If it’s time to ditch the deck, what are we going to do?  

by John Burrett, haiku analytics inc

In my last SIAA blog post, I presented a case against the use of “decks”, i.e. stacks of printed PowerPoint-style slides, as a means of briefing decision-makers. This case was illustrated by the analysis of Edward R. Tufte of the Columbia shuttle disaster, where the use of decks by NASA contributed to the failure of decision-making and ultimately to the loss of the shuttle and crew.

To summarize, the use of PowerPoint-style slides, filled densely with text and hierarchies of bullet points, simplified and parsed as they go “up the line”, leads to the obscuring and omission of critical information. I concluded that this must surely happen all of the time in places like Ottawa and must detract from informed policy-making. With the ready availability of excellent material on presenting data and issues, and the extent of briefing that goes on daily, it would seem reasonable to try alternative approaches.

So what might such an alternative approach look like?

Have a look at the series of posts written in 2012 by Nancy Duarte for the Harvard Business Review.[1] The advice in “How to Present to Senior Executives” is, once you’ve read it and thought about it, both simple and obvious.[2]  To condense this:

  •  summarize up front, having told them that you are going to do just that;
  • let the group then drive the conversation, assisting them by bringing up prepared slides with relevant information as requested.

If you do (1), they will sit still long enough to let you give them the high-level findings, conclusions and recommendations.

And if you do (1), then you’d better be ready to do (2).  At the same time, though, your audience will be more open to the supporting information because you didn’t try to make them slog through it at the start.

Another approach, closely related to the first is to prepare summary documents for your audience to them read for 5 or 10 minutes at the start of the meeting.  You can then either recap the summary or just dive into the discussion.

Designing the summary:John Burrett blog_pic 1 

Use a small set of slides (as a rule of thumb, no more than 10% of your slides should cover the summary).  Each of those slides should use as few words as possible and incorporate a supporting visual element, such as a data graphic.  Any graphic or image used should be directly relevant and supportive of the point: no decorations, logos, etc, etc, etc.

John Burrett blog_pic 2If you take the “read first” approach, your summary materials can use more text than a slide for display can use, while still including a supportive visual element such as a data graphic.  The text should still be as brief as possible, and cover one point per slide.

Designing the supporting materials:

Again, you should make a distinction between material for the presentation screen and for the audience to read.  John Burrett blog_pic 3Design any material that you will be putting up on a screen appropriately, focusing on data graphics and simple tables. That information is there to allow the discussion to “drill down” to more detail and evidence.  Slides meant for distribution and pre-reading can incorporate more text, as above.

Clear data visuals, with no decoration or other “chart junk” are important.  Appropriate choices of graph and table style and minimization of “non-data ink” go a long way toward helping your audience understand what you are showing them.  An excellent source on this is anything by Stephen Few.[3]

Try this and see what works best in your organization.  Your audience will thank you.


[1] “How to Present to Senior Executives”; Nancy Duarte, Harvard Business Review, October 2012. This was followed by three subsequent posts expanding on presentation design. Duarte Design is a leader in presentation design and I admit to having a soft spot for them, having visited them and taken some of their fantastic training.

[2] This is the kind of thing that makes you slap your forehead when you first see it; kind of like, for me, taco shells made with flat bottoms so they stand up while you fill them.

[3] I can attest, again, to the quality and value of Few’s training workshops and publications.

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