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Top Ten Tips for Presenting Architecture Information

  • By Jeff Ryan
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Several years ago, a colleague and I prepared an impressive PowerPoint deck (so we thought) on architecture blueprinting to share with an executive. As you can imagine, we barely got through three pages of the deck at the meeting and didn't effectively communicate our message or its relevance.

Fortunately, we were given a second chance. The next time we met, I vowed to try something different. Rather than trying to present information from an 80 page deck, I condensed the information relevant to this executive into a one page thumbnail of the overall blueprinting process with sample content from his automation portfolio. The approach I chose was to use this simple handout on legal size paper to facilitate a meaningful conversation.

It worked. The executive was intrigued by the one page hand out and directed the conversation so he could understand the overall approach, the relevant detail, and insights gained. We conveyed all of the information we wanted within the hour meeting (and then some). We were even able to point out some of the supporting detail from the 80 page deck now that we had set the overall context.

I stumbled upon a successful approach, but didn't know precisely why until I attended a seminar on Presenting Data and Information by Edward Tufte a few months later. I sat in awe at the seminar as Tufte presented time proven principles of analytical design and patterns for effectively presenting data and information.

I'm sure you have had experiences similar to mine; some positive and some where you wish you could press the rewind button and start over again. In this article I would like to share ten tips for effective presentation of architectural information I've learned from Tufte and others (sometimes the hard way) which have helped me and will hopefully help you become a better software architect.

The top ten tips we will examine are:

  1. Know Your Audience
  2. Carefully Choose Your Approach
  3. Set the Context
  4. Increase the Information Resolution
  5. Show Data on a Universal Grid
  6. Use Small Multiples
  7. Recognize that Content is King
  8. Leverage Industry Standard Notation Techniques
  9. Incorporate Relevant Facts and Figures
  10. Follow the Particular, General, Particular Pattern

1. Know Your Audience

The first tip for effectively communicating architectural information is to know your audience.

When I met with the executive on blueprinting, I knew he was extremely intelligent, had very little time, and sometimes very little patience. I also knew he was very interested in an objective assessment of his automation portfolio and wanted a road map for addressing shortcomings and risks. The simple one page document addressed the questions he had on his mind, engaged his intellect and let him use his precious time the way he wanted by letting him drive the conversation.

Essentially, what you must do is ask "What's In It For Me?" or WIIFM from the perspective of the audience. This enables you to communicate your message in a way that will best engage and resonate with the receiver.

WIIFM is the first thing I do when writing for IT professionals. You might notice in the lead to the article I always pose questions that I believe are relevant to the architects, developers and project managers who are reading them. Once I've posed a question in the readers mind, I've started to engage his thought process and it is my hope that he will be motivated to read on if these questions are relevant. Most IT professionals are pressed for time, so I try to make the information as consumable and digestible as possible. My goal is to provide something practical the reader can apply right away by the end of the article so he doesn't feel he wasted the time invested in reading it.

2. Carefully Choose Your Approach

The second tip is to carefully choose the approach to most effectively communicate architecture information to your audience.

There are many different mediums for communicating your message. For example, the best method to convey information in a given situation might be white boarding, writing a white paper, creating slides, giving a speech (with or without slides) or even simply having a conversation. You should tailor the approach to the type of information being presented and the audience being presented to.

On many occasions, I've found that white boarding best engages the audience. White boarding causes you to withhold information that the audience is eager to understand. You slowly reveal this information as you draw and explain the diagram. When the audience asks questions, it is very easy in real time to address them by annotating or expanding the drawing.

Other times a short white paper is best. This can be circulated among a large group of stakeholders. It can be used for independent reading, small group meetings or for presentations to a large group. It can also be used to track revisions and gain sign off by key stakeholders.

I often see colleagues jump to crafting slides before they have considered the audience, purpose or approach. This is a case of "if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem becomes a nail". As you can see, there are many other tools to consider for the communication problem at hand and slides are only one of many tools.

That being said, sometimes slides will be the best means for presenting architectural information to your audience. But don't jump there without considering other approaches first. When you do choose to create slides, many of the patterns and principles below will help them to be more effective.

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This article was originally published on September 14, 2009

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