Takeaways from a Pitching Masterclass

Pitching is 95% practice and 5% inspiration. -Annette Kramer

A couple of weeks ago I attended a pitching masterclass by Annette Kramer. It’s part of this strange habit I’ve developed that I watch masterclasses on Youtube to pick up ideas for my own coaching sessions. Now I decided to watch a live one. But more on that in some other blog post…

I learned things about conducting a live masterclass including interaction with the audience. In addition, I also picked up a few ideas that I believe would be useful for testers. Communication skills are among the core skills of testers and I’d say pitching is a subset that could be useful to have in your toolkit.

Format

This masterclass focused on the 3-5 minute pitch format which, according to Annette, is the hardest pitch to do. This is because talking for longer is easier – you have time to expand on your points (though you may water down the content this way…). The masterclass was mostly targeted at different business representatives who need to do pitching to investors or potential business partners. We had a good mix of people: from a startup pitch to looking for partners for school software to a showroom rep. Therefore, it was great to see exampels of pitches for different audiences.

Annette live-coached the pitch makers starting from how they walked to take their spot, to how they stood, how they expressed themselves, and she also re-engineered the flow of their pitch on the fly while also including the audience in giving feedback. It was inspiring to look at how she worked with people.

Selective Hearing: Lessons in Communication

Annette says that when an investor listens to a pitch, they hear “blah blah blah will I make any money on this blah blah blah when will I earn money back blah blah”. When a potential business partner listens to a pitch, they hear “blah blah blah will this make me look good blah blah will I make/lose money with this blah blah”.

How does your audience listen and what is important to them?

Do you focus more on what you want to say or what they want to hear?

During the past year I’ve dealt with C-level and other directors and managers more than I previously have, so this one hits home and is a good reminder. I know I frequently fall into the trap of thinking more about what I want to say and what I hope the effect to be, rather than doing more listening to be able to target the message better. And understand the people I work with better.

From observing a number of testers over the past year, I think there is an important takeaway/reminder here: when talking to your manager (or some other stakeholder/decision maker) about testing, don’t focus so much on your specific testing problem but on the impact of the problem. When focusing on the impact of the problem, you can think of what that manager/stakeholder sees and what they’d like to hear. I bet it won’t be some testing-specific talk about the issue you want to address or the idea you want to introduce. I bet it would help you if they heard “blah blah solving this will make us look good blah blah blah solving this will mitigate the risk of not fulfilling financial goals that  a director somewhere set me blah blah blah”.

That being said, I really liked and I agree with Annette’s proposition that you can’t sell or push ideas on people – it’s much more liberating to think of pitching as a way to offer people an opportunity. So this is why you need to know what your audience cares about and is interested in.

I don’t do pitching on the stage to my managers but I treat some hallway conversations or situations at meetings as micro-pitching opportunities. I have a lot of ideas and I keep looking for ways to get buy-in or traction to take the ideas further. I don’t always know which ones get better traction which means I need to pitch them several times to different people. Which takes me to the next takeaway…

Process. Process Everywhere.

Annette emphasized that it’s useful to think of pitching as a step in the process, and to keep the process in mind (not the result). The goal of the pitch isn’t to close the deal because hey, that hardly happens so easily (or right after a pitch).

The goal of the pitch is to get people asking questions, to keep the conversation going. When I later talked to Annette about it, she said that we do this outside work all the time. And I said, “Oh, this is why we have friends… because we keep the conversation going and this is a process”.

When trying to approach a decision maker with an idea (which probably will take up time (=money) and money, so there are considerations in their mind you may not know about), don’t think of it as a “make or break” situation at the first try. I find myself sometimes doing this exact thing and then getting frustrated. Well, that’s not helpful, is it? And it’s not helpful because if I focus too much on the result, I forget about the process of getting the result. Introducing new ideas in organizations can be difficult, so focusing on the process, focusing on starting and keeping the conversation going is helpful.

Mean It. Clearly.

It was fascinating to watch Annette pick up the difference between when the speaker really meant and believed in what they said and when they didn’t because they focused on what to say (or remembering what to say…). I observed a significant difference in this person’s body language and facial expressions in the pitch after Annette had made some adjustments and asked them some questions to help them discover what they actually meant.

And I mean if I could pick it up, so can you. And other people will pick it up about you. Here’s another takeaway: don’t be abstract, be specific. It will be hard for you to say it like you mean it if the concepts you use are too abstract (and it will be hard to grasp).

Annette did a great job helping people to be specific and get the real meaning out from behind the words. I think this is also a process: you start with an idea, and through practicing a pitch for it, you peel away layers and arrive at the core that will be specific and clear.

We also addressed the issue of using jargon and how this makes attempts at being specific revert to being abstract (“What do you mean by [this thing]?”). I’ve also observed in testers that they tend to use testing jargon when talking to stakeholders who don’t know anything about testing (or don’t care about it…). It’s a similar point to that above: think about the audience you have and what they can understand and want to hear (probably not jargon). Focus on the problem that they feel related to. Annette pointed out why TED talks are so great: among other things, the speakers avoid jargon (so that everyone can understand what they’re talking about).

And don’t talk on autopilot!

Autopilot leads to not really putting yourself in the words you’re saying and you end up “just talking” not delivering a message.

Annette had a great tip for this: remember why you care about what you do/say BEFORE you say it.

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I’ll blog a bit more on the pitch structure and other takeaways in another post.

Some Notes from Copenhagen Context 2014

Copenhagen Context is a new conference held in… Copenhagen, obviously. The focus was on longer keynote-style talks, so the whole conference was comprised of 5 talks. However, some of them introduced practical exercises as well. I’d go so far as to say that such talks align with the spirit of the context-driven community, i.e. ideas you introduced should be applied in practice.

Overall, I think there was a good balance between philosophical, inspirational and practical talks covering different aspects of context-driven testing. I left feeling content and equipped with useful material. Thanks to Morten Hougaard (and Anette) who put such a great program together!

Michael Bolton took his time to get to the whisky part. I almost got thirsty. He talked about the principles of context-driven school and his preferred order. I agree with putting the third one (people, working together, are the most important part of any project’s context) to the first place because it goes well with my own observations.

He also talked about the paradox of CDT: instead of being context-driven we sometimes have to be context-driving as we need to change the context to persuade someone that there is no one true way. That’s when you’re not context-driven.

Though, when I think about it an tie it with my experience, I end up with something like “the context can drive me to become a driver, that is due to something in the context I decide it has to be changed”…

Carsten Feilberg encouraged us to use child labor for testing remember how we used to be natural explorers as children, and how heuristics help us comes up with test ideas. It was useful to be reminded to go meta yourself and recognize the heuristics you actually use. I guess that if I tried, I’d initially come up with fairly context-specific heuristics but I’d like to try and generalize them. Although I think there’s a fairly good chance I’ll just re-discover what others have put out there. It would be a good awareness exercise anyway.

Carsten didn’t really trust a room full of testers with his remote-controlled helicopter (the remote was out of our reach but we could gently touch the helicopter at least). But it was fun to think about test ideas for it. Funnily enough, my first couple of ideas were pretty much a perfect match to the mission of Carsten’s test session of the helicopter: finding out the range of the remote control and if the radio signal could get obstructed by objects, and if the helicopter could get lost (apparently, my hunch was right and Carsten did find a bug with that :)).

I missed out on Louise Perold‘s beer testing session at Let’s Test last year but I was in luck this time in Copenhagen. Many interesting conversations were sparked and cool ideas introduced as people were thinking of testing a bottle of beer. I really think it is an elegant example to use beer as the product to test because it’s versatile, informal, and pretty much everyone can relate to it in some way.

I really liked the idea of “talking to the function in your own words”. I tend to forget the power of paraphrasing from time to time but it is really powerful for clarifying my own thinking as well as detecting fuzziness in other people’s thoughts.

I’m going to work through the slides and the ideas again but there’s a lot of stuff I want to share with my team.

Huib Schoots‘ talk was about what he believes are the key ingredients of becoming a great GREAT tester: passion, learning, and courage. He emphasized practicing testing and asking feedback for learning purposes. Since Huib challenged the room of testers on knowing the test techniques they use (or rather… the number of them), it made me think of what are the criteria for professionalism in context-driven community. I asked him on Twitter, so now I’m looking for that blog post 🙂 Though I’m thinking now that “heuristics for recognizing professionalism” is a better way of putting it (inspired by “Context-Driven (presentation) heuristics“).

Finally, Henrik Emilsson encouraged us to put names and faces next to stakeholder roles, think of them as people (and the feelings we have towards them), and THEN think of how to communicate the test strategy to that person. The session included to practical exercises which I liked (they focused on writing) but I shall try this out on my own. I gave it my best but I felt I was getting tired already.

One of the most valuable thoughts for me from Henrik’s talk was related to having invested or detached stakeholders. I’m wondering if great test strategy communication could be way to gently “re-attach” stakeholders to projects. And I can see how this goes well with systems thinking when solving problems… So yes, a lot of good stuff to think about for me as I’ve been trying to improve my communication of test results over the past 6 months (still have to blog about it…).

And then I met my testing friends from Twitter and had a great time at a pub solving a testing challenge. There was other stuff but… what happens in Copenhagen, stays in Copenhagen 🙂

See you there next year?

How to write an email when you’re frustrated

People working in companies where teams are geographically distributed across time zones are familiar with the problems that the lack of  “face time” causes. Yes, there are phone calls, there is the IM chat, there are emails. However, more often that not these are inadequate means for conveying criticism or even frustration in my experience.

Being an honest yet sarcastic Estonian doesn’t help either. Being an English major who has the sufficient vocabulary for saying a lot of interesting things…. can sometimes be a disadvantage as well.

What do I do and how if I feel like I need communicate that I think something needs to be done differently, that I’m not happy with how things have ended up?

  1. Write the email.
  2. Rewrite it to delete all potentially ironic, sarcastic and stingy comments.
  3. Save the draft.
  4. Go home.
  5. Come back the next day and read it.
  6. Delete it. Usually, I have come up with a better solution and I can positively say I have avoided causing more damage by not sending the email.

This doesn’t mean I am avoiding being honest or communicating my thoughts. It means I need to choose my words carefully to make sure it’s not me just trying to vent myself instead of actually communicating. There may be a totally legitimate reason for me to feel very strongly about an issue. But even if I tone down my communication, I may still end up stinging people in a way I don’t mean to. I try to remember that it is just not worth it to put all further communication at risk and try to find more constructive solutions for driving the point home. Me being “right” sure feels nice but is it the most important thing in the world (and is it always important to let everyone know about it)?

I’ve learned that some of the best emails are those that are never sent.