DID YOU READ THE RECENT ARTICLE on the Darwin magazine website, “Is PowerPoint Too Dumb for Words?” (see www.darwinmag.com/connect/opinion/column_index.html). It cleverly depicts the view that extensive use of PowerPoint presentations is “dumbing down” our thinking, effectively reducing our thoughts and communications to bullet points. This viewpoint brought back a vivid memory for me. As CIO for a global company a few years back, I actually banned PowerPoint presentations in my team for a while. My reasons weren’t quite as arch and philosophical as those presented in that article, but they were on a similar track. I simply got bored watching the darn things! Every presentation, whether generated inside the company or outside, looked exactly the same, had similar depth (which is to say, none) and was so homogeneous that I could have delivered it from memory without ever having seen it before.
I didn’t blame the whole thing on the PowerPoint tool itself. Microsoft makes a fine product, and the same thing could have happened if we all used Freelance or Visio. The problem was that our attention span had become so limited that our level of conversation had degenerated to this bullet point way of talking and thinking. We were presenting to each other, not talking with each other. We didn’t know how to engage people in other ways, so we took the few minutes we got and gave them the Reader’s Digest version of the idea we wanted to convey.
The example that sticks most clearly in my mind is a presentation about a new data center that was being planned in one of our locations. The team displayed a laudable command of the new features of PowerPoint, and they delivered a beautiful pitch with animation, sound and a touch-sensitive wide screen display. The problem was that the presentation didn’t say anything about the data center project that I couldn’t have said about any other data center project. The team members told me it would have security, fire suppression and central monitoring?things every data center has. What they didn’t do was talk to me about their project so that I could understand what they were really doing and why, so I asked for another meeting without the fancy pitch?a chance to just talk.
It’s a good thing I did, because I heard a much different story without all the pyrotechnics. One thing I learned in conversation was that we were building the data center over a lab that built potentially explosive fuel cells. This didn’t sound like a good idea to me, so we quickly changed the location plan. Another important thing I learned was that my team had a great deal of pride and vision in their view of data center operations. They weren’t just thinking about a room; they were envisioning a major change in how we ran computer operations in that region of the world. Once we ironed out the wrinkles in the project, we used their vision as the template for operations in other regions. Again, their bulleted presentation had deprived me of this valuable insight and the recognition they deserved for developing it.
As I reflect back on this experience, I can see that I caused the organization some stress at first by dictating that people not use a tool they enjoyed using. They probably felt that I was limiting their creativity. As we worked through the data center project, though, the weaknesses of presenting to each other instead of talking with each other began to dawn on them. We started having many more interactive team meetings. We experimented with different seating arrangements to facilitate conversation instead of presentation. We even designed new office space with small groupings of seats so that team members could spontaneously gather to talk. I banned laptops in my staff meetings because I found people were answering e-mail and working on other assignments instead of listening to each other. I also kept my staff meetings almost completely oriented to roundtable conversation instead of formal topics or, worst of all, unilateral task assignments by the team leader. I did have to delegate, of course, but I was more interested in having the whole leadership team learn how to think and talk our way through problems than I was in having someone stand and report something to us from their PowerPoint-generated list.
I did eventually rescind my ban on PowerPoint. Sooner or later it would have started to sneak back into use, and after a few months, I had made my point. But the new ways we had learned to communicate remained intact. With the added creativity available in a graphics tool, some members of my team became quite proficient at creating animated storyboards that entertained and informed the presentation audience and interactively engaged teammates in conversation at the same time. Our meetings became collaborative work sessions. Even outside visitors were told beforehand that we expected a work session to be a productive, interactive conversation and not a one-way recitation of generic factoids. As a result, our business partners became more engaged in thinking with us, and we came to value more highly those that went beyond telling us about their wares and actually contributed to the development of our strategies.
PowerPoint isn’t the devil’s workshop, and I’m not yet ready to found the Society for a PowerPoint-Free World. (You can still send your donations to me care of CIO in anticipation of that event.) Tools do make a difference, though. If we want meaningful dialogue and conversation, we have to use tools and methods that support that. Build collaborative workspaces instead of amphitheater-style conference rooms. Structure your meetings as free-flowing conversations (think dinner party) instead of one-to-many indoctrination sessions. Spend time scribbling on the board with a teammate instead of crafting the perfect presentation.
Essayist, poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “All good conversation, manners and action, come from a spontaneity which forgets usages and makes the moment great. Nature hates calculators; her methods are saltatory and impulsive.” To surround yourself and your team with Emerson’s “good conversation,” reach out to people, put aside the computer, and just talk.