I sat through approximately 160 cross-calibration conversations for analysts in my career. A cross-cal is how many companies ensure associates get a fair performance rating versus just letting your boss decide your rating. While I’m a fan of making sure associates get a fair assessment of their performance, the cross-calibration process can be painful. Over the years I’ve experienced full-day calibrations, hours-long appraisal readings, dot exercises, and forced distributions. If you’ve never experienced these, trust me, they’re no fun.
At the end of each cross-calibration, leaders would discuss promotions. In the promotion discussion, I noticed a pattern in the feedback for associates. Rarely did the debate focus on the technical skills, subject-matter expertise, or even results – by the time associates are up for promotion, they’ve demonstrated those things clearly. The competency gaps that typically held associates back were communication, influence, or the mystical “leadership presence.”
Guess what? All three of these competencies are demonstrated through your ability to design and deliver effective presentations.
If you’re reading this, you were probably hired for your technical or analytical skills. Being great at those skills should lead to a promotion, right? Not if you don’t have great communication skills. Communication is the lens through which all your other competencies are judged. If you are a brilliant analyst with a brilliant idea, but you can’t communicate that idea effectively, no one will think you are brilliant. If you create an insightful data visualization but can’t effectively influence stakeholders, the organization won’t act on your insight. If you are a creative coder … well, you get the point.
Even if your data visualization speaks for itself, it’s important to be able to present it in a compelling way. Presentations are an important opportunity to familiarize stakeholders with your strategy, get feedback, and gain buy-in. That buy-in helps create the results that get you on the shortlist for promotion.
How Effective Presentation Skills Lead to Promotion
- Presentations showcase your work. Your boss and the other people who influence your promotion are busy people. They can’t know everything you and your team have accomplished. Presentations let you capture your results and communicate them in an efficient manner without looking like you’re bragging. Yes, there are other ways to let your boss know what you’ve achieved, but they likely don’t carry as much weight as a formal presentation.
- You’ll get visibility with leaders and a sneak peek at their strategy. Because I had a knack for writing presentations, I was regularly asked to help my boss and my boss’s boss write presentations to convey their strategy. That had several benefits:
- I saw the strategy before anyone else. That means I could identify opportunities that contributed to my leader’s strategies.
- I could help shape the strategy. That meant I was demonstrating my strategic-thinking skills.
- I had access to my boss’s boss and her leadership team. Being in the room when leaders are setting the strategy means they know who you are, and they’ve seen you do good work. That’s important when those same leaders are deciding whether to promote you or not. Most leaders won’t endorse your promotion if they haven’t seen your work.
- You’ll learn how to do your boss’s job. Did I mention how busy leaders are? If you can take some of their workload by ghost-writing their presentations or helping set their strategy, you are doing a part of their job. Guess what? Once people see you doing the next-level tasks, they promote you to that level. Many times, the process of creating presentations for my boss led to an invite to the meeting where my boss was presenting. In those settings, I was able to observe how to perform in high-pressure meetings.
Are Presentation Skills Enough?
No, of course not. The promotion process at most companies is complex and often mysterious. Promotions can be subjective or influenced by politics, personal agendas, and shifting resource allocations. When I coached people anxious to get promoted, I’d tell them to focus on four strategies. Presentation skills magnify all these strategies:
- Deliver value for the company. This is why you get a paycheck. Presentations can advance each stage of the projects that deliver value. The proposal deck gets your idea funded. The business case gets you a “go” decision. The implementation plan and project updates improve the odds your idea is implemented.
- Demonstrate your job skills. If you’re an analyst, your key job skills might be Excel, or Tableau, or R. But your boss’s boss doesn’t want to look at your spreadsheet; they want to see your results and recommendations often communicated through a presentation. When sharing your results, in a logical, graphical presentation, it’s an opportunity to convey the skills and thinking it took to achieve those results.
- Lead your teams effectively. If you are a manager, how well you lead your teams is critical to your success. Since you have a fixed capacity to drive individual results, leading well exponentially improves the results you can deliver. Communicating your strategy and culture through an all-hands presentation gets your team on the same page. Training decks are a valuable mentoring mechanism that can raise team members’ skill levels.
- Encourage effective teamwork as you drive results. Even as an individual performer, most results require help from others. Proposal decks facilitate stakeholder input and support. Business case presentations secure decision-maker approval. Implementation plans establish alignment. Project updates and project post-mortems expose critical thinking and offer opportunities to share credit with those who helped achieve results.
How to Improve Your Presentation Skills
I use a four-part framework to summarize everything I teach in my workshops and MBA class:
- Tell a Clear Story: Storytelling is in our DNA. For our prehistoric ancestors, storytelling was a life-or-death matter. If they couldn’t explain to the new hunter how to spear the saber-toothed tiger clearly and memorably, the new hunter didn’t survive. Leverage story archetypes that lead with the answer and clearly state the problem, root causes, and recommendations. Storyboard your presentation to plan your content and ensure a logical flow.
- Leverage Graphics: “The soul never thinks without a picture” – Aristotle. If you’re reading this, you already know the power of data visualization. Pictures, icons, and frameworks also ensure your presentations are engaging, understandable, and memorable.
- Reduce the Noise: One of the few concepts I remember from my electrical theory class is the signal-to-noise ratio. When communicating, we need to reduce the noise so our signal shines through. Visual noise includes typos, grammar issues, having too many words on the page, and visual elements that aren’t aligned or distributed. Audio noise includes your barking dog on the Zoom call and like, um, filler words, you know.
- Present with Confidence: It’s hard for your audience to have confidence in you and your ideas if you are nervous when you present. Prepare and practice to boost your confidence. Manage your nerves through deep breathing, mindfulness, exercise, or positive self-talk. Display your confidence by speaking enthusiastically and leveraging effective posture, eye contact, and hand gestures.
While presentations are a critical mode of communication in most organizations, they aren’t the only mode. Every time you communicate through Slack messages, emails, dashboard reviews, stand-ups, hallway conversations, or meeting discussions, you have a chance to influence how leaders perceive you. If you are frustrated that you haven’t been promoted, by all means, deliver more value, invest in your job skills, invest in your team, and improve your teamwork. But if you haven’t invested in your presentation skills, you might be missing the skill that will put you over the top.
President of John Polk & Associates. Data Visualization Professor. Presentation Trainer and Coach.