Powerful Learning Events: fight Slides Default Disorder


You are on the agenda for the meeting. You have great stuff to share. It’s project results, or the work plan for a new project, or a budget update, or a lesson in your area of expertise. How do you prepare?

If you are like most people I work with, you open up your favorite presentation software and start to turn your information into bullet points and diagrams and a few relevant photos. Maybe a couple of fun animal photos or a New Yorker cartoon. Good to go!

Except wait: Slides are not always the best way to present information to a group for maximum absorption and application to their work. Slides are so expected, and so static, that they can immediately shut down all the energy and ideas in the meeting. When someone launches a PowerPoint presentation, the whole room can deflate and tune out.

How do you know when to use slides and when you can avoid them? And what other options are there?

Let’s start with how attention and learning work in a group setting, and a concept I use: The Rule of Two Things.

This article is the second in a series with ideas for powerful learning events. The first article has tips on developing content and structure for an event. If you didn’t see it, here it is. For this discussion, learning events are most meetings. Your regular staff meeting counts.

How attention and learning works in a group

Imagine a group of people sitting around a big conference table. You have somewhere between 10 and 30 people together to digest, discuss and act on information that you are ready to share. People will split their attention among all the information sources available:

  • You, the presenter

  • Slides on the wall

  • Documents in front of them (on paper, on a personal screen)

  • Each other

  • The outside world, via a personal screen, i.e. messages via text/Slack/Facebook, email, the whole entire internet

The Rule of Two Things: People can focus on two things at a time. Your job is to pick the best two for what you have to share and what you expect people to do with it, in the room and afterward.

I wish I could recall where I heard this nice rule of attention. From what I remember, it is not scientifically proven. I use it anyway, and it works.

The first step in deciding what the best Two Things are: Prepare without launching your slide software. Remember, resist Slides Default Disorder. Open up a text document, or give your eyes and brain a change of pace and use a notebook and a pencil. Make an outline of what you need to communicate, and what you want to accomplish with your team or audience. Do you need them to make decisions? Are you gathering strategy ideas? Do you need 4 people to agree to do specific tasks? Once you have a simple version of what you have to say, and what you expect to happen, you can decide the best way to convey this information and pick your Two Things.

When to use slides

  • Use slides when the information is solid and not up for discussion. Slides tell people: “The information you need is up here. This is figured out.” Slides are written ahead of time, which is one reason we love them: Slides done? I'm ready! If you want people to consider the ideas you share as up for debate, or if you are still gathering ideas, avoid slides.

  • Use slides when the information is not rich in detail. Can people absorb the information when it is at arm’s length on the wall? Use slides. If you are sharing detailed information, like a budget update or a new policy memo, put that in people’s hands. We get better results when we let people focus where they want to focus. Let them make notes.

How to use slides (answer: minimally, in content per slide and in the number of slides)

There is no law that says every moment of your presentation or discussion needs a slide to anchor it. On the contrary, expert advice holds that less is more when it comes to presentation slides. Two ways to keep it short and simple:

  • Think of slides as signage. Use a few words to share where you are in your presentation, big anchors like a diagram of your main concepts or agenda-navigation slides like "Decisions" and “Next steps.”

  • Resist the urge to use slides as talking points. The screen is not a teleprompter. When each word out of your mouth comes from the slide, you can't help but feel silly as everyone reads right along with you. If it feels risky weaning yourself from the teleprompter, write out talking points for yourself, then rehearse. I use index cards. I put them in my pocket in case I get stuck while I'm presenting.

Not-slides options for sharing information for learning and discussion

  • An outline, data display, memo or other document-in-hand. I like one-page outlines or article-style narratives, and data displays like run charts. Send it out ahead of time. Some people will print, some will refer to their phone screen or bring their laptop. "But," you may say, "what about the slide deck as a handout?" You can use that, but most information doesn't fit naturally in a series of boxes. You can waste a lot of time doing the editing gymnastics required to make everything fit. Spread out.

  • Bonus tip on using detailed documents in meetings: If you want people to have details fresh in their minds, assign time in the meeting itself for people to read what you have for them. The moments of silence seem odd at first, but it works. Discussion will be richer, and everyone present knows that everyone else present actually read the information. For once. h/t Edward Tufte for permission to have a little study hall in the middle of a meeting.

  • Worksheets. You use small-group activities in your learning events. Weave your main didactic points into the action-plan handout, or the discussion guide, or whatever you are using. People then can go back to their notes for two things: What they learned, and what decisions or commitments were made in the meeting.

  • Just talk, with scribing. If you want a fast-moving, rich discussion like you want in a quarterly strategy meeting, prepare yourself with your objectives, main points, challenging open questions, and then go for it. Make sure you have a good note-taker or two to capture the discussion, preferably one person typing and another on the whiteboard or flipchart. Your Two Things here: you and the other people in the room. Minimal external distraction from other info.

  • Facilitation exercises. Consider how you can mix group facilitation activities into your presentation. Can you get people up and moving? Generating ideas using sticky notes? There is a whole world of activities and resources for facilitating groups.

  • Sketch-noting. Draw pictures and diagrams to record your lessons and the conversation. Sketch-noting is the teacher version of visual facilitation (aka graphic recording). I offer this to my clients. People love it. The lessons and new ideas takes shape as I talk with the group. It’s not static like slides, so I can weave in what everyone is saying as we go. The results are unique to that day’s discussion. Attention levels stay high. To do this requires a commitment. You should take a class or two. Practice is required. You do not have to be an artist. It’s fun to do, and even fun to prepare. Practicing simple drawings of a book and an ear (ears are hard) and a swing-set is much more fun that trying to fit words in a line on a slide. Believe.

These are some ideas about how to cure yourself from Slides Default Disorder and be guided by the Rule of Two Things. Remember: Start with a pause to plan your objectives and content. Slides may be the right way to go, and you will also find many chances to give yourself and your colleagues and other audiences a refreshing break from the convenient, though numbing, norm.

Andrew EdwardsComment