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Stand and Deliver: Last in a Series

By   /  March 25, 2011  /  No Comments

by Graeme Simsion

“You’re dressed up.  Big presentation today?”

“As big as they get.  Six months consulting, and today we lay the strategy on the executive team.  Most of them I haven’t even met – CEO, CFO, CIO, all twenty-six of them.  My boss will do the introduction, and then I’m up for forty-five minutes.  We’re going to blow them out of the water.  Stuff they’d never have imagined….”

“You’re looking tired.”

“Up all night writing the report.”

“Happy with it?”

“Pulitzer Prize material…”

What’s wrong with this scenario?  Pretty-much everything, including the fact that if you’ve been in the consulting game for a while, it probably sounds familiar.  The delivery of a report and accompanying presentation is often the culmination of a consulting assignment.  Get it wrong, and the rest of the work may well have been wasted.

Our little conversation highlights most of the serious mistakes made with consulting reports, so let’s pick it apart.

First, the success of the assignment should not rest on one report or presentation.  A well-planned assignment will have allowed for progressive delivery and review of ideas and recommendations, and the final presentation will be more like a confirmation and wrap-up, typically to formally approve the path forward.

In the same vein, the final report and presentation should not contain any surprises.  The first response to anything unexpected, even something positive, is likely to be defensiveness, and people will need time to get over that reaction.  It is common to invite people who have not previously been involved in a project to the final briefing.  This is fine, as long as they know that they are there purely to be informed rather than to offer input.  If you offer senior people the opportunity to provide input, they are likely to take it, and you may not be able to incorporate it at such a late stage.

In our scenario, it seems that the consultants are presenting the strategy at “arm’s length”.  Regardless of the level of client contribution, this will be the consultants’ report.  In some assignments, such as independent reviews, the arm’s length relationship is appropriate, but, as I have noted in previous columns, it is generally better to encourage a joint-effort dynamic.  This can carry through to the report, which can bear the client’s name, and to the presentation which can be delivered by the client.  Clients seldom reject their own reports or tear down their own presentations, particularly when they’ve been prepared with appropriate “expert help” (that’s your role).

In general, I’ve found consultants are resistant to having clients deliver presentations, particularly if the consultant has lovingly prepared the slides.  “They’ll do a lousy job” is the underlying concern.  So what?  This is not theatre.  Or, more to the point, we’re not at school any more.  No one is being graded for presentation or effort.  All that matters is getting the attendees on board with the strategy, or whatever is being delivered.  Most of the time, a clumsy presentation by an internal person will do a better job than a polished consultancy report.  (A word of advice here: if you’re worried about the client’s presentation, make yourself invisible.  If you sit up the front, your body language will send a very unhelpful message of “no confidence” to the audience).

On the subject of not being at school any more, the most common failing of consulting reports is that they’re written like school (or college) assignments.  At school, our goal is to impress, so we do all we can to demonstrate our knowledge and effort (feel the weight).  Chances are the instructor knows the answer anyway.  In consulting, our goal is to inform: the client made their decision about our competence when they engaged us.  The best way we can demonstrate it is by meeting their needs rather than hitting them over the head with it.  Time and again I see reports which read like that other staple of school compositions: “what I did on my vacation”.  We have the story of who was interviewed, how the recommendations were developed, with a slow build to the climax of the actual recommendations.

A good report cuts straight to the chase: here’s what you asked; here’s the answer; here’s why. Supplementary information can go in appendices.

Every report should include a one-page summary.  That’s one page, not one and a quarter – and not in six-point font with the paragraph breaks removed.  Most readers will read only this, so make sure you cover the key messages, and have a couple typical readers review it to make sure.

Finally, if you’re writing the report the night before, you’ve left it way too late.  Ernest Hemingway famously commented that the first draft of anything was rubbish (he used a more earthy term).  Start writing early.  Build draft reports (including reviewing them with the client) and recognize that the assignment is behind schedule if they’re not delivered.  Then put your ego aside, and let the client put their name on your masterpiece.  School days are over.


Graeme Simsion

Graeme Simsion managed a successful business and systems consultancy for twenty years.  During that time, he built a personal reputation as a thought leader in the data strategy field.

He now draws on that experience to deliver industry and academic education in consulting skills, and to coach individuals and consulting teams. He has published widely, including two books on data modeling.

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