Fear and Loathing in Client Conference Rooms

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Offices and conference rooms are to business professionals what practice facilities and ballparks are to professional baseball players. One is for preparation, and the other tests presentation skills in front of an audience.

All independent IT professionals — like baseball players — know how quickly an audience can turn if the performance is not up to par. This creates extra anxiety for independent IT professionals who don’t have the support and resources available to them that larger firms or companies would because it narrows the margin of error. No matter what kind of IT professional you are, there are key ways to connect with your audience.

“More than anything else, you need to understand your audience — I’ve found the greatest misstep people make is not having an understanding of what your audience is and then appealing your message so that it’s best suited to them,” said Doug Chandler, an IT consultant with more than 10 years experience who has worked both independently and for firms. “One of the faults frequently made in the business is that those of us who are very comfortable in ‘techno speak’ make the assumption that other people are as comfortable as we are.

“By and large they’re not — it’s just the reality. They certainly won’t have an appreciation for your messages, much less agree with you.”

To avoid dissention in the boardroom, a key part of the process is communication that begins beginning from the front end. The more defined the expectations are in the beginning, the more defined content will come across in the end.

One reason expectations sometimes aren’t well-defined is unfamiliarity between client and consultant, which, at the beginning of the relationship, can result in vague instructions. Chandler said this can be the difference between and good boardroom scene and a bad one.

“There’s a certain amount of faith you’re putting in the message that you’ve received that the goals and concerns of the people who are investing in your efforts have been properly communicated because these are most likely people you have not dealt with on a regular basis,” Chandler said. “They want to know to what degree you accomplished the goals they set forth because, when you go to unveil your work and justify your investment, those are the concerns you’re going to be speaking to. The degree to which you are properly informed with those could make that meeting quite comfortable, or you could see the audience feel disoriented.”

Chandler said his experiences in both being independent and being in the corporate world have given him an interesting perspective of boardroom situations. As an independent IT professional for five years before moving to consulting firm, he said both approaches are similar in dealing with the clients but very different in terms of resources available.

“The way that we engage clients, we do so with a fair amount of autonomy and flexibility, as how they go about rendering services and handling the account management,” Chandler said. “It’s quite similar to being an independent IT person. The most striking difference is with we have a tremendous depth of resources to bolster our efforts — we have colleagues, a support desk and capital.”

Such advantages should be viewed on scale, however, because firms such as Agility have clients with more in-depth needs than the small businesses that most independent IT professionals service. In either capacity, a consultant must be able to answer questions on demand and meet the decided-on expectations.

“If you’re going to present a product to a boardroom like that, you need support capacity from people who are intimately familiar with the product, should you get pointed or detailed questions that you have to address,” Chandler said. “But that’s probably not the skill set that the presenter will need in order to be successful because you are fundamentally answering the question, ‘How well does what you’ve done align with what we need?’ That’s far less a technical answer than a business answer.”

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