Create a conversation, not a presentation

When I worked as a consultant, I was perennially guilty of “the great unveil” in presentations – that tendency to want to save key findings for the last moment and then reveal them, expecting a satisfying moment of awe. My team and I would work tirelessly to drive to the right answer to an organization’s problem. We’d craft an intricate presentation, perfecting it right up until minutes or hours before a client meeting, and then we’d triumphantly enter the room with a thick stack of hard copy PowerPoint slides, often still warm from the printer.

But no matter how perfect our presentation looked on the surface, we regularly came across major issues when we were in the room. These one-sided expositions frequently led to anemic conversations. And this hurt our effectiveness as a team and as colleagues and advisers to our clients.

When we created a perfect solution in isolation and made it “ours” to present, we ignored the fact that each individual needed to arrive at the conclusions independently to really understand it, to believe in it and to be willing to work hard to execute it.

And frankly, relying entirely on the presentation made for boring meetings. No one wants to sit and listen to another person present for hours on end. People want to ask questions and to provide their own insights. They want to problem-solve and debate.

We’re all familiar with these issues, and yet the tendency toward “the great unveil” presentation style persists. If we want to foster conversations rather than presentations, what are some effective ways to do so?

– First, draft the materials in careful partnership with important members of the audience. Often the best way to start problem-solving is simply to have an initial discussion with everyone involved and get their thoughts on the issues and potential outcomes in play.

– Second, design a presentation that invites insight and discussion. For most meetings, you want presentations that have enough detail to be read and understood in advance. You want to include key insights on most pages, along with call-out questions for discussion to keep readers thinking critically about the issues in play. Finally, use “punchline first” communication. If you start the presentation with an executive summary that lists key conclusions, your counterparts can keep those conclusions in mind, testing them as they encounter the more in-depth information throughout the presentation.

– Third, send the “final” materials well in advance of any group discussion and require a preread. If you show up to the meeting with a warm deck that no one has seen, most thoughtful people will spend their time in the meeting trying to read and absorb it, even if you’re describing the material in detail in person.

– Fourth, avoid marching through any document page-by-page, and disperse responsibility for leading components of the discussion. The best approach is to appoint someone to facilitate the conversation, then have that person or others discuss the executive summary, any crucial ideas within the text, and open the dialogue. The presentation or document you’ve routed then becomes a reference for points of conversation.

– Finally, appoint facilitators to draw out comments and questions from the whole group. If one or two people are primarily responsible for the project or viewed as the senior people or leaders in the room, have them ask questions of the group and assure that everyone’s voice is heard.

(John Coleman is a co-author of “Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders.”)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate