Running effective show & tells

Show & tell is a chance for teams to show their work to stakeholders and to get feedback. It’s a crucial form of governance for agile teams that keeps everyone up to date by allowing them to see the team’s progress first hand.

Before you read this, you might want to check out my other blog post on how I distinguish between show & tells, sprint reviews and showcases so that we’re speaking the same language.

In this blog post, I’ll share some tips on running effective show & tells.

Before you start

  • Make sure people understand what show & tell is and why they should attend. Mark Dalgarno has written this useful boilerplate that you might want to add to your meeting invites. Senior stakeholders in particular should understand the importance of the event and why they should attend.
  • Invite the right people. That’s anyone with an interest in or influence on your team’s work. Consider inviting people from elsewhere in Government too.
  • Find the right time. Make sure it doesn’t clash with any important meetings that are happening which people need to attend. Keep a look out for one off or new events that might stop people from attending. Avoid Mondays and Fridays – they often fall victim to long weekends or bank holidays.
  • Ensure there’s a good remote setup. Not such a concern in the age of Covid, but when we do eventually return back to offices it’ll be even more important to get the experience right for people in the room and attending remotely. Consider booking out a dedicated meeting space and investing in some professional kit to improve the audio visual experience – including a portable mic for people to ask questions with. Here’s one example of a decent remote setup you can try.
  • Consider grouping show & tells which similar groups of stakeholders need to attend. Most busy stakeholders I’ve worked with prefer to watch 3 show & tells back-to-back then to have 3 x 30 min meetings at random times throughout their week. This also makes sense if you’ve got a special room or kit for show & tells as it means you only have to set up once instead of thrice. Collaborate with other teams who are talking to similar stakeholders as you are to see if you can coordinate diaries. On a recent show & tell we had 4 teams presenting at the same event.
  • Make sure you’ve got something to show that attendees will find interesting. If you don’t have much or anything to share then consider skipping that occurrence. Let attendees know that you’ll have lots of valuable work to share in the next one. This advice is controversial, as agile teams should always have something valuable to show at the end of each iteration. But sometimes that doesn’t happen, or the work is too technical to interest most stakeholders, or there’s too little to share to warrant doing a dedicated show & tell for. In those cases, it may be best to give stakeholders their time back rather than risk wasting their time and having them lose interest in the event.
  • Presenting is a performance, so it’s worth putting in some time to prepare for it. Plan who will be chairing/speaking, the transitions between speakers, the use of technology, setup of the room and the best order to put things in. On one programme the leads from each team would meet a day or two before each show & tell to plan the event. Encourage different team members to present their work rather than always relying on the team lead to do the talking. Consider writing some speaker notes or doing a rehearsal, particularly if you are not a confident presenter or planning to demo technology. Check out these tips on doing good presentations.

Running the event

  • Hit the record button. That way anyone who can’t attend can watch it in their own time. Be sure to let everyone know you’re recording the event before you start.
  • Start with some context. Provide a high-level overview of your team’s mission and goals, and what the agenda is for the event.
  • Ensure that no personally identifiable information is shared in anything you share.
  • Be honest about things that didn’t work out as you expected. Mistakes are the greatest source of learning for an organisation – and show & tell is an excellent forum to share learning with others. This is especially important in organisations that are new to agile ways of working, as seeing others talk openly about failure in a positive way can help create psychological safety and encourage a more open working culture.
  • Show the thing. One time I was presenting my slides only to see a developer hold up a post-it which read “more show, less tell”. It was a bit of a passive aggressive thing to do, but he was right. Try to show the work rather than just talk through slides. Show working code, demo the prototype or visualise some data. People usually find that more interesting than slides alone.
  • Show the users using the thing. Rather than reading through slides of what users said, show some video recordings of your users in interviews or product testing. There’s nothing like watching a user get frustrated with your service to get stakeholders to realise there’s a problem. Be sure to anonymise any personally identifiable information if you do this.
  • Consider pre-recording demos. If you’re worried about technology going wrong, one option is to pre-record a demo and show the video. Just be sure to check that the video works for all attendees – remote and in person!
  • Find interesting ways to present inaccessible topics. One of the best show & tells I’ve seen was from a devops team who used the “Have I got news for you” missing words format to explain what they had been up to. The team asked the audience to guess the missing words, with the completed sentence explaining how the new cloud platform was enabling what other product teams were trying to deliver.
  • Explain why it matters. How does the work you are sharing benefits your users and your organisation?
  • Make sure that there is time set aside for questions – ideally around 50% of the time. One of the main points of sharing this information in the first place is to get feedback, so don’t just talk at people until you run out of time.
  • Find ways to keep people engaged. Some people like to make comments in the chat rather than verbally. This can be off-putting for the presenter, but on balance I think it’s a positive thing as it is engagement with the audience. Other members of the team should pitch in to the chat to answer questions or to alert the presenter if someone has their hand up or has asked something pertinent, as presenters won’t always be able to see the chat + the slides + any speaker notes they have. This is a good activity for the chair to be responsible for.
  • If there isn’t a culture of asking questions in your organisation, encourage friendly stakeholders to speak up. Consider planting some questions with friendly audience members to get the ball rolling.
  • Straw polls are another effective way of keeping people engaged and get instant feedback. I sometimes use these to ask questions like “Would you like to see more or less of X at the next event?” or “which times work best for future events?”. This works well with Microsoft Teams where people can respond with Emojis.
  • Don’t let a single question take over the show & tell. Discussion is good. But if discussion about a niche topic goes on for too long, then take it offline to be discussed with a smaller group.
  • Use language people understand. Lots of the people in the audience won’t understand some agile or digital terms, so try to put things into plain english.
  • Avoid using acronyms. A delivery lead on GOV.UK used to put her hand up and ask “what does that mean” every time someone used an acronym in a presentation. It helped presenters to get into the habit of using language that people understand. This is a good habit for leaders to adopt.

After it’s done

  • Provide your contact details and invite people to chat to you after the event. Some people don’t like to speak out in front of others – you need to make sure they know you’re open to feedback.
  • Send an email to everyone on the invite with a link to the recording and to your slides. You might find that some stakeholders who couldn’t make the event will respond to your email at obscure hours with their feedback.
  • Ensure your slides are stored in a folder accessible to everyone in your organisation.
  • Upload the recording of the show & tell to your team’s wiki. That way it’s easy for people to find. This is something the Programme Support team do for me after each event.
  • Follow up on any questions that arose that couldn’t be answered on the day.

Metrics for success
You know that your show & tells are working well when:

  • Attendance is consistently high or growing
  • People are engaging with the team
  • Stakeholders tell other stakeholders to attend the show & tell

Thanks to Steffen Lydum and Gethin Jones for their feedback on this blog post!

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