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My 200th BD column: To improve your offsite meetings, switch off the projector!

Jun 20, 2011 Business Daily, Management

PowerPoint presentations inevitably end up as monologues. They focus on answers, and everyone faces the screen. But meetings should be conversations. They should focus on questions, not answers, and people should face each other. I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve found that even the hum of the projector discourages dialogue.
Meetings are exorbitantly expensive when you add up the number of highly paid people in the room at the same time. They should be used as a time to engage deeply in issues, not to update each other on progress.”

PETER BREGMAN blogs.hbr.com (14 April 2011)

Peter Bregman, strategy advisor, was dissing slideshows recently. He was referring to the tendency to reduce our offsite strategic discussions to mere successions of PowerPoint presentations.

This, says, Bregman, cripples meaningful discussion and turns these vital meetings into ‘show and tell’ sessions. People sit down and face a projector screen for most of the day. They doze off and zone out, they check their email surreptitiously (or, these days, openly and blatantly). If they engage at all it is to poke holes in every proposal or offer gratuitous resistance to anything, as a form of entertainment. Nothing really productive happens.

I can relate to this, having conducted hundreds of offsite discussions in my time. Let’s understand first what we are there to achieve when we go away to talk about something meaningful. A great strategy meeting is a dialogue, a conversation, a cut-and-thrust session. It is a time to reexamine critical assumptions and revisit the competitive landscape. It is a time to design a new future, NOT a time to derange ourselves with a mind-numbing audit of the past.

If that is the purpose, then you can see Bregman’s point: slideshows don’t add anything. They, too, have become a mindless management ritual. We do them because we do them. We do them because everyone does them. But if you are there to evaluate, rethink – then a candid discussion, not brainless spectatorship, is the key design element. Even the fact that people face a screen rather than each other inhibits discourse.

Bregman tells us: “…following the “no PowerPoint rule” has the greatest impact because it keeps the energy where it should be: solving problems together.”

I run Socratic dialogues: small groups of people sit around a circular table and look one another in the eye. The only thing on the screen is a single question. They then spend the next hour discussing that question, uncovering hidden complexity, thrashing out the difficult implications of the question. Both the learning and outputs are immeasurably better.

The problem is not necessarily with PowerPoint and other presentation programs. It is with their repeated misuse. Most managers just don’t ‘get’ communication by presentation. They overload their decks with every possible statistic and endless lists of bullet points. They make little attempt to connect with their audience and keep them interested. They don’t construct a storyline because they don’t understand the power of narrative. The result is usually the kind of soporific presentation we have all lived through (and died a little in).

Here’s Bregman’s parting advice: “Save at least an hour or two at the end of the meeting to develop communication plans to disseminate the decisions. I’m always a little surprised at how many inconsistencies and disagreements are surfaced only when it comes time to commit to precisely what is going to be communicated.”

Less is more, people. Think about your most important 2-3 messages. Amplify those. Forget the rest. Make it humorous, make it lively, make it memorable.

Before I sign off, this is my 200th contribution in the ‘Thought Leadership’ slot in Business Daily. It’s been fun. Here’s to the next 200, hopefully.

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