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DECK THE HALLS

The purported death of the presentation feels like a life’s work scorned

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during a presentation at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California October 16, 2014.
REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
Storytelling with slides.
  • John Shaw
By John Shaw

Independent brand strategist

Published

Like many people in business, particularly those in the marketing world, I’ve spent countless hours preparing for, making, reviewing, or complaining about presentations. I’ve made them on trains and boats. In majestic boardrooms and factory canteens. In suits, shorts, and running singlets (not simultaneously). Nobody has been born or died in one of my presentations but people have fainted, cried, and fallen asleep. My first job started with two whole weeks of presentation training. And if you’d ever asked my mum what her son did for a living, she’d probably have said, “Well I’m not sure, but I think it’s something to do with presentations”.

That’s why I’ve been reeling since I read an article the other week about one of the founders of Klarna, who met his co-founder when they were both flipping burgers and is now worth a couple of billion dollars (which is obviously not irritating AT ALL).  Buried in the text describing Klarna’s culture was a phrase that hit me like a dagger in the template: “Presentations are banned.” Just like that, three words, no explanation necessary for why the activity that has occupied virtually my entire working life, and that of many others, should be completely cast into outer darkness like the animated paperclip from Microsoft Office 97.

Is it Amazon’s fault?

I understand where this is coming from, of course: Seattle. Amazon’s culture famously requires its employees to read six-page memos together at the start of meetings, rather than watch presentations, and it seems to have worked OK for them.

I’ve done a small amount of work with Amazon and I can personally vouch for the memo culture. I almost missed out on a project because when they asked for a “one-pager” to summarize our proposal, we delivered a presentation. They were very specific about the format, but it made little difference to us, so ingrained was our presentation habit. If they’d asked for it to be written in purple Sharpie on the back of a kangaroo, they’d still have ended up with 15 pages of PowerPoint.

Presentations are like oxygen for many organizations. At mine and others, banning them altogether would be very uncomfortable and force major adaptation.

Three things I wouldn’t miss

However, if a quiet revolution is taking place, then I will gladly say goodbye to certain aspects of presentation culture.

First, I wouldn’t miss the very mechanical approach some people take, where their presentations are less of “story” and more “conveyor belt for information.” I was once told that a certain client I was working with liked presentations in which each page had an assertion at the top of the page and three supporting pieces of evidence below it. Is that a predictable and efficient way to deliver information? Yes. Is it Blade Runner? No. The humdrum nature of predictable presentations have no narrative power. They rely on a captive audience and full attention, which is not the reality of how most people actually consume presentations, particularly in an increasingly remote world. Rather, a great movie, a great book, or even a great presentation is one which sweeps you along irresistibly.

At the other end of the scale, I sometimes wonder how much unnecessary brainpower has been squandered in the search to find supporting imagery for presentations. Presumably many audiences have mastered the art of reading books without pictures, so why can’t they understand the word “empowerment” without seeing people standing on a mountaintop, arms aloft, gazing at the wonderful opportunities that stretch endlessly before them? In the very old days, the owners of Mars used to force their executives to hand-write their presentations to keep people focused on the content and not the style. When I have to look at another visual of a rowing eight used to illustrate the concept of teamwork, I can see their point.

Thirdly, the whole presentation dynamic may not be the best way to solve a problem. There’s always implicit scoring going on, both for technical merit and artistic impression, as if it was synchronized swimming. The audience always has slightly more power than the presenter, which is sometimes used constructively and sometimes not. The danger is that the meeting becomes about the presentation itself rather than the outcome it’s trying to inform, which then gets in the way of the right decision.

But should we really go cold turkey on presentations?

Just because a presentation-free culture works for Amazon or Klarna doesn’t mean it’ll work for everyone. Individual elements which work in one business culture don’t always transplant successfully to different environments (as many borrowers from, say, Nike or Apple culture have found). The six-page or shorter memo may work brilliantly in the context of Amazon but it requires a lot of discipline, and that context may be entirely different elsewhere.

Speaking from my own experience, I can’t imagine most agency people sitting around for half an hour reading a memo before starting a conversation. What I can imagine is some people in those organizations saying, “I have another meeting so I’ll just skip the reading bit and you can bring me up to speed quickly when I get there…and then I’ll give you a point of view.” I’ll also note that Jeff Bezos says a great memo takes a week or more to write, which sounds like quite a luxury in many organizations, particularly those which have been compelled to perfect the white-knuckle practice of adding new slides to the end of a Google deck during the meeting, even as the first part of it is being presented by someone else.

Finally, I’d have to say that a presentation delivered by a great exponent of the art, visually and verbally enthralling, is an incredible experience. I would have been quite sad to have missed out on the best ones I’ve seen over the years. But it’s not bad for the format to be challenged and to have some questions asked about it. And so I forgive the Klarna founder for his provocative ban on a mainstay of my professional life. I just won’t be following him into a future that’s completely void of slides.

John Shaw is an independent brand strategist and the former chief strategy and innovation officer at Superunion, the London-based branding agency. Follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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