Keeping Too Much

More wisdom from Marc Maron’s podcast arrived today, this time from Bill Simmons, someone that I have mixed feelings about (best summarized by Deadspin). My personal feelings aside (which are 99% due to me being a Buffalo Bills fan and him being a Patriots apologist), there is no question that the guy is brilliant and was a visionary for sports media.

The insight that Maron unearthed today is about directing a documentary. Simmons said that the number one mistake that documentary directors make is that they keep too much. They fall in love with what they have created and they don’t cut material that doesn’t add to their overall story.

This is directly relevant to life in consulting. Often the work we do culminates in a powerpoint presentation, of which 20 slides are presented to a client, and another 40-300 slides are relegated to the “appendix” (aka slide grave yard). These presentations are usually developed by teams, with individual contributors “owning” certain slides. As the presentation date nears, senior leaders get involved and, more often than not, completely obliterate everything that the team has developed.

This can be frustrating, but it is a very important step. It took me a few years of consulting to learn this, but the goal of any presentation should be to tell a story. Narratives are how we organize our thoughts as humans. No matter who we are, how smart we are, how senior we are, our thoughts are organized in narratives – and that is how we make decisions.

Frequently, someone will put a week’s worth of work into creating a slide that turns out great. It makes sense of complex data, it is visually appealing, and it makes the team look very smart. But when it comes time to review the presentation in its entirety, it doesn’t fit into the story. The mistake I would make early in my career is to force the story to fit around these impressive slides. What I have learned, however, is that nothing is more important than the story. I will never forget the time a very senior person in our organization said, “we create great slides, and fall in love with them, but we have to kill them”.

Which brings us back to Simmons. I can only make assumptions about what it’s like to create a documentary, but I imagine there are parallels to consulting. A documentary typically covers a complex topic, one that requires viewers to understand a backstory. There are generally interviews or first-hand research that needs to be conveyed. Finally, their needs to be some sort of resolution.

This is what consulting is. Clients come to use with their most complicated problems. We often need to help them to define the problem – or at least help them articulate it for their counterparts – in a way that communicates business impact. We need to present findings – often employee interviews or customer data – in a way that makes sense to a broad audience. Then, depending on the scope of the engagement, we need show a path forward for the client. The path forward is really what drives the narrative of any presentation. Anything on a slide – a graphic, text box, sentence or word – that does not add to the story, should be removed.

Fred Wilson expresses a similar thought on his blog today, about entrepreneurs considering alternative formats to pitch decks. His key message is to find the medium that works best for you to convince him to invest in your business. I would argue that the goal is to tell the best story. To help the VC understand who you are, why your business will be successful, and why your team would work well with theirs.

I imagine that it is more difficult for documentarians to know what the narrative is, because they are usually covering a very broad topic (someone’s life, a war, jazz, food, a year, a country, a state, a city) and the narrative can go off in any number of directions. In consulting, we have the benefit of direction from our client – and the ultimate understanding that we are there to help our client save money or make money.

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