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Mind of Jacka: Wake Me When It’s Over

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Oct 18, 2023

A show of hands. How many of you have sat through bad presentations?

Wow! How can there be more hands than people? Next question, how many of you have given bad presentations?

Hmmm. A bit more hesitant to shoot our hand in the air, aren’t we? But I’d say we still have a solid majority.

Think a second or two about what made them bad, what made them boring, what made you either fall asleep or want to run out of the room like someone announced a performance by the International Out-of-tune Madrigal Choir and Metal Shop.

When I said presentation, you probably thought about attending a conference, auditors sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in rows of chairs facing a presenter, a projection screen, and a PowerPoint presentation, with your primary focus being obtaining CPEs. Or you thought about lunch, sitting at a circular table, maybe having to turn your chair away from the remains of the rubber chicken, craning your neck toward a speaker, a projection screen, and a PowerPoint presentation, with your primary focus being obtaining CPEs.

But we internal auditors do a lot more presenting than that. In fact, a good hunk of what we do is presentations. Sometimes they are literal presentations to the audit staff, to the staff of another department, to a group of leaders, etc. But sometimes we bury the concept of “presentation” under the most horrid of words, “meeting.”

Kick-off meetings, exit meetings, updates, discussions of issues, discussions on risk, discussions on controls, discussions on discussions… Look closely at these and, while they may include more interactivity than we normally think of when we hear the word “presentation,” we are still presenting something — an idea, a conviction, an explanation, a thesis, a darned important point, putting forward ideas and trying to convey that information to the listener, usually in an attempt to persuade. That is a presentation even if we have buried it under the sobriquet “meeting.”

So, back to the original questions, with a not-so-subtle change. How many of you have sat through bad meetings? How many of you have given bad meetings?

I’ve seen (and talked about) a lot of solutions for making meetings better. But it may be that the solution is the same for both bad/boring meetings and bad/boring presentations. The solution to Bad Meeting Syndrome can be found by solving the same problems we face with Bad Presentation Syndrome.

You may have noticed that I’ve recently been fixating on presentations and meetings. (See my previous post, "Anger Beats Apathy.") Part of the reason is that I am eyeballs deep in the book Talk Like Ted: The 9 Public-speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds by Carmine Gallo. Look, I’ll be honest with you. I hadn’t expected much from the book — figured it was just going to be a high-fly overview of obviousness. But I was wrong. There is a wealth of science-backed ideas here on how to do better presentations and, to the point I’m trying to make here, be more effective any time you talk.

One prominent idea is the need to have passion for the information you are sharing. Well, in my last post I hit that whole passion thing pretty hard, so no need to revisit it, just read (reread) it. (However, I can’t move on without repeating that passion may be the most fundamental aspect to the successful sharing of information. But I said I wasn’t going to go into it.)

The next important idea is to understand what story you are trying to tell. Story? Yes, story. Surrounding everything you are trying to sell – the value of internal audit, the reason for an audit, the results and need for change — there is a story. It may be as simple as the story of “this is the risk and this is how bad it can cause things to be.” In other words, an integral part of the stories we tell in internal audit come back to “Consequence,” the fourth of the 5 Cs in any finding.

It doesn’t hurt to have a human element in all this. For example, at Farmers Insurance internal audit, we reported on agents who delayed remittance of payments made in their offices. Invariably, we fell to the tried-and-true internal audit litany, something like “15% of payments were delayed one to 10 days.” That doesn’t exactly speak passion. Nor does it tell a story. Instead, how about if we reported, “In 15% of the transactions we reviewed, our customers’ payments were not received for up to 10 days after those customers made payment, causing the potential for cancelled policies, denied claims, and the disruption of our customers’ lives.”

A bit heavy-handed? Maybe. But it is all true. And, by putting a human face on something as seemingly innocuous as a receipt for payment, we wrapped the issue in a better story.

Next idea: We had a senior executive who always preached to us that he didn’t want a report that consisted of facts, details, even findings that he already knew. His mantra was “Tell me something I don’t know.” If we reported issues, then it should be something new to him. (And if he already knew about it? Well, that was a different thing.)

You gain the client’s best attention when they are confronted with something new.

This can be a challenge. You’re running the kick-off meeting and the client is someone who has been audited a number of times. You’ve been through so many meetings with them that there is little they don’t already know. Then look for something new — new auditors, new procedures, new scope, new risks, etc. Yes, you will still have to go through details they already know. But make sure the time spent on redundancies is kept to a minimum and focus on anything that is different.

The final presentation/meeting/information-sharing idea is about the 18-minute rule. At what point do you really get bored in a presentation or a meeting? Yes, I know there are some speakers that open their mouths and you quickly succumb to narcolepsy. But, in general, we all do a pretty good job of paying attention... for a while.

Research has shown that the ideal limit for a presentation is somewhere around 18 minutes. That is why one of the rules for TED Talks is that no presentation will last over 18 minutes. (And, yes, I know there are some exceptions. We’ll touch on those in a minute.)

Listening is draining. And the longer a person is forced to listen, the more information the brain has to store. The work of storing becomes harder and harder and, after a while, the effort is no longer effective. Again, research shows that 18 minutes is the ideal amount of time. The brain can handle this cognitive buildup without maxing out.

So how long should a meeting be? Let’s face it. If you set a meeting for half an hour, it will last half an hour. Set it up for one hour and it will last for one hour. Set it for two hours and it lasts two hours. And set it up for three hours and you should be fired. Of course, we often need more than 18 minutes to discuss what there is to discuss. The approach used by speakers at TED, when they are speaking for longer than 18 minutes, is to maintain the 18-minute rule by breaking the presentation up into 18-minute intervals. Look up some of those longer presentations and you will see them build to a climax at around 18 minutes, then take a break — a de-escalation of information that allows the brains of the listeners to recharge as the speaker starts building to the next 18-minute charge.

However, don’t always default to the idea that you need more time. If you schedule an 18-minute meeting, it will last 18 minutes. When you are forced to think in 18-minute increments you are forced to focus on what is important, shying away from the fluff and floundering that bores us all to tears.

Prepare your presentation/meeting so that you are focusing on using only 18 minutes to say what you need to say. If you need more time, then make sure there are peaks and valleys that are 18 minutes apart.

Ultimately, internal auditors’ lives are presentations. Sometimes it is standing in front of a group of people you hope don’t have rotten tomatoes handy, sometimes it is in a meeting, sometimes it is a conference call. Any time two or more are gathered with the intent of sharing information, then it needs to be looked at as a presentation.

Know what you want to say, know the story of what you want to say, ensure you are sharing something new, keep it short, and, most importantly, care about what you want to share.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Mike Jacka is co-founder and chief creative pilot of Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.