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Dump the slides, add power  to  your point

Long PowerPoint presentations are a colossal waste of time and energy—they not only hold up good discussions, conversations and decision-making but also tire out the entire room


PowerPoint, PowerPoint presentations, PowerPoint slides, Harvard Business Review, Jeff Bezos, Flipcharts

Many of us have silently suffered long meetings where presentations drone on and on. Slick PowerPoint slides, lots of them, come at you from articulate presenters determined to impress. Amazing visuals and mind-altering fonts. But at the end of the meeting, you are often left asking yourself: What have all these presentations really accomplished?

A study published in the Harvard Business Review concluded that presentations work really well only when a meeting is about communicating an already formed idea, or when the objective is to inform, persuade or entertain an audience, without requiring real-time feedback from participants. On the other hand, when you call for a meeting to develop or flesh out an idea, get inputs or consensus on the way forward, or build a personal relationship with the participants, then the approach which works the best is to encourage conversations, rather than schedule presentations. In other words, for these sort of meetings, we should prioritize conversations over presentations (COP). Let’s call this the good-COP approach. Here is a primer on good-COP meetings, with some ideas on how you can make them happen.

Ban PowerPoint

A radical good-COP approach to meetings is to ban PowerPoint presentations altogether. Jeff Bezos has famously done this at Amazon. There, everyone sits silently for the first several minutes of the meeting, reading a six-page narrative memo that sets the context for the meeting, including the subject at hand. The rest of the meeting is then a conversation on the subject, with key decisions being summarized at the end.

Bezos believes the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and understanding of the issue, compared to bullet points on presentations. After all, human brains are configured for narratives and storytelling, not for a stream of bullet points. The silent reading period ahead of the conversation also ensures that no one bluffs their way into meetings, without having done the required preparation. We know some of those people, don’t we?

Five-slide rule

If you don’t wish to be as radical as Amazon, then a good-COP way is to insist on a very slim presentation at any meeting, not more than five slides in length. There is no subject on this planet whose essence cannot be put forward in five good slides, though it takes a lot of thoughtfulness to ensure such brevity. A more detailed document can be circulated ahead of the meeting, for pre-reading. However, you run a real risk here because there is no research evidence yet on how many participants actually read a pre-read document.

The five-slide rule often gets diluted by presenters slipping in the sixth or seventh slide, and then, there is no stopping the deluge. So if you pursue this path, take a simple mathematical approach to numbers, i.e., five equals five. It is a fine number, even our versatile hands have exactly five fingers each, and none of us wish to have more. Also, the five slides should be carefully crafted to provoke meaningful conversation.

Use flipcharts

Flipcharts (or even white-boards) are an amazing alternative to presentations, to trigger good conversation at meetings. They help you co-create the narrative along with participants, which is a far more engaging process than one-sided projection of slides. Interestingly, there exists in Switzerland an organization called the Anti-PowerPoint Party. This is a political party dedicated to decreasing the use of PowerPoint and other presentation software because they believe that fancy presentations cause significant economic damage by wasting lots of effort and time. This party strongly advocates the use of flipcharts in meetings, instead of presentations.

Flipcharts evolve and flow with the conversation in a meeting. Participants can engage with the presenter to make the required changes on the charts, no energy is dissipated on wasteful hi-tech razzmatazz, the message gets through more interactively, and eventually the required actions are co-created by everyone in the room. So try a flipchart solution next time, and see how well it works for your team.

Roundtable conversations

Some of the most productive good-COP meetings I have attended have been round-table conversations, anchored by a good leader, who gets things moving. Without presentations or flipcharts, the chairperson of the meeting highlights the objectives and agenda, and guides the conversation skillfully around all relevant points. Sometimes, he or she delivers his or her opening remarks on the subject, from simple handwritten notes that capture the essence of the subject. The chairperson also creates deliberate pauses for discussion, along the way.

This sort of good-COP meeting requires the chairperson to have good clarity, an open mind, excellent listening, conversational and navigation skills. In addition, a sense of humour helps immensely. Such meetings work best if members around the roundtable know each other well enough to engage in free-flowing, candid conversation.

So, be a good COP, and dump that bulky presentation. Your move will transfer all power to the points you really wish to discuss at the meeting, and you will also, happily, bring an end to much silent suffering.

Harish Bhat works with the Tata group. He wonders what’s happened to all those simple acetate slides we used on overhead projectors

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