Archive for June, 2006

Making presentations

Tuesday, June 27th, 2006

The origins of this project are in the Small Business Innovative Research program, which was instituted by Congress to have all government agencies with a research budget spend some of that budget with small business in the United States. Here is a site which lists all the programs- http://www.zyn.com/sbir/#agsites
At NOAA, this is often things like undmanned underwater submarines, or lenses that won’t cloud up after 18 months at sea in a buoy, or neat new ways to measure natural phenomena. In the Oct 2004 request, there was one to develop a treatment to tell the story of the NOAA climate suite of products. In a competition of ‘less than 200’ applicants, ours won.
We presented a proposal to inventory the story elements, and create a fictional group of scientists that are on assignment to figure out just what it is that Nature is doing in terms of climate. The idea was pitch this to the networks as a topically hot variation on “The X files” (the truth about Nature is out there) or a “CSI: Climate change”. Since it wasn’t really a procedure show ( “Who dies this hour” is not a climate style question, although lots of people might die if we don’t act on what we know about climate change) and it wasn’t clear to the few development people we did get to pitch, our prototype has been dead in the development waters (still afloat and available!).
So we have proceeded to Phase 2 with a different design- a more traditional documentary with prospects of partnering with a cable network with a taste for science and humans. Phase 2 in SBIR consists of a project proposal, with a request for funds, a budget and all the stuff that goes with it. Experts in the field are then hired to review, and reports to the decision committee made. Then a presentation is made.
In this years NOAA SBIR Phase 2 process, 28 proposals were presented. Each had a half hour to present. Seven people, one from each of the NOAA lines, sit. The one from the line that made the original request is not able to vote for a proposal out of their line, so there are six people to win over.
The date for this exercise was May 10. The rules specified transparencies. That’s right. To keep the playing field flat, and reduce technical issues, everyone was transported back to 1984. The presentation was authored in PowerPoint, and printed by Joe on dual sided blanks available at Staples.
Having never presented with slides, I was apprehensive. All the way there- two flights and six hours, I kept looking through the paper copies ( don’t touch those transparencies! as if they might become opaque) thinking about how to do the handling. I got to my hotel early enough the evening before to test how long the walk was to NOAA HQ, and have a dinner in the nearby Silver Spring town mall. Back at the hotel, I rehearsed several more times. In the morning, I got dressed and practiced in the mirror. When I couldn’t see myself doing anything but getting anxious, I packed up and headed over.
I arrived an hour or so early. This worked out, as the group scheduled ahead of me was late. I took the earlier opportunity, figuring that it would be good to get it done, and hopefully earn a little good will for being flexible and helping the folks who were late. I also got to review the schedule, and noted that of the 28, none of the others looked like either climate or outreach. In any competition with a group of winners, there is some advantage to being the opportunity for the judges to have breadth and diversity.
The room was neutral. Of the six I needed to convince, no one was overtly in hostile posture, but clearly I was going to need to warm them. Ten slides, and twelve minutes later, we started what turned out to be a lively conversation that covered far more territory than the proposal or the presentation. Turns out the getting the word out about NOAA and what it does for your tax money is a significant concern to those for whom this is their life’s work. All the questions were relevant, and in each case there was an answer present in my mind to articulate. There had been discussion about what might be considered weaknesses in the proposal, and the presentation apparently answered those, as none of the questions were targeted at those areas. I was enjoying having a room of people actually interested in what has been a small project when the SBIR director announced that time was up. I actually wanted to spend more time, not out of any sense of needing to sell the committee, but appreciating having an audience for the subject that I have spent so much time working on.
Upon leaving, one SBIR staff member followed me past the grateful late group waiting to enter, and thanked me ‘for stealing’ his ‘soapbox’. Turns out the afternoon before he had started a conversation with the group on the issue of what difference does it make to have the knowledge, if the public doesn’t know, and the policy makers are left to make billion dollar decisions without public support. Another staff member spent a genorous amount of time explaining to me how the selection decisions would be made, what the variables were in terms of the calendar etc.
As I left the building, I was thinking that I liked transparencies. They give you a mechanical reason to pause. You get an excuse to look at the screen to make sure the slide is aligned, both cueing the audience and reviewing the next segment for yourself.
There is a chance to do a little physical movement as you change them, which is a great opportunity for a bit of expression compared to the click of even a wand remote on a PowerPoint presentation. I was also thinking that I liked our chances.