Business Objects and presentation burn-out

Press releases, much like other forms of marketing, often venture into the land of spectacular claims–sometimes into the land of nonsense. The June 15, 2006 press release from Business Objects entitled “Business Objects Survey Shows Executives Suffer From Presentation Burn Out; Poll of Over 380 Executives Indicates a Need for More Interactive Presentation Solution” leaps unabashedly into this territory.

First of all, did we really need a survey to figure out that most executives don’t enjoy preparing presentations and spend more time working on them than they prefer. This isn’t terribly surprising. The survey concluded that “while executives have improved access to data, they need solutions that can help them quickly and easily present that information in a visually appealing format.” Business Objects, in an effort to use this conclusion to market their software, has decided that “visually appealing format” equals an interactive display of eye-popping gauges and other graphics using their product Crystal Xcelsius. That’s a bit of a leap.

Another less than logical connection made in this press release is that the excessive time and struggle that executives put into creating these presentations, which “often takes them one or more hours to convert data in Excel spreadsheets into a format for a meeting or presentation” can be solved by using Crystal Xcelsius. Any executive who is challenged by creating a simple table or graph in Excel isn’t going to find salvation in Crystal Excelsius. Even the executive’s assistant, who is the one who really creates the presentation in most cases, probably won’t find Crystal Xcelsius easier or faster to use than Excel.

Aside from these self-serving non-sequiturs, what disturbs me most about this press release is the suggestion that executives feel they must be talented graphical artists to create effective presentations, which is a strength of relatively few. Here’s the real problem: these executives are focusing on the wrong goal. When an executive makes a presentation, such as to the board, the goal should be to inform—to present the truth and perhaps to persuade. This doesn’t require artistic talent; it requires reasoning and communication, which are abilities that every executive ought to possess. It doesn’t help to dress up the information and make it dance on the screen if the message you’re trying to communicate isn’t in itself compelling, doesn’t make sense, or is buried in obscure language. If the information is important, the arguments are logical, and the communication is clear, the presentation will likely be compelling.

More time ought to be dedicated to thinking through the issues and preparing good arguments, and then in crafting a message that presents them clearly. If the audience really cares about the information, this is the type of presentation that they’ll appreciate most. If the board really just wants to be entertained with fluffy animated graphics, God help the business.

Using clear and simple graphs to present quantitative data can be very powerful if the information is important. Dressing it up with graphical glitz can only distract and might even muddle an otherwise simple message. The smart executive knows this. Smart (but perhaps not ethical) executives realize that the best use of graphical glitz is to draw the audience’s attention away from the data. It’s an age-old magician’s trick.


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