February 2011 Issue 7
BoardWorks International
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Is It Time To Kill Off Old Style Bullet Point Presentations?

In the last issue of Board Works I discussed when presentations might be useful to a board (Getting the Best Out Of Boardroom Presentations). That prompted a discussion with one of my colleagues about the form of board presentations. He told me of having recently sat through a client’s board meeting in which senior staff ‘dumped’ a series of detailed, bullet pointed PowerPoint slides on the board. Slides were filled entirely with letters and numerals - not a single visual element was used to help the board see connections, patterns and trends in the data. This ignores the essential ‘overview’ responsibilities of the board. It must be able to see the ‘big picture’.  The slides were apparently so overloaded that the font sizes were too small to read off the screen. The slide deck was neither pre-circulated in hard copy nor even tabled at the meeting. To cap it all off, the presentation was mind numbingly boring, line after line, and slide after slide. Not only was the material poorly conceived and presented but, at some point you can be certain these executives are going to say to this board “but we gave you that ‘information’ in February”.

Regrettably we frequently see variations on this theme– and not just from in-house presenters. We know ourselves how easy (and tempting) it is to try and download a lot of information in this form.  However, technology is developing rapidly and there is no need to deliver information in this way. For example, iPads (and similar devices) are very rapidly penetrating the boardroom.  These personal, tablet-type devices mean that projecting onto a single screen at the front of the room is no longer necessary.  If you are going to project to a common screen, there is now a profusion of idea mapping software options that offer a better and more visually powerful and interactive alternative to PowerPoint. 

Quite apart from anything else, boards are increasingly populated by technology savvy younger board members who have neither the inclination nor the appetite to accept the relatively crude and passive methods of information transfer that have dominated boardroom presentations for the last 20 years.

In any case, we have known for much of that time that the use of computer generated graphics (or ‘slideware’) gets in the way of effective decision-making. Professor Edward Tufte of Yale University, for example, has argued that the typical use of this type of presentation:

  • reduces the analytical quality of presentations
  • weakens verbal and spatial reasoning, and
  • corrupts statistical analysis.(1)  

Tufte described the problem in a rather colourful fashion.

“Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that promised to make us beautiful but didn't. Instead the drug had frequent, serious side effects: It induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication. These side effects would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall.” (2)

He supported his contention by referring to examples like the presentations that were delivered to the NASA officials responsible for making important decisions about the launch of the Columbia space shuttle. When one of the shuttle's wings was damaged shortly after take-off the mission was doomed. Later, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board was critical that vital information was buried in a relatively obscure bullet point. It said the presentation process had a negative impact on decision-making.

Typical PowerPoint-type slides contain either too little or too much information. Too little information requires boards to endure a relentless stream of slides, one after another (after another, after another…). The alternative is a reduced number of slides, but each overloaded with words and numbers.

The resultant conditions (terminal boredom and/or ‘eyes glazed over’) are exacerbated when such presentations are poorly delivered (perhaps by almost verbatim reading of what is on the screen). If nothing else, this limits the time available for questions and discussion.  When the same words as those being presented on the screen are verbally expressed by the speaker this inevitably distracts board members from the nuances and emphases one would expect to form part of an effective board presentation.

A way of testing how well your board is served by slideware presentations is to check the number and type of questions that are asked during, and after, a slideware presentation. Do these questions lead to a greater depth of understanding and broaden decision options, or do they focus on making sense of the presentation? Does the presentation support or impede decision making?

What happens when directors do ask questions? How much information comes back? Research into the notion of ‘informed consent’ suggests there is a need for less transmitted information and more questions. For there to be an ‘informed decision’, information must be transferred from someone with more technical knowledge to another person (or group) with less technical knowledge. When, as is often the case, individual directors do not have the same level of expertise as their executives or external advisers, there is a parallel to the communication challenge inherent in a doctor/patient relationship.

Unfortunately, the research shows that the more information the person with greater technical knowledge tries to provide, the less the recipient actually understands. (3) Also, there is an inverse relationship between the number of questions asked by the ‘lay-person’ and the likelihood of later problems. Apparently, the more someone asks of an ‘expert’, the better they understand what they are told.

Tufte argues that standard PowerPoint presentations tend to elevate format over content and turn everything into a sales pitch. A speaker makes ‘power points’ followed by ‘bullets’ that are, in a real sense, ‘fired’ at the audience. If this metaphor contains even a grain of truth (and I think it does) it suggests that this is not an appropriate, let alone an effective, way for senior executives to engage with their board. Tufte concludes:

“At a minimum, a presentation format should do no harm. Yet the PowerPoint style routinely disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content. Thus PowerPoint presentations too often resemble a school play -very loud, very slow, and very simple.

The practical conclusions are clear. PowerPoint is a competent slide manager and projector. But rather than supplementing a presentation, it has become a substitute for it. Such misuse ignores the most important rule of speaking: Respect your audience.”(4)

Boring and ineffective board presentations do nothing to enhance a board's confidence in the executives or external advisers making those presentations.  Poor presentations are fundamentally a waste of the board's valuable meeting time.  If not incompetent, this is at least disrespectful.  Encouraging your board to form either impression can be 'career limiting'.

While, as a general rule, board presentations should be able to be pre-circulated in either hard copy or electronic form to allow the same degree of preparation as would be applied to any agenda material, good presentations do require presentation. In other words it would not be useful to precirculate the material because it requires explanation; it cannot be ‘taken as read’.

Compounding this, the real value is not in ‘the presentation’ itself but in the dialogue that it prompts. 

Presentations made by both staff and outside experts can add significantly to a board’s dialogue, understanding and strategic thinking. Board meeting time is precious and all presenters should respect this. The visual aids used to support presentations should not be the only or even the primary source of information. These can, however, be useful to present ideas or images that support the transmission and understanding of important information.

 

(1) Edward Tufte (2006) The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within. Graphics Press, Second Ed.
(2) Edward Tufte (2003) PowerPoint is Evil. In Wired, September, 2003.
(3) Cited by Eric Bergman (2005) Three Questions to Test Decision-Making at the Boardroom Table. Source: http://www.presentwithease.com/board_decisionmaking.html
(4) Edward Tufte (2003). Op cit.

 

 

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