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The Death of Powerpoint

If you’ve ever sat through a Powerpoint presentation and thought that you were wasting your time, you’re  not alone. It’s a thought that’s also occurred to some of the Internet industry’s leading entrepreneurs — and they’ve reacted by banning Microsoft’s presentation software. Both Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, and Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, have removed Powerpoint from their meetings.

In fact, they’ve eliminated presentations completely from their meetings.

Instead of listening to a presenter read slides, participants are given a few minutes at the start of a meeting to look through documents prepared in advance. The meeting then becomes a discussion of the topics rather than an opportunity for a speaker to communicate information.

“With the presentation eliminated, the meeting can now be exclusively focused on generating a valuable discourse: Providing shared context, diving deeper on particularly cogent data and insights, and perhaps most importantly, having a meaningful debate,” writes Jeff Weiner in a blog post.

And instead of wasting a dull hour, the meeting becomes an interesting discussion that sends everyone back to their desks after just twenty or thirty minutes.

The motivation for the change is the sense that Powerpoint presentations just don’t work. Audiences, say critics of the digital presentation program, can’t absorb slides and listen to a presenter at the same time. Too many presenters simply read the words on the screen, something the audience could do more quickly by themselves. And time that could have been spent throwing around ideas and developing plans is wasted delivering information through an inefficient medium.

So what’s the alternative?

Swap the Presentation for a Discussion

Both Jeff Bezos and Jeff Weiner require presenters to deliver information before the meeting begins, effectively starting the meeting after the presentation has ended. At Amazon, the information is delivered in the form of “narratives,” six-page printed memos that must be written in full using complete sentences, with verbs and topic sentences that introduce the argument and tell readers what the paragraph is about.

For Bezos, writing the memos in a format more familiar to students creating  academic essays than to executives producing briefings is a vital part of the process. It forces presenters to think about their ideas and focus their arguments.

“There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking,” he told Fortune.

The meeting’s participants are expected to have read the narratives before the meeting begins but both Bezos and Weiner accept that their executives might be too busy, so their meetings begin with a few moments of quiet reading.

At LinkedIn, which allows presenters to write short decks that have to be delivered up to 24 hours before the meeting, that reading may last no more than five to ten minutes. Amazon gives its executives as much half an hour to absorb for themselves the information that a presenter might otherwise have read off the screen. It’s time that they can use to write notes in the margin that they can bring up during the discussion.

Replicating the systems used by Amazon and LinkedIn isn’t difficult. You’d just have to:

  • Decide whether you want the presenter to deliver information in the kind of long form preferred by Jeff Bezos or the notes allowed by Jeff Weiner.
  • Make sure that meeting-holders deliver the information with enough time for people to read it.
  • And set aside time at the beginning of the meeting for reading and note-taking.

The solution isn’t entirely trouble-free, though. After the study session has ended, the discussion begins, and for that discussion to be effective it needs to be structured. Jeff Weiner notes that there’s often a tendency for the person who prepared the materials to dominate the talking, effectively turning the meeting back into a presentation. They have to be curtailed.

“If you are concerned about appearing insensitive by not allowing individuals who worked hard on the materials to have their moment, constructively remind the group this is a new practice that is being applied to the entire company and will benefit all meeting attendees, including the artist formerly known as The Presenter,” he says.

The Rules for Effective, Powerpoint-Free Meetings

That role will full to the person responsible for overseeing the discussion, ensuring that topics stay relevant and preventing any one person from dominating the meeting. Weiner identifies five other practices that he’s learned about running effective meetings:

1.     Define the objective of the meeting. When everyone understands what the meeting is supposed to achieve, there’s less chance of the discussion wandering off point and wasting time.

2.     Define semantics and principles. Whether you’re discussing user interfaces or email marketing strategies, everyone should have the same understanding of the key words and phrases.

3.     Take notes. Someone should be assigned the task of noting the main points raised in the discussion, and in particular, the areas of discussion. The meeting might not end in agreement but everyone should agree on what was said.

4.     Summarize key points. Action items, deliverables and points of accountability should all be summarized so that the next steps are clear. That summary may be the most important item to come out of the meeting.

5.     Get feedback. Jeff Weiner likes to ask how the meeting could have been improved and what participants found most helpful.

None of this is too difficult but it does take some getting used to. In effect it requires people who need to inform and persuade to build their case through the written word first, then to push their points by winning an argument in an open discussion. That’s a different skill set than those usually required of presentations, and one more challenging than writing bullet points on a slide then reading them aloud.

The result though should be a more effective use of company time, meetings that are lively and less likely to cause participants to look at their watches — and much less time fiddling with font sizes and searching for the “next slide” button.

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