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Style vs. substance

As PowerPoint became widely used in the ’90s, the U.S. Army quickly adopted the tool. In a peacetime army, it is difficult to be recognized, but a snazzy presentation often caught the attention of the higher-ups. As a result, more effort went into the creation of “the best PowerPoint presentation” rather than exploring and debating the actual content. This problem became so ingrained in army culture that General Stanley McChrystal famously said, “When we have understood this slide, we will have won the war,” after being presented with a complex spaghetti-strewn slide meant to portray the complexity of the American military strategy in Afghanistan.

It’s easy to get caught up in the look and feel of what we are doing, at the expense of the information we want to present and the outcome we desire. On more than one occasion, my team has fallen for this trap. We’ve held informal meetings to prepare for meetings. That would be fine if they were important meetings where an unsuccessful outcome negatively impacts the business, but usually it was in preparation for a get-to-know-you or an initial planning session. How can you have an intentional dialogue if everyone’s words are prescribed?

All too often, I’ve submit presentations for my peers and boss to review, and the majority of feedback I’d receive was on how the document looked rather than on the material itself. It’s clear people are more comfortable giving feedback on font choice or slide design than on the content. The old saying about lipstick on a pig applies here. If the content is garbage, no amount of dressing it up can make it better or correct.

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Another pitfall that comes with worrying about style is when we create something we feel “shows well” and then feel obligated to present the whole thing, no matter the engagement level of the audience. I witnessed presentations where speakers made their points early in their presentations but lost the audience in the middle. By the end, the audience was completely unengaged. I took the stage after such a speaker at a national sales meeting. While I observed the visual cues of his audience, he ignored them and droned on until the end. A third of the way through my presentation I started observing similar cues, so I quickly summarized the rest of my presentation and ended early. Afterward, several people came up and said they enjoyed my presentation. When I asked why, they said it was short and to the point.

One other way people lose opportunity is when two companies share a meeting. I am not sure why people feel obligated to show pictures of their facilities, organization charts, and performance reports when the purpose of the meeting is to review the business the two companies conduct together and strategize on how to grow. Once I had an executive visit for a meeting and told him upfront we only had 60 minutes to talk. After a late start he introduced himself, detailed his career history, and then began his PowerPoint presentation even though the meeting was running late. When it was our time to talk, we asked the audience what they thought the purpose of the meeting was. They responded with “come out and listen to their customers.”  We spent the remaining 10 minutes with a productive dialogue that quickly ended. Thus it was all about style, with very little substance achieved.

When you have a point you want to make, remember the heart of your argument will sway people’s opinion. Weak logic or subjective conclusions will fail to be persuasive, no matter how much you dress it up. Additionally, when people give you time to hear you out, respect it and make the best of the opportunity. Small talk might be a way to break the ice, but remember to allocate a small amount of time to that, and a big amount of time to your big idea.

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