The Presentation-Less Meeting

In previous posts, we’ve discussed the question of when to start designing a presentation and what should be on each slide. While everything I wrote in these two posts is universally applicable regardless of the nature of your content and your interaction with the audience, there is still a big difference between delivering a talk to an audience and presenting some information, insights, and ideas in a work meeting with your colleagues. In the latter case, we have additional options. 

When you deliver a talk to an audience, you can choose whether to use a slide deck or not. If you decide to use a presentation, you must design it carefully. 

In work meetings, we tend to fall into the presentation track without realizing we might have a better way to share what’s on our mind: the presentation-less meeting. 

As always, we must start by defining what we aim to achieve. In many work meetings, the presentation includes actual information. It’s more than a visual aid — it captures what we plan to present and discuss. However, unlike delivering a talk to an audience, the workplace meeting is done with our colleagues. We meet to achieve something together, and the presentation typically captures some information we need as input for our discussion. 

If this is the case (and for the most part, it is), wouldn’t it be better to have the information we are about to present in advance? Wouldn’t the discussion be more effective if it starts with the unknown — what we wish to resolve — instead of wasting time on what we could have communicated beforehand? And if we plan to present an idea, wouldn’t it be better to allow the other participants to process it and let it sink in?

At this point, you probably think, “Yes! But we share the presentation to achieve all that.” The problem is that a presentation is not the right medium for sharing the type and amount of information required for deep processing. When we use it as a visual aid, it complements what we say. However, when read without any additional statements, it is typically insufficient. 

A presentation is not a good medium to present and analyze raw data (just to provide the bottom line). It is not an effective medium to present deep ideas and their rationale (just their highlights). A slide deck cannot be organized to make it accessible (especially when we have a lot of material). A simple “old-fashioned” document is superior to presentations in these aspects. 

I know it sounds like going backward. But is it really? If people would like to read only the highlights, we can structure the document so it starts with that. The people who will want to go deeper and see the details will still be able to find what they need within the document. A document can be organized with sections, hierarchies, and cross-references more naturally than a presentation. It can also include much more information in a broader variety of formats. A presentation confines you to the boundaries of a slide.

Ok, but what happens in the actual meeting? Good question! Here, again, we have two options. The first is to open the document itself when needed. It might not be as sexy as a presentation, but the only question we should ask ourselves is whether it is usable for that purpose. If everyone gets the document before the meeting and is asked to be familiar with its content, the meeting can be 100% presentation-free. 

The second option is to prepare a short presentation with the highlights. If this sounds like duplication, I should be clear: it isn’t. The presentation must not echo the document but include only the minimum we must highlight in the meeting. If, for example, the document includes the analysis of some data relevant to what we are trying to achieve, the presentation may consist of the bottom line of the analysis. We are not hiding anything. On the contrary, everything is out in the open, just not presented on screen. 

This approach may not sound trivial, but it is not a fantasy either. Meetings at Amazon are conducted without a presentation. Instead, they are based on a written document shared in advance. Of course, the structure of the document, its content, and its quality matter. A lot! If the document is not written effectively, it will not be a solid foundation for the discussion. But when all else is equal, a presentation-less meeting can be far more effective than the typical meeting we experience.

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