Phil's dread of Powerpoint sales presentations is already known to his readers, but we've never before heard the story of how an intern in his team gave them the necessary insights to find a cure for their unfortunate tendency to doze off, and convince them that they were charmless geeks.
I suffer from PowerPoint burnout. It is an occupational hazard in IT. The average human can only take so many PowerPoint Sales presentations in one lifetime. Slowly, over the years, a narcosis builds up as a reaction. Once the lights dim and the speaker starts his merciless and remorseless presentation, like an unstoppable train, then the reaction kicks in. One starts to twitch and fidget, the body locked into an involuntary autonomic reaction. Usually by the third set of bullet points, the brain performs a system shutdown. PowerPoint presentations are the human equivalent of putting the blanket over parrot’s cage: Once the brain gets to know about PowerPoint presentations, the consequences are inevitable. Evolution has programmed the mammalian brain, particularly in carnivores and hunter-gatherers, to go into 'sleep mode' when no meaningful stimulus is being received. The scientific term is ‘crepuscular’. When rabbits emerge, the ferret becomes fully alert. Otherwise, a ferret will sleep for up to eighteen hours a day.
My burnout happened when my role, as one of a team of experts standardizing the software of a major enterprise, meant possibly having to watch one of the things every day. Every software vendor representative came prepared: grey suit, polished black shoes, sincere smile, silk club tie and, goddam it, a slick PowerPoint presentation. Every vendor presentation had the same general format. Every presenter used the slides to sequence the presentation rather than to illustrate what he was saying. Presenters invariable read out what was on the slide. The presentations were uncannily similar, as if some godless IT-Salesman freemasonry had standardized the format.
"First, I would like to tell you about our company" [queue a slide listing how many years it has been in existence, who founded it and its miraculous upward growth curve].
The train was leaving the station. I threw myself onto the tracks in front of it.
"No, please don't. If we decide your software is a likely candidate, we have to do a complete company search, anyway, and find out all your public information, before we can list you as a supplier to us. We can't purchase from you otherwise."
"Our company was founded in 2001 by Joe Kname, who is now our CTO…"
My fingers began an uncontrollable, jittery dance across the desk.
"I expect his mother is proud and boasts to the neighbors, but to save time I ought to explain that we're only interested in the software, and the sort of support you offer over the five-year life of that software. We need to assess the quality of your support and training, to gain assurance that your company has integrity in all commercial dealings, is mature enough to stick to agreements, and will work responsibly with us if a problem crops up. We are not interested in whether your CTO has good hair."
The Salesman glanced nervously around the room but unable to deviate from the prescribed PowerPoint script, pressed on regardless, intoning mechanically from the slides.
"…our company's annual turnover has increased fourfold every year since then and we are selling in The United States, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy..."
My body began urging immediate sleep. No! Must…stay…awake…waggle foot…maybe ….breathe in deeply…think about unpaid tax bill to provoke a shot of adrenaline…
"Our software is used by many famous names in the FTSE top 100, names that include Lloyds, Ford, Shell…"
…No good…sinking fast… aargh…shouldn't have shut eyes…[notebook drops from lifeless hands]…Crash…what's that!……..zzzz…..
My crepuscular constitution had kicked in. The team had tried several strategies to cope, but somehow an entirely satisfactory solution eluded us.
Once afternoon, as I sat limply at my desk recovering from one of these presentations and wondering for how much longer I could possibly survive them, I was introduced to our team's new intern, Nigel.
I liked Nigel. He had charm and...err…presence. Although he was still at university, he seemed ageless, intelligent and mature. In a large corporate, a team member like this was valuable firepower. I was soon taking him to meetings and finding that merely by dint of having him sitting there, agreeing with what I said and looking sincere; we got our way more often in discussions.
I say he "seemed" intelligent and he certainly wasn't stupid, but it was his charm and gravitas that were his major talents. We required little more from him, luckily. Within the management jungle of the average corporate, intelligence is a double-edged sword, whereas gravitas and social skills never fail to strike their intended victim.
I started to invite him to the vendor presentations, since it looked better if we fielded a bigger team, and I rather suspected that his body had yet to develop the same PowerPoint defense mechanisms as mine. I was right; he loved it, and took a strong interest. When told all about the Vendor's meteoric rise into financial health, he'd whistle appreciatively. When he heard the list of the well-known companies using their software, he would shake his head in wonderment. Within five minutes, the presenter would address all his comments directly to Nigel.
After a while, we started to draw lots as to who should accompany Nigel to the presentations. To draw the lot that sentenced you to a PowerShell presentation was a moment to dread, since Nigel's enthusiasm and his tendency to ask interested questions propelled the presenter into prolonging the torture. Nevertheless, it was a small price to pay for allowing the rest of the team to escape.
Nigel's PowerPoint enthusiasm had another odd and expected result. Our relationship with Central IT improved. The vendor representatives were quick to relay the new spirit of interest and appreciation. Our executives, when being wined and dined in expensive exclusive restaurants in the Maine coast, were told of the new spirit of cooperation, as the sales executives of the potential suppliers hinted of possible lucrative consultancy in the future for the key "flag carriers" in our company. The word percolated through the management layers that we had an incisive grasp of the technology. Computer Salespeople seem to move from company to company by some stochastic process, trailing information about their previous employers’ customers with them. After a while, we noticed to our surprise that Nigel was getting invitations to lavish seminars and technical presentations in the City from companies we’d never come across. Evidently, the word had spread that Nigel was an important ‘opinion-leader’ in the company, and one who should be ‘networked’. We let him go to a few of these, more to enjoy the lavish entertainment that ensued, but with strict orders to commit us to nothing.
He would return, happy and well nourished; grateful for the experience.
Sadly, Nigel's internship ended soon after and with it our glorious holiday from PowerPoint presentations. We’d all got the point: we were a charmless bunch of geeks who had little interest in what we had regarded, in our nerdy way, as a pointless activity that was almost a superstitious ritual. By gaining good manners, we might actually make our lives a bit easier. By the time that Nigel left, senior managers from Central IT were smiling at us and unexpectedly approving our requests to attend IT conferences.
Fortunately, the answer hit us one Friday lunchtime in the local pub where we were sipping our Mauldon’s Blackadder. We were pondering our difficulties and I was explaining how ferrets would be useless at attending PowerPoint presentations due to their essentially crepuscular nature. It boils down to psychology.
Dave, the Unix specialist in the team suddenly asked “But when the rabbits come out of their lairs in the twilight, the ferret becomes fully awake!”
We looked at each other, deep in thought. Of course. As soon as the crepuscular brain thought of the prospects of a tasty meal in the offing, it would become fully alert.
Could this work? Oh yes. Underneath the thin veneer of civilization we are all opportunistic hunter-gatherers. All the attendees of a Vendor PowerPoint presentation booked themselves a great meal in the same evening after each presentation. After the fifth presentation, we’d all survived the presentation, and even managed to ask some intelligent questions. Each time we did it, we could feel ourselves becoming more alert. It was Alistair, the technical architect, who thought of the refinement to the process of inviting the salespeople along, and getting them to buy the meal for us. Naively, we hadn’t even realized that they usually had a budget for such things.
It then occurred to us that we’d stumbled on a fundamental truth of commercial life. The quickest and easiest way to get the attention of the people you wished to engage in commercial dialog, was to buy them dinner afterwards. Is this unethical? When I was in training for a management role, it was beaten into me that, if you can eat it in one setting without being gross or disgusting, then it isn’t a bribe. It is a simple rule that underlies the proper conduct of international business.
As for the team, we settled down to a happy life, greeting each salesman as a friend, making appreciative notices throughout their vendor’s PowerPoint presentation, and being regarded throughout IT management as a team worthy of their heady responsibilities. Nigel’s internship had left us a happier, more socially-aware group of boffins, and we occasionally toasted his memory in Vouvray Demi-sec at one of our gatherings.
This is another of Phil’s ‘Confessions of an IT Manager’, a series of articles which have been compiled into a book that has been enjoyed for several years by IT staff.
‘Confessions of an IT Manager is a book form of a series of articles first written for Simple-Talk by a seasoned IT manager who tries to explore the real world of work in IT rather than the world as we'd like to think it is. By writing under a pseudonym he is able to get uncomfortably close to real life, real events and believable people, describing experiences and predicaments that were occasionally painful, sometimes profitable but always funny.’ (Google Books review)
A great read, with a lot of substance, the book will be enjoyed a lot more by those who have some experience in the field. There are moments where laughter is inevitable so it's not a good choice of reading in the office while you pretend to be deeply concerned by some technical issue. ‘ (Google Books review)
You can download it from here