Conversation with Matt McDonald: Powerful Communication

MattfinalThis is the second part of our conversation with Matt McDonald. If you read last week’s post you’ll know that Matt has worked for McKinsey in New York and was Associate Director of Communication at the White House. Now he’s working for Hamilton Place Strategies, a public policy consultancy based in Washington DC. In the second part of our discussion we focused on the role of communication in executing strategy. We also discussed what makes a great presentation. Enjoy!

What is your opinion on the nexus between strategy and communication? How important is communication to strategy execution?

Matt McDonald: I think it is massively important and often undervalued. The firm I work at now is really engaged in public debate and how you shape a policy discussion. Coming from a McKinsey background, I actually think that consultants are some of the best communicators around. Because if you don’t communicate your ideas effectively then nothing happens and people won’t pay you. Whether it’s giving persuasive advice to the C-suite or whether it’s articulating to front line employees how it all works and how it should all happen, the communications aspect is critical.

Another thing that’s interesting is that everyone is trained in writing at some level. Nobody leaves college without being able to write. But fewer have the same level of numeric literacy. People just aren’t trained in when to use a line chart or a bar chart and how these things should be structured and ordered. And basically nobody is properly trained in the proper use of presentation and Powerpoint. A lot of times a presentation can come out badly.

So I think communication is is very important, whether you’re trying to get someone to invest in your company or you’re trying to align employees behind a priority or you’re trying to convince people. I work in a partnership, so I have to convince my peers of my ideas. And even if you’re the CEO and you get to call the shots, you still want people to fundamentally believe that you’re correct.

You’ve just talked about what makes a bad presentation, but what would you say makes an effective Powerpoint presentation? What’s the hallmark of an outstanding presentation?

Matt McDonald: It has to have a good story. People’s minds are wired for narrative, so you want to think about the cohesion of the story in the build. You want to think about your audience and whether you’re aiming for a direct presentation or an indirect presentation of your material.

I like to have my Powerpoints pass a Ten Second/Two Minute Rule. Which is where, if someone looks at the page for ten seconds can they get the gist? Oftentimes this comes down to how well is it laid out and how well have you chosen your title. And at the same time, if that person looks at the slide for two minutes  will they be able to get more detail out of it.

Understanding when you’re using a presentation as a prop for a discussion, i.e. you’re presenting to a room. Understanding whether you are using it as a kind of aid in a meeting or discussion. Or whether you’re using it as a pure leave behind where you give it to someone and they’re left to go through it on their own. Depending on which of these it is, there are very different implications in terms of density of content.

In the context of a meeting you need to be thinking about five minutes per slide. If you have a 60 minute meeting and you have a 60 slide deck, that’s just not effective. And that may be a case where you want to give people the information so you bring it as a leave-behind, but when you’re doing something like that you want to put a lot of effort in beforehand to work out ‘I want to focus on slides X,Y and Z and get these points across’.

Likewise, if you’re using the Powerpoint in a meeting, you want to make sure that the presentation supports the discussion, not that the discussion supports the presentation.

Another thing is using color effectively to bring the eye to where you want it to be. But remember a good presentation won’t make up for flabby thinking!

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