Jeff Bezos, like many other high-powered CEOs, won't tolerate PowerPoints (i.e., presentations) in his own meetings. This is not surprising, since PowerPoint encourages slipshod thinking and poor decision-making, and forces audiences to be spoonfed information that, if polished into a document, could be skimmed and grasped in a 10th of that time.
What's ironic about PowerPoint (and all presentation apps) is that, while it makes the presenter's job easy, it also vastly reduces the presenter's effectiveness, first because it turns even good ideas into mental mush, and second because it creates resentment. Consider: Don't you secretly hate it, and resent the presenter, the second that first slide hits the screen?
Therefore, you can give your career and business a huge boost by 1) reducing the number of PowerPoints that you give, and 2) reduce the size and increase the focus of any PowerPoints that you DO give. To do this, ask yourself the following five questions before you start a new PowerPoint:
1. What decision do you want to be made?
If you're not driving toward a decision, you've got no business giving a presentation. Here are some decisions that are appropriate:
- You want them to decide on next steps.
- You want them to decide to buy something.
- You want them to decide to cancel something.
- You want them to decide how to handle a problem.
- You want them to decide how to take advantage of a situation.
Here are some "reasons" for giving a presentation that are stupid time-wasters:
- To provide background
- To keep everyone informed
- To promote your own visibility
- To prove you have the clout to force everyone to sit in a room and listen to you bloviate for an hour
I'd estimate that about a third of all presentations fall into the second category.
Starting with the decision you want made ensures that whatever you do (presentation or otherwise) will remain focused on what's important rather than turn into a discursive load of boring nonsense. So while you might decide to make a PowerPoint, it will be shorter and more to the point.
2. What is the minimum amount of information the meeting-goers need to make this decision?
Everybody in the business world, and everywhere else for that matter, is in a state of permanent information overload. Providing unrequested information to people is an imposition, not a service.
Therefore, when you're driving toward a decision, you owe it to your audience to provide only as much information as they need to make an intelligent decision and not an iota more. (But see item 4 below.)
Following this rule will cut many presentations in half. Many times, the amount of information required is so small that you'll realize you can just talk people through it.
3. What is the clearest and most efficient way to provide this information?
Here's where things get really interesting.
The standard presentation behavior--talking over bulleted slides--is neither clear nor efficient. It isn't clear because:
- If the words on the screen and the words coming out of your mouth are different, it creates dissonance, making both less understandable and less memorable.
- If the words on the screen and the words coming out of your mouth are not different, you're reading your slides, which causes your audience to want to strangle you.
Please note that sticking your outline into boxes and triangles isn't making it any clearer; it just creates more visual crap.
The other standard presentation behavior, talking over cheesy clip art or stock photos, is neither clear nor efficient. Clip art detracts from your presentation because the audience looks at the (questionably relevant) slide instead of you.
On the other hand, if the audience needs to know what something looks like (a new product, for example) and you have a photograph of it, or there's an illustration that makes the (minimal and relevant) information you're presenting clearer, projecting it on a screen may be the clearest and most efficient way to provide that information.
So here's the rule:
- Only use a slide when the information you're providing (to lead toward the decision you want made) is most clearly and efficiently presented as a photo or illustration on a screen.
- Otherwise, put all the information into a briefing document that can be read by the entire audience at the beginning of the meeting.
Yes, this is more work for you than slapping your ideas into an outline and winging it. But writing a briefing document will force you to hone your ideas and ensure they're not half-baked.
More important, the hour you spend writing it will save everyone else a huge amount of time, because it takes about three minutes to read a briefing document, as opposed to the three to 10 times that amount that it takes for you to spoonfeed it via PowerPoint.
4. How will you handle "drill-downs"?
If the decision you're seeking is important, there's a high likelihood that somebody will ask a question about something that's not in your presentation (or briefing document), either because they honestly feel they need to know about that or because they want to see if you "know your stuff."
When dealing with this possibility, the worst thing that you can possibly do is cram your presentation (or briefing document) with everything that could possibly be asked. This is for two reasons: 1) Answering questions that people haven't asked is a great way to open worm cans, and 2) the goal is to provide the minimum amount of information, remember.
The best way to handle drill-downs is to:
- Actually know your stuff so that you can answer questions on the fly, or
- Have an additional document at hand that provides details, or
- Be brave enough to say either "I don't know; I'll get back to you on that" or "It might be better if we discuss that after the meeting because it's not something that's relevant to everyone here"
5. How will you ask for the decision?
Regardless of how you've decided to present the information that your audience needs to know to make a decision, you're wasting your time and everyone else's time if you don't drive the meeting to the decision.
I've written multiple posts about "closing," but the all-purpose close that works for almost all business meetings is:
- Wait until the discussion feels done.
- Summarize the result of the discussion like so: "OK, here's my sense of where we are right now."
- Ask for the decision: "Are we all more or less in agreement on this?" If there's a lot of nodding, you've got the decision; if there isn't, you didn't get the decision, so you'll need to retrench and start over next time.
- Document the meeting. If you've got the decision that you want, immediately write and email your summary of the meeting and the decision that you believe was made. If you don't get the decision you want, email your summary of the meeting and say that further discussion will be required on the subject (i.e., fall back and punt).
What's Cool About This
The method I've described accomplishes several things:
- It prevents you from boring everyone to death with your half-baked PowerPoints. That alone will make you VERY popular.
- It will vastly increase your effectiveness as a communicator, which will make you more valuable to any team.
- It will help ensure that you can advance your career or your company by getting the decisions that you want.