Presentations vs Discussions

We've been doing our Union Square Sessions events for almost as long as our firm has been around. We pick a topic, like Hacking Eduction, that interests us and we invite about forty people to sit around a big open table and talk about the issue for four to five hours. There are no presentations. We have amazing discussions at these events.

A presentation is like a TV show. It's a lean back experience. A discussion is like an online chat room. It is a lean forward experience. They are not the same thing and in many cases they work against each other.

This is particularly instructive when it comes to board meetings as I learned last week. We did our annual Return Path Board annual planning session last week. It is a grueling day. Roughly eight hours of review and planning discussions, both operational and strategic. In prior years, we'd work through a deck of well over 100 slides during the day.

Not last week. As Matt Blumberg, Return Path's CEO, explains in this post, we went without slides for the whole day. The Company did prepare a lengthy package that everyone reviewed prior to the meeting. But once we were in the room, the projector was off and the conversation was on. Matt managed the clock and made sure we got through the agenda. Everything else was impromptu.

It was a huge success as Matt explains:

We thought that the best way to foster two-way dialog in the meeting
was to change the paradigm away from a presentation — the whole
concept of "management presenting to the Board" was what we were trying
to change, not just what was on the wall.  The result was fantastic. 
We had a very long meeting, but one where everyone — management and
Board alike — was highly engaged.  No blackberries or iPhones.  Not
too many yawns or walkabouts.  It was literally the best Board meeting
we've had in almost 10 years of existence, out of probably 75 or 80
total.

"Changing the paradigm away from a presentation" is the point of this post. Presentations are important. I do a lot of them and post all of them on this blog in advance. I am not saying they don't have a role. But if you want to foster real engagement and real discussion, they are not helpful and in fact I think they are hurtful.

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