Why Think When You Can PowerPoint?

Is there anyone who really likes PowerPoint? I have often wondered if the brainwaves of an audience in PowerPoint’s grip take on a tragic pattern never seen before in the whole history of the miracle of human life.

The only speeches I’ve ever been able to remember were the ones when someone set aside her slides and just started telling stories. I remember Jason Calacanis breaking a piece of chalk while insisting — he was wrong — that markets, not products or teams, are what matter when starting a company. After Plumtree’s big layoff, I remember John Kunze turning off the projector to say he was sorry.

At Redfin, we recently ran a board meeting without slides. Or we used slides, but only for the 45 minutes it took to summarize the basic facts of last month’s business: hiring, traffic growth, customer satisfaction, engineering schedule, revenues, earnings. Almost every slide was a number or a graph of a number, which freed us to talk about why costs increased faster than headcount, or what we thought of the 12 people we hired last month. We were done with the deck by 9 a.m.

And then we set aside the slides entirely. As we raised the blinds to begin the rest of the meeting, a panic rose in my throat that I was about to lose control. It felt like having a party without a keg or even a bowl of guacamole for people to stand around. What would we say?

My problem is that I don’t like talking about a problem unless we have a solution. This results in a tendency to manage board conversations as set pieces, where we carefully structure challenges that can be neatly addressed within the allotted time, almost as if we were plotting a sit-com. At some deep level, I’ve long  felt that the real Redfin was beyond anyone’s ability to help us. I can never encapsulate the messiness of the company — the myriad ways we could fail, my crazed conviction that we won’t, my pride, my embarrassment, my terror — into any one statement, so everything I say seems like an approximation or a simulation of the truth.

But recently at board meetings we’ve dug into problems for which we weren’t sure there was a solution, or where the solution was in dispute. What could we do to drive market-share in Seattle above 5%? Why don’t we have more listings? How can we build our agents’ careers without creating a bloated hierarchy? One executive led the discussion and everybody else participated.

We got ideas I didn’t expect, like Paul Goodrich’s suggestion that we tell our sellers’ how many home-buyers we’re working with in their neighborhood, or James Slavet’s idea of correlating interviewers’ ratings of a new hire with his year-end reviews. It finally felt like we had the board meeting my old boss at Plumtree, John Kunze, once told me were the best kind, where you focus only on one question: what’s really going on in this business?

To answer this question, you have to take it seriously as a question, without jumping to the same conclusions over and over again. This means allowing yourself the time and space for what the poet John Keats called negative capability: “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” The modern phrase for negative capability is “awkward silences,” which is sometimes just the sound of everyone thinking.

There were a few awkward silences in our last board meeting, but probably not enough.

Just this week, a senior executive at one of the world’s most-admired technology companies asked me about our board meetings. I told him about our heads-up format. Then he told me that his company doesn’t use slides at all, instead relying on the old-fashioned memo.

“Whoa,” I said. “How long does that take?”

“A long time,” he said, sounding almost proud.

“What are we talking about here, like one pa-”

“Five pages.”

I wondered if he understood the speed at which startups had to move. Meanwhile, he explained that the time it took to write a memo forced the author to think through what she was proposing; the time it took to read guided the meeting’s participants through the same process.

If the meeting participants hadn’t read the memo, the opening twenty minutes of the meeting were set aside for that, just like in a naughty 8th-grade language-arts class. In reading the document through, no one got side-tracked for half an hour on the first slide of a presentation, without ever getting to the main argument. The first words spoken in the meeting would come from the memo’s author: “any questions?” And then the fur would fly.

Now I know that long memos are usually a waste of time, salvos in an argument that could be settled quickly face to face, or Bartleby manifestos that nobody has asked for or expects to act on. But the best reason for people to meet is to make a decision, and if the decision is important enough for a whole room full of people to meet, then a memo seems worth the time.

The people you need to pin down the most are the executives. The worst executives are often the best speakers: we are good at sounding good. Why think when you can PowerPoint? You can throw together a presentation the night before. You can issues a series of intelligent-sounding statements, fill in the blanks between your bullets with what people want to hear, nod wisely and defer a decision ‘til the next meeting. It is a completely provisional format. Or you can take a stand, develop a point of view, write it all out and then nail it to the church door.

It’s hard to say whether that will slow us down or speed us up, but it seems worth a try.

Discussion

  • http://haroldhing.com Harold Hing

    Glenn, I totally agree with you. Ever since school we have been trained to use Powerpoint. It gives us a sense of comfort and control that we are controlling the meeting and conveying our thoughts. Leaving it all to one memo and free flowing seems scary, but out of those unstructured conversations probably come the best ideas.

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      Thanks Harold. I think it's ok to have a strong point of view in a memo, then a free-flowing discussion…

  • http://www.skriptfoundry.com Steve Cronin

    This is a great post. I think, (not powerpoint) that when you are faced with complex problems, there is the zen art of picking out what matters from the noise. Its not a problem at all to dislike talking if you have no answer. (like an episode of Lost). It seems good to encourage noise as much as possible. The Jedi power of the chief exec is to be able to pick out what matters from the cacophony. I think even the smartest people feel confused a lot and just try to talk it the issues out as best they can until convergence happens.

    10,000 complex, foggy opinions over a day long meeting is good because if you hear the same thing 500 times you have a vector. More chaos = more chances to single out the right ideas. 1 opinion on Powerpoint maybe not so good. I'm sure ill get kneecapped by an MBA one day for that.

    I wonder if there is tech you could use to gather collaborative business intelligence iteratively on a daily basis from every Redfin employee from C level to the mail room. I'm a big believer that crowd wisdom is wise. thanks again for the intriguing post and please bring Redfin to Canada!!!

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      It's funny Steve, we were just talking about gathering everyone's feedback on a branding question, and wondering how we'd synthesize it…

  • Marnie Cannon

    I really enjoyed this post, thank you. Powerpoint can be a useful tool for a presentation – but “presentation” by it's very definition is a performance; carefully orchestrated and completely controlled by the presenter. Good ones may be entertaining and even informative, but too often they're full more of cleverness than actual thought. In most cases they won't get you to an effective and meaningful discussion of real issues, which seems like what a useful Board meeting ought to be. Even if it means relinquishing control and letting things get messy.

    I look forward to reading more as this experiment evolves. Good luck!

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      I like the distinction you make between cleverness and thought Marnie… I wish I'd worked that out myself…

  • sheynkman

    Edward Tufte makes a good point in “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within” (http://amzn.to/aLCtC3). I saw him give a presentation on this in New York a few years ago and it made me stay away from PPT for a while (even did board meetings as you described and with similar effects). However, I've gone back to slides (Keynote, PowerPoint) but have started to use them as a background rather than content. I like to have topics on slides, details in a densely packed handout, and narrative + conversation to explain the facts and respond. A “Tufte-style” board meeting would be an 8.5×17 two-sided “data sheet” with all the relevant facts, charts, spreadsheets densely packed together and one slide with an agenda to lead the discussion.

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  • chris neitzert

    congrats on seattle start up of the year! and, meetings without power points, that is a trend that I would enjoy seeing grow! keep on keepin it real Glenn!

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