32-Point Font Might Save Your IT Career

Todd Michaud runs Power Thinking Media, which helps retailers and restaurants tackle the convergence of social, mobile and retail technologies. He spent nine years delivering technology solutions to more than 10,000 retail locations as VP of IT for Focus and Director of Retail Technology for Dunkin' Brands.

It's you versus the sales guy in an epic battle over your IT career. The sales guy has a polished presentation about the features and benefits of his products and services. You have a status report. The sales guy has access to unlimited resources to make your business partners' wildest dreams come true. You have one really great guy who you've overworked to the point that you carry a ton of personal shame. The sales guy says, "Yes. Yes. Yes." You say, "No. No. No." In this surreal world, you are watching your hard-fought IT career be dismantled by an onslaught of companies that shake your hand and look you in the eye as they pitch your demise one product and service at a time. And you had better buckle-up, Buttercup; it's only going to get worse.

The CMO is going to have a larger IT budget than the CIO by 2015. IT project lists are longer than the typical team can accomplish in three years, never mind one. Projects are late and over budget. The team is restless and unhappy. You've spent more time in the last year working on iPads for the C-suite than you have optimizing your beleaguered ERP system. Although you were onboard with some applications being sourced directly by the marketing team, you are now faced with someone trying to convince your organization to offload every aspect of your business.

What's the sales guy's biggest advantage? Font size. That's right, font size. He has been trained for years on how to effectively communicate with decision-makers and to boil down complex technology concepts into simple pictures, diagrams, charts and easy (large) words. The sales guy's presentation was crafted by a marketing communications person who took every care to make sure it looks good, expresses the right message and does not bring up the items the company doesn't want to talk about. He has a sales engineer who takes the technical questions and makes everything sound so easy, enabling him to "stay at a business level" with your peer group. The sales guy's entire career has been built around this conversation, while yours has been made around installing servers and writing code. There is a strong Darwinian advantage that you need to overcome.

But you are a fighter, and you want to fight back. You decide to invest in your personal development to fight for what you've worked so hard to build over the years. Here are my suggestions on how to best fight back:

  • Learn PowerPoint Inside And Out. I don't care how much you hate PowerPoint or presentations in general, you need to learn to communicate in ways that your audience is used to. Being able to effectively make points with simple images, diagrams, charts and graphs (rather than a ton of words) is one of the biggest things you must learn. Read a book (there are several) or even take a class.
  • Presentation Timing. To improve your communication, you have to structure the time allotted appropriately. First, take away 5 minutes for stragglers and introductions. Next, subtract 5 minutes for every half hour of meeting time to account for questions and action items. Take the remaining time and divide it by three. This is the maximum number of slides that you can have (excluding title and Q&A slides). So for a 30-minute meeting, that gives you seven slides (you get to benefit from rounding) and for an hour-long meeting you get 15 slides. Do not allow yourself to go over that number of slides.
  • Use No Less Than A 32-Point Font. This is probably the hardest for people adapt to, but it's one of the most important. IT people often suffer from "diarrhea of the keyboard"—trying to provide every possible detail of information in their slides. The slides should provide summary-level information only (headlines) and be supported by what you say during the presentation. Do not feel that the slides need to "live on after the meeting." The easiest way to kill a presentation is to try and cram everything you plan on saying into the text of the slides. If needed, add supporting text into the notes section of the slides so others can read it.
  • Use Images/Charts/Graphs. Each slide that contains text must also have at least one image. None of your slides should be text-only. Find something that visually expresses what you are trying to convey with the text. The image can either reinforce the text or replace it.
  • Join Toastmasters Or Take A Public-Speaking Class. Slow down. You'd be surprised just how much the pace of your voice and the amount of eye contact you make with your audience has on how well your message is received. Because you've shortened your presentation down to 3 minutes per slide, you have a ton of time to make your points. Smile a lot. Nod a lot. Both of these actions tend to get the same back from your audience. (By the way, so does yawning.)
  • Practice/Rehearse. Take the time to go over your presentation once or twice before you give it. Think about what questions you are most likely to be asked and by whom. Plan your answers out ahead of time. Think about how you can incorporate "blocking" into your presentation to answer people's questions before they are asked.
  • Don't Present Problems, Present Answers. It's easy to get into the trap of talking about all the things that are going wrong. Things happen, that's part of being in IT. Whenever you need to communicate things that aren't happening as expected, make sure you keep a positive tone and talk about what is being done to address the issue and what is being put in place to prevent the same thing from happening again. Although some issues deserve seriousness, don't be gloomy unless it was/is really, really bad.

I know that some of you are reading this column and thinking, "Sure, I'll do that before a board meeting or before a big presentation but not the monthly IT steering committee meeting." I think that you should take this approach whenever you are communicating with your business partners in a structured format (not a hallway meeting, obviously). Even if your meeting typically doesn't have a projector and a screen, print the presentation out and flip through it as you are speaking with participants.

If you take these steps you will improve your relationship with your peer group and be in a better position to defend against the enemy at the gate the next time your CEO sits next to someone on the flight back from a meeting.

What do you think? If you disagree (or even, heaven forbid, agree), please comment below or send me a private message. Or check out the Twitter discussion on @todd_michaud.

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