs, peer coaching, and hands-on exercises. Learning of key concepts and methods was also demonstrated by applying learnings and tools to develop a baseline story structure, headlines, and visuals. Visual Story Planners and headlines were reviewed and discussed in class.
To ensure ongoing coaching, participants were also encouraged to plan to submit stories to their facilitators two-to-four weeks after the workshop. These submissions demonstrated continued learning, ongoing improvement, and application of storytelling skills and key concepts from the workshop.
“When preparing and delivering messages before, I was too loyal to my self-style.’ I am adjusting my approach now. I know my audience and let them know what’s in it for them. Visual presentations always had very good data to support the facts and initiatives, but the BIG Idea was not sold the best way. It was too technical. I am putting more visuals into my presentations … planning the story with the goal in mind to capture their attention, to let them leave the room with the BIG Idea.”
— Industrial Engineer Manager and pilot program participant
Learners New Skills Could Affect Every Area of the Company’s Business
Workshop participants said if the communication training were shared across the company, they felt it could sharpen the business impact among leadership, customers, direct reports, and peers. Participants were also surveyed several weeks after the program to assess their ongoing use of the training and the resources and the actual business impact.
Here is anonymous feedback from four workshop participants:
“This class has been very valuable to me inside and outside the company. I have already seen a difference in keeping people engaged in my presentations, as well as higher-quality presentations from others who took the classes.”
“CSVS provides a fantastic framework to create impactful stories. … PDV provided a whole new way to look at graphs and charts. I now make sure I understand what I want my audience to understand from the data, and that I make that insight clear and accessible, so the audience can focus on the insight and not on interpreting my chart.”
“I especially liked that many of the examples were very relatable to what I do at work. Oftentimes during these types of classes, the examples are difficult to directly relate to what I do day-to-day, because they are geared towards a more general audience. But I felt that the course was geared specifically for (my company’s) employees, especially with the template visual library slides.”
“For being a virtual class, it was engaging throughout the course. The presenters were very good. It was very handson, which kept me engaged — very simple ideas that anyone could leverage and apply.”
Challenges Overcome in All Three Areas Where Change Was Needed Most
After completing the program, learners demonstrated a tangible improvement in business communications and in new behaviors and skills. They also committed to continuing to improve their communication skills on the job, including:
- Building presentations that are tailored to each audience’s needs and priorities
- Creating well-structured stories that are easy to follow and lead to influencing audiences by helping them make informed decisions
- Delivering clear, visually represented messages and data insights that are easy to understand and act-upon
The big takeaway is that the training was proven to overcome the three critical communication challenges the company faced.
Technical overload was replaced by storytelling with context and critical insights
Learners became equipped with a framework for creating stories and framing solutions in digestible, understandable terms. They learned how to establish context and to present their recommendation or update and follow up by discussing their solution. They practiced simplifying messages and learning how to selectively identify facts, figures, and visuals to highlight critical insights. Recommendations became actionable and next steps clear.
Audiences needs were better addressed with an empathetic communication strategy and audience centric presentation techniques
Learners practiced identifying audience needs in parallel with the context of their world and what is most critical to the audience. Working with broad audience scenarios, participants zeroed in on those needs and then conducted inquiries to establish a communication strategy that resonated with their audiences. They learned techniques to flex and pivot when communicating with a variety of audiences and to create a dialogue, not a monolog.
A common language was achieved through a consistent method for building story-based presentations and data visualization
Learners were given an easy-to-use framework, multiple on-the-job-support tools, peer/manager coaching opportunities, and peer review guidelines for long-term success. Most importantly, they effectively used those tools consistently on the job, having an impact on business success through improved communications.