Teching up without talking down, or, Henry 5.0

At GE Information Services, our Software Development and Consulting people were technical consultants, working with the client’s IT staff before and after a sale.  When we hired new SDC people, some hadn’t spent much time with clients; they’d dwell  on networking, data communications, relational databases, and so on.  And on.

So: Technical Presentations for a Non-Tech Audience. I never liked the title, but the SDC people did, which was part of the point: does the audience like it?   I needed a topic for which I was the technical expert and they were not.  That ruled out electronic data interchange, the OSI model, and systems architecture.

But not Elizabethan drama.  That’s how I started.

Where you are: How would you feel about knocking off early today to see a 400-year old play?

  • Maybe you like Shakespeare.  I can tell you that on a 10-point scale, where 1 meant “I’d prefer dental work,” the first SDC group came in at 2.5.

Where we’re going: I promised to explain why people in Shakespeare’s time would choose to see a play, when the other entertainments included bear-baiting and bawdy houses.

What you know: I asked what the SDC folks knew about the battle of the Alamo.

  • From the “pretest,” I knew there weren’t many Shakespeare fans.  This apparently unrelated question (Shakespeare?  Alamo?) nudged the attention knob higher.
  • What did they know?  Not many “factual” facts–date, numbers, causes.  Something about Texans, Mexicans, the 1800s,  overwhelming odds.  And maybe Davy Crockett.  Or John Wayne.

What you may not know: I spent about 5 minutes getting here, and took three more to make the connection:

  • Most Americans know few historical facts about the battle of the Alamo (like the date), but we know emotional facts.
  • Since 1836, people have made songs, stories, books, plays, and movies, each connecting the events of the Alamo to its audience, playing off those emotional facts.  (This is where John Wayne comes in, along with Fess Parker, Brian Keith, and Billy Bob Thornton.)
  • The battle of Agincourt — the heart of Shakespeare’s play Henry V — was roughly as far removed from his audience as the Alamo is from us.
  • The main difference?  At Agincourt, the Texans won.

This probably wouldn’t work for a multinational audience–those emotional facts about the Alamo are common in the U.S. but not in, say, Norway or New Zealand.  Which means it’s not the specifics of my story here, but what my audience already knew, and what I could use from that knowledge to to explain something new to them.

I went into details that fit the categories, to reinforce the connection.  Details like:

  • Factual facts about Agincourt (just a few, paving the way for what would follow), including  the 5,000 archers with longbows who were five-sixths of Henry’s army.
  • Emotional facts: everybody in Shakespeare’s audience “knew” Henry V had been a great king; everybody “knew” his army was vastly outnumbered; everybody “knew” the French were snobs.
  • Connections: examples of how Shakespeare started from these facts, like having Henry disguise himself as an ordinary soldier (“Henry LeRoy”) to check morale.
  • Features and benefits: everyone “knew” that Henry won not only the battle, but the daughter of the king of France.  Shakespeare plays off that by having Henry try to woo her, even though he can’t speak French and she “cannot speak your England.”

And of course, I gave a demo, with a little help from Kenneth Branagh.  (Right at the opening, there’s great exposition by Shakespeare, as the  earl of Westmoreland wishes for enough men to get the odds down to 2 to 1.)

Salespeople know the difference between features and benefits: a feature is a thing, like satellite radio in a new car.  A benefit is a value for the client, like tailored entertainment.  If the audience sees no value, a technical presentation isn’t much of a present.