Powerpoint and Meeting Effectiveness

28 Oct 2019 10:45 AM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

by Paul Kauffmann, PE, CPEM, FASEM, Executive Director of ASEM, Professor Emeritus at East Carolina University

How boring this subject line may appear. Let’s consider the two parts of it: PowerPoint and meeting effectiveness. Considering PowerPoint, how many times have we been instructed on the "best" way to prepare PowerPoint slides? The debates rage about critical topics: light or dark background, how cryptic to make the bullet points, what fonts are best... Debates that may never be solved in our lifetime.

What about the second part of the title, Meeting Effectiveness? We have all been through that training too, and the memories make us cringe. A web search on this topic will find countless hits with common sense suggestions: set objectives, send out an agenda, keep on topic, identify follow up and next steps, and so on. As a friend of mine commented after a training session on this topic: "That was a firm grasp of the obvious."

There is one missing element in all of this. The burden is on the meeting organizer, but what is the obligation of the attendee to contribute to meeting effectiveness? I would bet many would agree that often meeting attendees have not looked at the agenda or the slides, much less the "related report" covering key details. It is too easy to simply click "accept" on the calendar invitation and do nothing but show up. What is the solution?

Amazon has an interesting approach to solve this problem, and it was described by Jeff Bezos as "the 'smartest thing we ever did' at Amazon." A heady statement for sure. I recommend reading the full article, but I will summarize a few key points here:

  • PowerPoint is gone at Amazon
  • To replace the PowerPoint presentations, Bezos created a new approach. Meetings start with each attendee sitting and silently reading (in the words of Bezos) a "six-page, narratively-structured memo for about the first 30 minutes of the meeting…the memo creates the context for what will then be a good discussion." (Go here for the memo structure.)
  • Who authors the memo? The team; memos at Amazon do not have an individual author.

In closing, let me bring a smile with some additional comments from Bezos. He thinks "…executives will bluff their way through the meeting as if they've read the memo because we're busy and so you've got to actually carve out the time for the memo to get read."

Before the memo-based meetings were instituted, Bezos also commented "we were doing the more traditional thing. A junior executive comes in, they put a huge amount of effort into developing a PowerPoint presentation, they put the third slide up, and the most senior executive in the room has already interrupted them, thrown them off their game, asking questions about what is going to be presented in slide six, if they would just stay quiet for a moment..." Further, he thinks PowerPoint slides often have "obscure information." Bezos prefers memos because each have "verbs and sentences and topic sentences and complete paragraphs."

Food for thought!

About the Author

Paul Kauffmann is ASEM’s Executive Director and is Professor Emeritus at East Carolina University. Paul is a Professional Engineer and has over 20 years of industry experience in positions ranging from design engineer to plant manager and engineering director. He is a Fellow of ASEM and a Certified Professional in Engineering Management. He holds a BSEE and MENG in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech and a PhD in industrial engineering from Penn State.

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