Fewer presentations, more conversations

Fewer presentations, more conversations

Last time, I noted that certain groups I have worked with have succeeded in making meetings more productive by limiting, even eliminating completely, the use of slides.

For this post, my original intention was to focus on some of the surprising ways in which the unlikely pair of Jeff Bezos and Winston Churchill are indeed similar. At the same time, though, I happen to have my own relevant story to tell. Perhaps simply a coincidence, but in any case a timely one to our current discussion, one of my current jobs provides a logical follow-up to the concept, “fewer slides, more stories” from our previous post.

As it turns out, for about the past six months, I have been working with a client to improve the flow of its management meetings. Having been through this endeavor with numerous and diverse organizations in the past 20 years, I have acquired a certain level of familiarity with the matter at hand. Nonetheless, each case is different, and every time I begin anew with any group, it is interesting to see that at least some of the anticipated issues almost always emerge as the process unfolds.

The company in question is exceedingly well respected, enjoying a reputation as one of the truly outstanding organizations in its industry. They have won awards not only for sales and financial performance but also for the way they treat their employees. Thus, this is certainly not a case of poor performance or shoddy leadership.

Nonetheless, the CEO sought my help because he felt the need to improve interaction at the regular quarterly meetings of the company’s fifteen top managers. At these management forums, each participant reports on his or her group’s results, and then provides perspectives on any strategic issues that the other key people should be aware of. After each presentation, there is time allocated to open discussion, where all group members are free to comment, critique, and ask questions.

When I observed one such session, I was initially impressed by the high standard of the preparation and attention to detail. Every presenter had put in a lot of time, thought, and care—right down to the quality and appearance of the slides. In a sense, though, I felt that the focus on making a tightly-constructed, coherent, and visually impressive PowerPoint deck was itself a part of the problem.

In using the word “problem”, I should emphasize that I do not mean it as an indictment of PowerPoint per se. Rather, my gripe is about the ways we use this type of software. In this particular client company, and in a number of others I have worked with the past few years, I have seen a group’s attention to what is on the screen actually distract from the content and flow of the discussion.

In general, the biggest drawback I see in our use of slides is that it puts us in a sort of “presentation mode”, where the speaker is above all else concerned with transferring information to the audience. If we consider the manner in which many sessions unfold, we see an interaction between three entities—a speaker, an audience, and a screen. When presenter and listeners turn their eyes to what is on a slide, it creates distance between the participants, taking the group away from the conversation they should be sharing.

The most effective meetings, in my view, keep a dialogue flowing. With or without slides, they feel more like informal conversations than formal presentations.

Of course, there are ways to use the screen’s content to augment our conversations rather than distract from them. In the next post, we’ll take a quick look at how we might achieve this goal.


Image: Flickr user Gary Knight