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Becoming A Stellar Games Industry Manager, Part 2: Effective Presentations

In the latest edition of his ongoing series on improving your games industry-related managerial skills, Marc Mencher continues his initial look at the the power of influence, this time focusing on the importance of effective presentations.

Arguably one of, if not the best game ever made, Sid Meier’s Civilization is a complex turn-based strategy game that requires you to manage every aspect of leading your people from inconsequential settlements to domination of the world and beyond.

Along the way, you decide how to handle your diplomatic relations with friends and foes. What seems like a simple gift to a neighbor can turn into a blackmail scheme that plunges you into war. You need to be aware of how other civilizations feel about you and how your people feel about you. In other words, you need to learn how to manage Influence.

If You Talk, Will They Listen?

Being able to communicate effectively one-on-one is an important skill but so is being able to get your message across to a larger audience. That could be your team of four or it could be an auditorium full of conference attendees. Regardless of the size of your audience, you need to hit the ground running and keep them interested from beginning to end.

Before the days of multimedia and “sound bytes,” people were more accustomed to listening to a speaker without more than the usual distractions of side conversations, coughing and making shopping lists in their head. Today you’ve got to compete with laptops, cell phones, text messaging and an audience that fidgets mentally as well as physically, so unless you’re a brilliant stand-up comedian, it’s wise to do a little prep work.

The importance of managing influence is not restricted to the real world. The venerable board game Diplomacy was released in 1959, and since then has been played on table tops, by mail, in fanzines and on computers. If you chose Russia, you had the power to influence world events from the very start of the game. Vanguard’s focus on Diplomacy (one of the game’s three “spheres,” along with Crafting and Adventuring) provides players with a chance to acquire benefits like items and money and exert – yep, influence.

The First 10 Seconds

People respond positively to well-organized, well-presented proposals. You need a “hook” to catch people’s interest from the start either with humor, drama, a really good slide or something that will take their mind off the million other things they’re thinking about while they’re waiting for you to start talking.

Your presentation will have more credibility if you’ve done your homework. If you want to convince your manager to implement a new procedure, ask her beforehand what she likes about the current methods. Her answers will tell you what she thinks needs to be preserved and what needs to be scrapped. It also alleviates the annoying technique of preening about how management just loved your idea. Bragging about your in with management is a sure-fire way to irritate your co-workers and embarrass yourself (and your manager!). Let management speak for itself.

  • Engage – Start strong and work to hold their attention

  • Inform – Describe the facts in an interesting way

  • Explain – Talk through complicated parts of process but don’t explain what they can read about themselves

  • Project – Visualize the result in terms of your audience

Try to make everyone in the audience feels like you’re talking directly to them Ask them to imagine ways in which they could apply your ideas and benefit from them, or what they can do to help avoid a crisis. At a GDC many years ago, a woman got up to go to the ladies room. If your audience is small and intimate, and the atmosphere warrants it, address certain people directly as long as you don’t embarrass them or imply an inappropriate relationship.


Keep It Moving

When you’re explaining your ideas, keep to the point. If this is your initial proposal, your main objective at this stage is to get your ideas out on the table. If it’s a follow-up meeting, you can go into more detail. Use whatever method works to take your listeners step-by-step through to the final goal. Insofar as you’re able, talk about who will be involved, where and for how long, what resources and support will be needed, and what the anticipated results are. You’ll come across as naturally influential when you show that you’re prepared.

  • Don’t assume that people will make connections for themselves but be alert to your audience. If it looks like they get it, don’t oversell.

  • Give your audience time to ask questions, either at the end of the presentation or during it, especially if it’s crucial that they understand Point A before you go to Point B

  • If people start arguing with you or challenging you (or trying to show off) be ready to direct the discussion toward a positive outcome

No plan can address every eventuality, but the more you anticipate, the stronger your presentation will be. Think about the likely obstacles and figure out solutions. Look at your ideas from the viewpoint of your worst critic. Revise accordingly until you’ve taken into account as many contingencies as you can – and if something comes up during the presentation, be ready to say “That’s a good point – I’ll definitely do some research on it.”

Presentation Styles

The way you present yourself and your subject can make or break the presentation (no pressure there!). You can inspire and persuade people with a lively style and expressive body language.

Grab your audience’s interest by starting with an appealing anecdote, quote or brief story. Popular TV programs, celebrities and admired figures are a rich source of stories and quotes, as long as you remember that political humor usually isn’t appropriate for the workplace. So are any related problems, challenges, and rewards you have experienced. Once you’ve done the “hook,” move quickly into the presentation.

If you are presenting to a group, make your presentation as visually rich as you can. Well-designed slides and flip charts are helpful. One good image or diagram can often get an idea across better than spoken words.

These days, we’re accustomed to processing a lot of media images, so use that to your advantage. Create compelling images of the benefits or the risks. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse – and have back-ups for everything because it’s a safe bet you’ll have prop and/or equipment failure. Don’t waste a time apologizing – just get on with the show!

Use plenty of colors when you draw images or write bullet points. Use anecdotes to give examples of the points you are making and, wherever possible, think of a slogan to unite your material into a common theme.

There is no sure-fire way to make an effective presentation, even if you inundate the audience with chocolate! Find a style that’s right for you and appropriate for the subject. For example:

  • Demonstrative – to give an example of your idea successfully in action. Outline examples of the same idea at work within the organization or in another company

  • Testimonial – To show the listener that the idea has the support of others. Provide testimonials of support from others or ask people in the audience to participate (but be sure they know about it ahead of time!)

  • Culture-consistent – To show the listener that your proposal is in line with the company’s principles. Angle the proposal to show how it matches the company’s needs and goals.

  • Cost-focused – Emphasize how costs and problems can be kept to a minimum. (This is a case where humor can be very helpful.) Show how your approach resolves problems in a cost-effective but non-repressive way.

  • Cautionary – This approach can be difficult because you don’t want to hide potential dangers but you don’t want to over-dramatize to the point where your presentation sounds shrill. Highlight the problems, then present reasonable solutions.

Using Humor

Anyone can tell a joke, but not everyone is funny. Make sure that if you decide to use humor, it’s appropriate to the subject and the audience. Jokes about race, religion, sex and blondes are probably best left to open mic night at the local comedy club. Making jokes about a potential snafu in an antiquated system can be funny; making jokes about the people who run the system, not so funny.

Avoid humor that relies on embarrassing or abusing your attendees. Many years ago at a GDC dinner, the speaker, known for his caustic humor, called out to a woman who was leaving the room. “Where are you going?” “To the bathroom,” she replied. “Bring me back some toilet paper,” he quipped. Luckily for him, she returned (with toilet paper). He had managed to insult a fair number of attendees by insulting the industry and even his celebrity status did not protect him from people getting up and leaving before he was done.


Engaging the Audience

As you’re talking, you notice a steady increase in low-level noise like coughing, whispering, paper-shuffling and the sound of cells phones on vibrate. Before people start getting up and not coming back, you need to figure out how to get their attention without calling to them. This is where rehearsing at least once in front of someone who can give you positive feedback is helpful.

A lack of interest may be visible in the nonverbal responses of your managers. If so, draw attention to this and ask for frankness in assessing your ideas. If your plans meet with criticism, do not take this personally. It is much more likely that the reasons for refusal are political and strategic rather than personal. If so, you may need to wait for the climate to change before trying again. If, despite your best efforts, you cannot gain any acceptance by reworking your proposal, then move on to something better. You will gain credit for your professionalism – and future presentations will meet with a better reception.

Some speakers take refuge in presenting endless slides crammed full of details. Yes, it shows that they did their homework, but that’s the kind of data best presented in a take-away hand out. When making a presentation, focus on the big picture and give your audience what they need to check on the details themselves.

The one type of detail that is effective, however, is financials. Spreadsheets don’t make very good slides, but comparisons do. Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry’s) used Oreo cookies to explain ways to balance the federal budget. While it may seem like an oversimplification, it was clever because anyone who has seen the presentation thinks about it every time they walk past a display of Oreos in the market.

Keeping the Audience Involved

We’re all about interactivity so engage the audience by turning them for passive to active participants. This works better in a smaller group, but it can work in big groups too.

Ask people to introduce themselves to the person in the chair next to them. This will help to draw your audience in and help them get the networking going.

Encourage your audience to accept the challenges you’ve presented as their own and assure them that they can effect a positive change by working together. Encourage them to consider the practical, far-reaching and exciting implications of your ideas and proposals. If it’s appropriate, walk the audience through a goal-setting exercise so that they feel like they “own” the solution regardless of where they are on the org chart.

If your presentation is part of a team-building activity, definitely do some extra homework! Does the team enjoy this kind of activity or is this the manager’s way of creating “corporate culture”? A team at a very large software company had a rah-rah manager who thought that going bowling would be a great activity without realizing that his team was more into current movies than sports activities. When he sensed resistance, he made the activity mandatory, which only made things worse. While you don’t want to foment revolt, see if you can come up with something that makes the manager and the team happy (or less miserable!).

Sometimes you may be asked to come in as a “hired gun” to devise new strategies for floundering situations. Chances are that at least one person in your audience is going to be resentful. Do what you can to defuse an adversarial situation. If someone objects to your proposal, respond with an honest question that’s obviously designed to get information to help solve the problem. It shows that you listened and you’re trying to give a good answer. (It also shows that you haven’t been shot down yet!).

Use questions to encourage constructive thinking (and to give yourself a little more time to come up with a reasonable answer). Be aware that participants may see your presence as an outsider as a way to get their point across to management, so there could be some pretty strong currents of resentment and anger flowing in the room.

No matter how much fun it is to use the laser pointer, remember that sometimes less is more – it’s better to give attendees a take-away rather than subjecting them to endless graphs and charts.

  • Be prepared

  • State your intentions in a positive and upbeat way

  • Explain the benefits of your proposal

  • Inspire others to take action

  • Provide a take-away that summarizes your ideas

Adapting Your Ideas

The difference between superiors and their staff is that the former makes the decisions and the latter has to live with it. That said, consider management’s interests too and adapt your proposals accordingly. Those in senior positions often need to take a long-term, large-scale view of an idea, such as how an idea will help the business as a whole, not just this team or department. They will be looking beyond your ideas to assess their impact on the organization as a whole, so show that you have considered these matters also.

Success in an organization comes from collaboration. Everyone, from the CEO to the receptionist, has special interests and concerns. Try to anticipate the criteria any given manager will use to evaluate your ideas, and adapt what you say and propose accordingly.

  • If it looks like we can’t afford the product, what can we do about the budget constraints?

  • If we cannot begin this project now, when would be a good time to start it?

  • If the proposal does not meet the requirements, what can be done to ensure that it does?

  • If you feel that the procedure is fine as it stands, can you outline what you like about the present approach?


Dealing with Dissenters

Invariably, there’s someone in the audience who just has to disagree with you. Maybe because the person has some honest concerns or it may be that someone feels compelled to show off to management. Deal with objections courteously and calmly. The person might be genuinely confused rather than antagonistic. Ask careful questions to establish what the objections are. Probe for the position behind the objections. Whatever the reason, try to respond to the question, not the person (especially if you sense hostility).

  • Look for ways to show how acceptance of your proposals will reflect well on everyone involved

  • Be your own toughest critic

  • Don’t appear over-eager and don’t show frustration or impatience.

  • Don’t forget to have facts on hand

  • Be prepared for challenges

To prepare for this, take on the role of your own worst critic and pick holes in your presentation. Write down your answers to the objections. Imagine that you are one of the influential people in the audience. What might this person say? Rehearse your response to the “worst that could happen.” Undoubtedly, something else will come up, but at least you’ll be prepared for some of it.

Interruptions can actually liven up your presentation if you handle them the right way. Listen to the speaker’s comments politely. Check your understanding by summarizing it in your own words. Highlight points of agreement and answer the question. If you don’t have a good answer, offer to get back to the speaker later. Whatever you do, never surrender the marker, the pointer or the floor to the dissenter.

  • Do read up on your subject thoroughly and be well-informed

  • Do use graphics to emphasize your key points and ideas

  • Remain calm and use humor but avoid being sarcastic

  • Don’t let the anticipation of objections undermine your confidence

  • Don’t be distracted by the dissenters from making your point

A Note about Cultural Differences

Verbal and physical communication etiquette varies from country to country. In the U.S., we don’t hesitate to get passionate or humorous or dramatic in our presentations. We talk fast and sometimes we talk loud. We get personal. We try to make the listener feel personally involved in what we’re presenting.

In Western European countries, however, the style of public speaking is often more factual and very low-key. In cultures where management style tends to be democratic, leaders are more likely to accept feedback in a positive way; however, in status cultures, like Italy, suggestions or criticisms given to managers can be seen as disrespectful.

If you’re making a presentation in a different country or to an audience of visitors from another country, brush up on what’s considered appropriate in their part of the world. You don’t have to give up your unique style but making a few modifications will show your audience that you respect them.

As noted, the effects of influence extend throughout not only real but also constructed cultures in computer game worlds. Dr. Henry Jenkins, Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studios Program and Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities discusses the game Animal Crossing (2002 and 2005) in a recent blog entry. “Animal Crossing allows one to fundamentally change the space and mood of one's animal village through textual manipulation. … Players can post signs, send letters, name the town and engage in other atmospheric manipulations.” In essence, players change the game world through influence rather than force of arms.

Choreographing Your Presentation

It is not just what you say but how you say it that gets results. It’s all about perception -- when you stand with your weight on one foot, you look indecisive. When you stand in an upright and relaxed stance, with your feet shoulder-width apart, you look confident. How you use your hands tells your audience that you’re terribly anxious, totally flustered or (hopefully) confident and self-assured. Clutching the podium for dear life is just as bad as darting around the stage. Movement should be naturally without distracting your audience’s attention away from what you’re saying.

Be sure you have water at the podium or table because frogs will choose to take up residence in your throat just when you’re about to make the most important point. Take a lesson from actors: props can and will take on a life of their own. The more gimmicks you have, the higher the chances are that they will self-destruct at the worst possible moment.

Getting Yourself Ready

The presentation is written, the visual aids are ready, the room booked and refreshments ordered, the AV equipment in place and everything has been checked and double-checked. What’s left? Oh yeah – you!

The night before a big presentation isn’t the best time for an all-nighter, whether it’s partying with friends and co-workers or staying up to finish the presentation (which should already be done.) It’s a time to review your notes, decide what you want to wear to make the right impression (yep, men too) and get a good night’s sleep. That haggard “worked on this all night” look is only good in the movies. In real life, it sends a message to management and your audience that says “unprepared” instead of “passionate.” Make a list of what you need and pack your stuff the night before, then double-check the list in the morning. Everything about you should project confidence and preparation.

Part of your back-up plans should be to have a co-worker standing by if for some reason you can’t make it to the presentation. If you wake up sick that morning, be honest with yourself about whether you can do your talk justice. If you’ve got a raging fever or you’re covered in spots or you can’t breathe without coughing, call your back-up and your manager. If it looks like you’re going to miss your plane, train, etc., likewise alert your back-up and your manager.

Tips ‘n Tricks

Whether your decision to speak at a meeting is spontaneous or planned, it’s not how much you say but how well you say it that’s going to count. Some of the noisiest speakers you’ll meet are actually the least influential.

  • Be clear about what you want to say – make notes, do your research, have a point

  • Consider why you’re qualified to speak on the subject – and if you’re not, either use that as a humorous intro or decline the invitation to speak

  • Make sure that what you say is relevant and appealing to the audience

  • Don’t let fear stop you from speaking

  • If you’re preparing a speech, don’t leave rehearsals until the last minute. It may sound silly but rehearse the talk in front of the mirror (or the cat, the dog or even the goldfish!)

  • Humor and self-referent anecdotes are fine as long as they’re appropriate

Double-Checking

  • Do I have objective criteria for success?

  • Are there too many factoids? Too few?

  • Is there enough humor and is it in the right place(s)?

  • Have I served “my” agenda or “our” (the company’s) agenda?

  • Is my presentation as brief as possible and have I assessed my ideas thoroughly?

  • Am I sure about my timing?

  • Do my solutions provide a collaborative approach to the situation?

  • Have I made my key points and summarized them effectively?

  • Will my ideas make other people winners?

  • Do I have back-up equipment? Have I backed up my presentation media? Do I have a stand-in in case I can’t make it?

  • Have I chosen the right clothes for the environment?

It’s all about the details and when everything checks out, you’re ready to stand up and really be heard!

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