The Non-Linear Deck

Presentations create a bias for sequence. The slides are numbered. They are organized one after the other. There’s no hierarchy and little flexibility. Of course, you can always break the sequence by skipping slides or creating links between slides, but this still requires thinking about order (and you also need to remember to press those links). 

This approach makes a lot of sense in many cases. Maybe in most of them. When you deliver a talk or share information and insights in a meeting, there better be order and structure. You have to organize your thoughts, and to the extent a presentation is needed, it should support the same logic. 

However, other scenarios can benefit from a different approach. These are the cases where the interaction with your audience or colleagues benefits from not being linear.

Let’s say you are a top-level manager, and you invite a group of employees to a roundtable to discuss an upcoming change to how the organization operates. The goal of the session is to listen to concerns, insights, and ideas that will help the organization deploy this change (or refine it based on the feedback). I’ve attended more than a few such sessions, and almost without exception, they’ve started with a traditional presentation. The manager wanted to present the change and its rationale and maybe even try to address a couple of concerns before they were even raised. 

Despite the good intentions, these sessions were hardly effective. The reason was that a significant part of the time was spent on a monologue in a session that, by definition, was supposed to be a dialogue. 

The alternative is to divide this communication flow into two parts. Obviously, the participants should be aligned on the details; they should know the plan. But there’s a better way to do that than to spend much of the face-to-face session on a monologue. The first part of the communication flow should be to share the information about the upcoming change in advance (and not in the form of a presentation). 

The second part of the flow is all about the feedback of the employees. This could easily be a presentation-less meeting, but there might be a good reason to prepare some material in case it is needed. For example, if the manager can predict some of the concerns that will be raised, it might be helpful to prepare some slides with the relevant material to address them. This slide deck is, by definition, not linear because we don’t know for sure what issues will be raised and in what order. It’s a backup deck in case an issue we’ve anticipated is raised. 

Similarly, a Q&A session about a professional issue can use a slide deck with potential answers or relevant materials, but this deck is not designed to be presented linearly. We will present each slide if and when required. 

The tools we use often affect what we do with them. They are built with underlying assumptions that create a bias toward some method, structure, or mindset. Most of the time, that’s a good thing, but there are cases where we must be aware of where the tool takes us and decide to go in another direction — sometimes, using a different tool altogether.

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