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

"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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Comments (Archived):

  1. Jan Schultink

    Well said. Your analysis is correct IF:- PEOPLE REALLY PREPARE- Key data is available somewhere handy (“what were last months uniques again?”)- Someone scribbles on a white board to log decisions (“OK, we will delay launch to Q2” in the absence of a gantt chart in PPT.)You could still use a minimum dose of PPT slides (hey I am a presentation designer), but they are there as an appendix of facts, not the structuring tool to discuss ideas.

    1. fredwilson

      Preparation is a requirement for board meeting attendance. Those who don’t prepare shouldn’t be allowed in the room

      1. Mark Essel

        I’d like to hear more about the preparation. I can see great time value in emailing slides before a discussion. That works great in motivated environments.switch gears a moment:How about the times when you’re fighting for 5 minutes of a customers time. You could ways discuss FAST, and leave them with documentation to review later, assuming you earned their interest in the pitch.

        1. arv43

          I have a similar question. What is the pre-discussion stuff that is sent out? How is it structured? Especially considering there are no constraints of a slideshow, it need not be a deck at all. Was wondering if you have a little bit more detail on the depth of information and type of information that is sent around before the discussion. Thanks.As always, great post.

          1. mattb2518

            arv43, happy to give you more details if you contact me by email at matt at returnpath dot net, but essentially we sent out a detailed agenda and whatever supporting/background materials were most useful for each section. Could be an analyst report or article or blog post. Could be a spreadsheet or table. Could be a short 1-2 page memo. Could be a presentation. Etc.

          2. arv43

            Thanks Matt. Have sent you an email.

          3. ShanaC

            I’m curious too, may I also see?

        2. fredwilson

          That’s a great approach. Presentations may have more value in advance or after the fact

          1. ShanaC

            My dad insists that sometimes websites are like checkbooks, they are the presentation. I personally find that approach a little strange, but it would work in this model. The website is the place that allows you to go and think..

          2. Jan Schultink

            “Presentations in advance” are good for Board members updating their fact base”Presentations on the spot” are great to get people excited about a new idea “cold”

          3. ShanaC

            So what should your presentation be for a cold idea, when you need the people in order to make a stronger presentation (aka, the inherent problem of virality)How do you make a cold presentation, an on the spot one, hot?

          4. Jan Schultink

            Sorry I was not very clear.A good presentation is one that leave a previously “cold” audience leave the room “warm” for your idea.

          5. ShanaC

            No you’re clear. The question is more the how do you do that? That’s thedifficult part.

      2. karen_e

        That is such an important caveat that it should be in boldface (and up in the original post).

    2. ShanaC

      Why a Whiteboard? (handwriting issues) Why not a wiki?, and some paper? And maybe a whiteboard to draw with?Otherwise I totally agree with you. This is a really flexible appraoch

      1. Jan Schultink

        Doesn’t really matter what medium, as long as things get captured

        1. Dave Pinsen

          An image comes to mind, from a recent re-run of The Office, of Pam taking notes in a spiral notebook at the office’s day at the lake.

  2. Henry Yates

    I could not agree more.

  3. reece

    … and this blog is the best example of the ‘discussion’ ethos.

    1. JLM

      This blog is truly one of the nicest groups of intelligent, experienced and thoughtful people I have ever encountered. The breadth and depth and expertise of the thought is quite impressive and the fact that it is the creation of a single individual is laudatory. It is also one of the most extraodinarily courteous groups of people holding such divergent views.Well done, y’all!

      1. ShanaC

        No thank you.

      2. fredwilson

        Love the y’all!!

  4. Farhan Lalji

    Like the contrast between the two. A presentation can leave you exhausted a discussion can leave you energized. Too many companies have too many presentations and not enough discussions!

    1. fredwilson

      Great point. Same is true in education

      1. Farhan Lalji

        So true. The teachers you remember are the ones who were facilitators for discussions rather then the presenters.

        1. fredwilson

          I’m not sold on tweeting out comments yet but the two you tweeted out this morning were awesome

          1. Farhan Lalji

            set to tweet my comments automatically, that’s what you get for making the comments short and to the point 🙂

        2. Dave Pinsen

          I disagree. The teachers I remember best were the ones who were the best presenters. Often these were also were also teachers who enforced a certain rigor in discussions. E.g., I had an philosophy professor who had little tolerance for the sort of comments that passed for discussion elsewhere. If a student answered a question in a way that was vague or not on point, he’d ask him to explicate his answer, and the next thirty seconds of mortification would make it clear that the student in question had been talking out of his hat.

          1. Farhan Lalji

            but that’s a good facilitator not a presenter. That prof was someone who managed the discussion well.

          2. Dave Pinsen

            Interesting that you consider that sort of enforcement to be an example of facilitating. In that case, I’d agree with you. The prof in question was an excellent presenter too, btw. I didn’t mean to conflate his presentation skills with his skill in keeping discussions on point, but he was good at both.

      2. thewalrus

        Having experienced education in North America, Europe and Asia…..facilitating discussion in education is where North America really, really, really excels. Always touchy to paint whole continents with a single brush (always exceptions), but Asia and Europe (to a lesser extent) have much more formal/traditional approach to teaching….teacher gives lessons, students listen and memorize. Education should teach you how to frame problems and facilitate creative solutions, not just fill your head with facts – google commoditized this ‘cliff claven’ part of the brain…..facts are only a query away :)I think these differences in education systems translate strongly in business practices and culture. Leaders need to be facilitators, memorize and copy is for followers.

    2. Mark Essel

      At times my mind is really open to recieving info. Like a sponge it mops everything up and I sift through the meaning as it goes.This first phase allows me to ask the toughest and most valuable questions. The first and best reality check for a presentation or discussion makes certain all who attend are motivated to make progress. Actually that’s how I judge the value of ideas or concepts quickly. Are all the players in a system motivated for success?if yes, continue, else put on the breaks and root out the inspiration sap (ruthlessly).

      1. thewalrus

        correction: “Cliff Clavin”….and for those who don’t know who he is, don’t worry, not worth memorizing/knowing, google knows all

        1. Mark Essel


    3. Keenan

      Well said!

  5. infoarbitrage

    Fred, terrific point. I can see Matt executing this to a T. The emphasis on preparation from Jan’s comment is right on.I also find this applies to venture pitches. Personally I almost never want an initial face-to-face pitch guided by a deck. I want to see a deck in advance, do some homework, and then participate in a two-way discussion with the entrepreneurs. I always appreciate when an entrepreneur has done a little homework on me, my portfolio and my interests, in order that we both come to a meeting with real context. This approach generally yields a much more dynamic, fruitful discussion then brainlessly being led through a presentation.Have a good holiday.Rog

    1. Mark Essel

      Nice Rog, you shed some light on a question I had above about pitching.

    2. David Semeria

      Or have a very brief deck with lots of visuals (à la Fred) – and just use it to structure the discussion.

      1. rimalovski

        Agreed! Less is more: the less words per slide tends to correlate with more information shared.

    3. fredwilson

      Yes! And leads to an investment more often tooHappy thanksgiving roger

    4. mattb2518

      Roger, I love the idea of making this work for a venture pitch. Probably only makes sense if there’s been enough pre-engagement for the investor to put advance time into it, but must yield better results.

  6. Harry DeMott

    Comments open or closed?It amounts to roughly the same thing. Presentations are generally like a blog with closed comments (actually board presentations like this are worse in that the board has generally already ripped through the deck)Discussions are far better (assuming you allot the correct amount of time)

    1. fredwilson

      Command and control vs chaos. It takes confidence as a leader to embrace chaos

      1. mattb2518

        Command and control is no way to run a Board. If all you have are “yes men” — why bother?

      2. ShanaC

        signs of a great leader?

        1. JLM

          Leaders take followers to places they would never get to left to their own devices. Like raising teenagers, followers do not need a leader who is their “buddy”, they need someone who can effectively lead. You have enough success, you can rent or buy friends.Leaders define success unequivocally, at an instant in time, with objectives that are SMART (Specific, objectively Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and constrained by Time). Objectives are set just beyond your comfort zone. When you feel the modest discomfort of walking naked through Times Square, you are in your growth zone. Leaders keep you challenged and in your growth zone.Leaders lead from the front and are willing to figuratively “die” for the cause. They have true passion. Never follow anybody who is “phoning it in”.Never follow anybody who does not have a Purple Heart — they are not close enough to the action. Never follow anybody who has 5 Purple Hearts — they don’t know how to duck.

          1. ShanaC

            Test:I agree very much with most of what you say. I do wonder if leaders have friends, or if they are really that isolated as you make them sound.

          2. JLM

            I don’t mean that literally nor do I think it is a condition one should seek. Nonetheless, a reality of leadership is that seeking approval is often not the appropriate role for leaders.You should be polite and courteous and friendly and professional to all persons but never forget that sometimes you have to decide their fate, compensation, discipline, etc. Leaders have to make decisions.I have a cadre of folks with whom I have worked for almost 25 years. They are all good guys. We’ve all been to the pay window together several times. I always see my role as being to make them millionaires because then I do OK also.In some instances it is quite gratifying that folks want to follow your lead but you can never stop being the leader.In buying businesses, my acquisitions guy has worked for me for 20 years and is very optimistic. My CFO — the conscience of the company and the guy who has to prove up the acquisition numbers and conduct a “proof of cash” analysis — is very, very, very conservative.I never arbitrate between them. I just take both inputs and make a decision without picking a winner or applauding either one. I tell them they are both right. I do force them to go talk to each other to temper their own natural inclinations. It is a system that works for me.

          3. ShanaC

            Better answer. The original one seemed sort of lonely.

      3. JLM

        When order is made from chaos, value appears.Look for chaos.If one looks at almost any social software, it makes order from chaos.

    2. Dave Pinsen

      Interesting analogy. You get a like for that.

      1. kidmercury

        well, well, look who’s got an avatar! way to join the club, dave!

        1. Dave Pinsen

          Thanks. I needed to register with Disqus to comment on another site (Slope of Hope) yesterday, and then I found out that if you don’t have an avatar, the default avatar for that site is a pic of some 1940’s pinup. So I uploaded an avatar.I was going to use the ShortScreen logo, but since it’s rectangular it didn’t fit. So I used the logo for the next site, which happens to be square.

          1. ShanaC

            Interesting choice graphically got to say, lots of gray tones…and a happy thanksgiving.

          2. Dave Pinsen

            Those tones are designed to connote steel, armor, protection. My initial concept was for a piggy bank wearing a medieval knight’s armor, but my logo designer said it wouldn’t scale. His plan b didn’t work — it looked like an “S&M Pig” according to one of my developers. But I like this final logo.Happy Thanksgiving to you too.

        2. fredwilson


  7. David Semeria

    I often get frustrated/bored even in the best presentations, especially at conferences. I believe many people prefer to be active rather than passive, in the sense that I’d much rather be actively involved in a small game in the park than passively watching the Superbowl.

    1. fredwilson

      Unless its an amazing game and everyone is standing and yelling at the TV screen 🙂

      1. David Semeria

        Um, I suppose it’s just me then…

      2. Dave Pinsen

        It also makes a difference when your favorite team is in the game. Do you remember back that far, Fred?

        1. fredwilson

          Nope. Sports is a humiliating experience for me

          1. Keenan

            Sports saved my life.

    2. Carl Rahn Griffith

      You can experience both sensations at a Sheffield Wednesday match, David. 🙂

    3. Dave Pinsen

      Thinking back to some presentations I’ve given at conferences in the past, with your comment in mind, I remember that the real action often took place in the meet & greets afterwords. That was was generally the case when I was representing a well-established company, where everyone in the audience already knew the story. When I was working for a start-up that had something of a disruptive product, the presentation got more attention.

      1. David Semeria

        Sure, by far the best conference presentations involve a brief talk followed by an extended Q+A. In Italy, where I live, they have day-long conferences where the audience doesn’t even get to ask a question. Such events drive me mad. I don’t care who’s on the stage, questions are valid regardless of their origin (obscure film ref..)

        1. Dave Pinsen

          Is there at least some great espresso and pastries at these conferences? Living in Italy must have some compensations.

          1. David Semeria

            You bet! But I can’t go into that stuff here 🙂

          2. ShanaC

            You are lucky for getting excellent coffee at your conferences. That is all.

          3. David Semeria

            Be careful about tripping over your own prejudices, Shana. I might have been talking about hand-painted ceilings for all you know.

          4. ShanaC

            I know. Just craving a small amount of caffeine and a large amount of food… and following a discussion on pastries and coffee.Have a happy Thanksgiving!

          5. David Semeria

            Happy Thanksgiving to you, too. And don’t take the boys’ chatter too seriously. Nobody wants to offend anybody. It’s just normal and innocuous propping-up-the-bar talk. 😉

          6. ShanaC

            ;)I was having an interesting discussion last night. We had our last History of Business since the 1980’s class. One of the speakers during the course of the class is a partner at a major consultancy, and female. The TA’s are also female, and one of them studies 1980’s, 1990’s history, and had asked her about affirmative action.She had given a fairly interesting answer, and they were still discussing it weeks later. This is one of those moments where I realize I have my female friends for a reason, and that I tread careful waters here. I need to let you guys be you guys, and that may not be me, but I also happen to be an insider here. So my best hedge, is to just avoid it unless it gets way out of control.It’s not like women don’t do similar things, the dynamic is just very different…

          7. awaldstein

            David–living in the Piedmont region (Milan, right?) I’m thinking one of the great pleasures is somehow tied to the Nebbiolo varietal. Fortunate guy to be somewhere where that is the wine of plenty!The Waldstein table is starting with California wine, moving to the Rhone and ending with a wacky one from Sicily Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving to you David and this terrific group of folks that add value to my day every time I stop by to chat.

          8. David Semeria

            Hi Arnold!Actually, Milan is in the Lombardy region, which is adjacent to Piedmont.Given their full-bodied nature, Sicilian wines are perfect for creating the “warm fuzzy feeling” – the ideal preparation for the afternoon nap…And, by the way, your choice of Nero d’Avola is excellent – it’s one of the best Sicilians.

          9. awaldstein

            DavidI stand corrected on my geography and affirmed on my wine selections ;)Enjoy and have a great day.

          10. Carl Rahn Griffith

            We have some very fine beers in Yorkshire.

          11. David Semeria

            Aye, and some extremely cozy places in which to drink them…

        2. JLM

          Damn, DS, I am jealous! Very, very jealous! During WWII, my Dad captured Pisa and Florence but he had to give them back. As a kid I lived in Trieste. In my next life — Italian or Mexican. For the food, for the women!

          1. David Semeria

            That must have been very annoying. Still, he couldn’t take them home with him…You are saucy JLM! Why do I always think of Al Pacino in Scent of Woman when I read your posts? Complete disregard for convention, mixed-in with a sumptuous appreciation for the finer things in life, and not forgetting a total commitment to The Truth. An intoxicating combination if ever there was one!Only you could have informed us than when shooting bears out of trees, care must be taken lest they fall on you…

          2. JLM

            Of course one of the other subtleties I overlooked was to immediately ascertain whether the bear has gone on to bear heaven and if not, assist him along on his journey.As they say, there is nothing more terrifying than a wounded bear (particularly one who has unceremoniously fallen out of a tree)!Happy Thanksgiving!

          3. David Semeria

            (laughing a lot…) you too!

          4. Dave Pinsen

            Mexico’s in your top two for food and women? Really? Argentina easily trumps it on both, IMO. Plus, there’s less chance of getting kidnapped or beheaded by drug gangs in Argentina.

          5. JLM

            I must bow to your superior knowledge of Argentina. And, yes, I had overlooked the kidnapping and beheading. Though that might just make it more sporting? Maybe not!I have never been there and I am intending to rectify that soon. When that goofy SC Governor Sanford said he was out hiking the App Trail and ended up in Argentina with his “soul mate”, I do admit to wanting to go to Argentina and seeing if I had a soul mate there myself.My wife, an extraordinarily sensible woman, made me walk the App Trail with her instead. You may recall my black bear encounter. The black bear was definetely NOT my soul mate.My fondness for Mexico is in no small part to the allure of women who bring you tacos and fajitas and other delicacies. I love Huatulco. Perhaps I have allowed my stomach to guide me too well.Happy Thanksgiving!

          6. Dave Pinsen

            Particularly since you are fond of Italian women and food, Argentina would seem like a natural fit: Many Argentines are of Italian ancestry.I do remember your bear incident.Happy Thanksgiving to you as well.

          7. ShanaC

            Happy thanksgiving y’all and I’ll remember to ignore this conversation….

          8. Carl Rahn Griffith

            You’ve clearly not met a Yorkshire lass, JLM. ;-)Happy Thanksgiving, America – your first one (for a few years) without that enormous turkey at the head of your table. Enjoy!Thoughts especially go out to those who have had a pretty rough 2009.

          9. fredwilson

            Haultulco is my favorite place in mexico so far

  8. awaldstein

    I love this story Fred, thanks for sharing. It takes both an exceptionally well chosen and prepared board and company to pull it off. A huge rarity in my experience. A post on board composition would be useful. Often the makeup of a board doesn’t lend itself to this type of dynamic experience.And a great holiday to all.

    1. fredwilson

      Great points and suggestion for a blog post.The RP board has evolved over ten years. Matt and I have been on the longest but Brad Feld and Greg Sands have also been around since the early part of this decade. And scott weiss is an amazing board member. World class actually. So its a special group. Exactly the kind of group that can pull this off

      1. awaldstein

        In Matt’s blog, the most germane point to me was the change from looking backwards and reporting, to looking forward and creatively inventing the future.The point is that the Board became a working team rather than exec’s reporting to investors.Speaks again to the importance of Board makeup and to what ‘smart money’ means to a startup.

        1. fredwilson


        2. mattb2518

          Our Board composition is me, three VCs – Fred, Brad, Greg, and one independent director who is usually a CEO from a larger company in the industry. Board meetings also always include everyone on our executive team, not just as observers or presenters, but as participants, and frequently someone else from the management team at the VP level.

          1. awaldstein

            MattYou are fortunate and unique to have this board. And it sounds like your company is fortunate to have someone with foresight as their leader.

          2. mattb2518

            Yes, we are. I am grateful for this group every single day. One of our true secret weapons that’s given us a decade of staying power.

  9. gregorylent

    it is just being human, being real … amazing how far away from that simplicity business usually is

  10. DavidWeinfeld

    In shifting from the paradigm of a slide-driven meeting, conversations can emerge more organically. As opposed to existing within a rigid structure defined by one’s PowerPoint, participants in a slide free meeting are empowered to share their voices more freely. You give the meeting a greater opportunity to grow based on the emotions and knowledge of the crowd.I think, however, that such a paradigm shift (no slides) can be both empowering and risky. Arguably, your board meeting benefited from the engagement and ownership intrinsic of the participants therein. If the environment had been different, a meeting without such a joint focus, it’s easy to imagine how the slides-free initiative could have hindered the meeting’s productivity rather than fueling new conversations. Before making the decision to go without slides, I believe it’s critically important to gauge beforehand whether or not the participants are engaged enough to make it work.

    1. mattb2518

      True, and it is also the case that we had a dozen or so important slides “at the ready” in case we needed to turn to them.

      1. DavidWeinfeld

        Very smart way to go. Give yourself the opportunity to pull the lever if you need it. I guess then the question remains of what you did with the unused slides. Will they find their way into future presentations, or are they stowed away?

        1. mattb2518

          Doesn’t matter. There were only a dozen, and we needed them anyway.

  11. Tom Labus

    It’s one Jim Lewis’s points about presentations hindering a meeting in his book, The Five Deadly Sins CEO’s Make in Sales. I seen too many presentations stand way to the side and attempt to let the over complex ppt do the talking. It’s like placing a barrier up between presenter and audience.

  12. Doug Covey

    Great points, long ago we checked our technology at the door to promote thoughtful, engaging discussions. When someone breaks the agreement, they pay the kitty. This only happens if the team has enough trust and willingness to hold others accountable. This also holds true in virtual meetings, it’s easy to have multiple windows open, hit the mute key and work silently while the meeting occurs.

    1. fredwilson

      i totally agree about “leaving your weapons at the door”back in the late 90s, we would always have our laptops in meetingsearly in this decade we outlawed that and added mobile phones a few yearslaterhow can you be paying attention to a conversation with a computer or aniphone in front of your face?

      1. ShanaC

        I find this comment interesting as a concept: Are we too mediated by stuff? Do all the laptops and phones help us, or is all the buzzing actually making work harder?

        1. fredwilson

          Like all things, both a blessing and a curse. Those who can make it a blessing will evolve faster according to darwin

          1. ShanaC

            We were discussing this over thanksgiving in an effort to get me mad (Art students are interestesting creatures).No that I have read him, but that I think that application of Darwin may be a misread. It should be group fitness. We’re going to need a few of those who find it intolerable to carry on some of the health that comes from that set of behaviors. It may be strange, but I still do admire those who can turn their backs on all of this and survive, for they on some level, even if they do backbreaking work, are less dependent on a hell of a lot of stuff than I am. They also run a risk of a lot more deaths…I recognize that I would not be alive though, and as tall though, and probably married with a bazillion kids in a kitchen without a number of these advances. So its extremely odd, but I recognize that we’ve given up something. I still wonder though…

    2. ShanaC

      Out of sheer curiosity, what happens to the money in the kitty? Do you have a favorite charity?

  13. Laurent

    I can only confirm the same experience. Recently, I have moved away from presenting slides to potential customers / partners. I now start a first meeting with a story about our company and by the end I hope to get the audience involved so that the story naturally leads into a dialog. The quality of the meetings has increased a lot!

    1. fredwilson

      that is such a great anectdote laurent

  14. Carl Rahn Griffith

    How do you best amalgamate/separate the Product/Technical with/from the Business aspects to such meetings, Fred? I’m sure we’ve all experienced getting too bogged down with anal (but important) technical minutiae at the expense of the broader commercial issues. Any tips?

    1. fredwilson

      that’s the CEO’s job as moderator. he/she needs to pull everyone out of theweeds

      1. Carl Rahn Griffith

        And does it usually work like that in your experience, Fred? 😉

        1. fredwilson

          it depends. the CEOs who really run the meetings do it wellnot everyone does it well

          1. Carl Rahn Griffith

            Best one can hope for, really. Rather difficult to insist/enforce that everyone leaves their ego outside the door and just focuses on the job in hand! Would help.

      2. ShanaC

        What are the best practices you’ve seen for doing this?

  15. Adam Neary

    I agree with Jan above–the biggest enabler to what Fred’s talking about is preparation. It’s one thing to say no slideshow in the meeting (I agree that you should). But it is circulating the analysis in advance greases that skid.I would take it a step further and argue that for effective CEOs, they are “having the meeting” before the meeting by not only distributing presentation in advance, but also by tapping participants directly to field any objections ahead of time so that if there are serious issues that are going to come up in the meeting, those can be prepared for as well.By the time the meeting hits, you are in “No Surprises” mode, and your brilliant minds can do what they are supposed to do in a meeting, lean forward and engage in dialog.Awesome post, Fred!

  16. Paul Jin

    A lot of courage to run an entire day-long meeting without slides.I think it forces the discussion leader to verbalize the key point rather than to walk everyone through the data that led to the key point. And if participants have already consumed the pre-meeting data and drew their own conclusions, then the conversational exchange of the conclusions is the valuable part.I wish this was the norm already.

  17. greenskeptic

    I well remember USV’s Hacking Philanthropy session from a few years ago. That was a fascinating dialogue you fostered.I see a lot of presentations by comapnies, entrepreneurs, and investors. Most don’t know how to build a presentation or to focus on the audience, which I think is the crux of the problem. Whether a pitch or a lecture, it should be about sharing not pushing information. Sharing implies an exchange.I think PowerPoint and the like get in the way of real exchange and it’s great when you see a passionate entrepreneur or presenter have to wing it because the technology malfunctions.Last week Kendra Gaetta found out what that is like at Philly Startup Leaders’ Founder Factory. Kendra is a young entrepreneur who has a pretty cool allowance and chore rewards platform called Kidzillions that lets kids spend and save their money online. She went through the DreamIt Ventures program last summer. This time, she was to present in the “fishbowl” problem-solving session to a panel of experts — successful entrepreneurs and investors. Her team was stuck in a traffic accident on the Turnpike and her deck wouldn’t load on the laptop.She had to present to the panel on a wing and enthusiasm. She did a fantastic job. Her passion came through; she could focus on the problems she was wrestling with and what would interest the panel. It was a true dialog resulting in mutual benefit.People want to be engaged. Engage them.

  18. chrisdorr

    Great post. It speaks to a larger question. Can you bring a group of people together for a discussion and create collective wisdom? Put another way, can each person be wiser after the meeting than before and is the organization wiser after the meeting than before? Does the meeting create the conditions for better (ie wiser) decisions?I have been in very few meetings where this occurs, be they in corporate or educational settings. When they do occur they do so because the meeting leader (or leaders) create a context where everyone contributes and everyone listens. And this mass participation occurs without anyone really realizing it is happening–it is almost invisible to the participants and they often realize it only in retrospect. This is a very important leadership skill that is rarely taught or even focused on within organizations of any type.It can be learned and therefore taught. However it goes against many theories of leadership that pervade our culture, which are mainly driven by command and control approaches deeply ingrained in our collective psyche. Hence the over reliance on power point presentations, which often impede our knowledge within meetings and do not expand it.

  19. johndodds

    It strikes me that a crucial factor in making this work really well is Matt’s insistence on ensuring that 75% of the time was focused on the future. We all know that presentations about the future can be filled with optimistic projections that are predicated on questionable assumptions. Much better to replace them with discussions.But, as someone who questions the efficiency of long meetings, I would be interested to know how concentration was maintained over a full day. Were there frequent breaks to allow for mind resetting?

  20. Kevin

    Discussions are much more beneficial but I sometimes am reluctant to head into a meeting without a presentation. I think that people tend to expect them if you’ve requested their time. I would always prefer a conversation; but I find myself putting together a presentation and then hoping it leads to a discussion. Problem is it does … and takes too long because it is equal parts presentation and discussion. I don’t want to hog people’s time. Next time I’m going in with nothing (or sending the presentation in advance) and seeing where it heads.Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

  21. the build

    Off topic, but I’m really into education right now as well and have some background in the early days of internet education and technology solutions in that space. That category is about to blow up.

  22. timraleigh

    …great post. Thanks. Based on your results, I am assuming that the “discussions” lead to decisions and (real) actions.

  23. timraleigh

    BTW, I have worked with Return Path as customer and they were definitely one of the best companies I have dealt with. I loved the experience.

  24. Norbert Mayer-Wittmann

    I find that if a log post is longer then 2-3 sentences (or even more than 1 screen),I will just skim it. I find it very disrespectful if people go on and one page after page and expect me to read that long monolog. Most such epic blog posts get the Alt+F4 wthin 2 seconds.

  25. Fliptop

    I was fascinated at the recent RWW Real-Time Conference how effective the agenda-less conference was. People came with ideas for topic sessions they wanted to lead, wrote the titles on 8.5 x 11 cards, put them on a giant time/room grid on the wall, and people self-selected which conversations they wanted to join. Made for some great conversations, and made the conference much better than the recent TechCrunch RealTime CrunchUp (death by overloaded panels).Wonder if something like this would work for board meetings – send out the financials/progress updates beforehand for review, let BOD members submit topics they want to discuss, and then let CEO pick 1-2 to as the “theme(s)” for the board meeting discussion.

    1. fredwilson

      Yes it would work for board meetings

  26. Gavin Baker

    Loved your comment of a presentation being like a TV show – and I think most of us would want to promote the forward leaning experience, but what do you think the natural break is for the size of the group that can have a dialog experience?

    1. fredwilson

      I’ve been wanting to test twitter in a lecture hall as a way to scale the engagement factor

  27. JLM

    Each generation discovers sex and makes the mistake of thinking they invented it.I have been in business since before PPT was invented, since before the advent of the PC and when “white boards” were chalk boards. We used to have (not “do”, have) meetings. We didn’t invent the concept.The abiliity to hold effective meetings is a critical skill for business persons. Board meetings, in particular, are an odd skill set. First job out of the Army and with my MBA in hand was working directly for a Fortune 5 CEO who really knew how to run a company. Not “manage” it but to really lead. I stole many of the ideas which have driven my business career and success from him and others. I doubt I have ever had an original thought on the subject but I am a very skillful and determined plagiarist.Somebody has to own the meeting. Either the CEO or the Chairman of the Board. I like CEOs who are in charge. I like my CEOs to be first effective leaders and then they can be “good” managers. I tell CEOs (myself included) they are “…responsible for everything that happens or fails to happen with this company…”Remember the CEO serves at the pleasure of the Board and the primary point of contact with the company is the CEO. I am adverse to having a gang of persons in the Board meeting. It is the CEO’s job to communicate with the Board. If he can’t do it effectively, get a new CEO. I have no problem with a bit of Board face time on specific topics but this is the time for a solo not a chorus.You have to have an agenda with time budgeted topics and set speakers and somebody has to be the time keeper. If an “open discussion” is key, then it should be on the agenda.As to “open discussion”, every meeting should have such an alloted time period and I personally prefer it to be over lunch which means folks can sit strategically with whomever they want to ensure they get the dialogue they want.A lot of contact on developing issues should take place outside the Board meeting. This is why I think that CEOs should have a sit down with their individual Boardmembers, particularly the Chairman, at least every 6 months.Boards set policy. Policy drives objectives. Management makes and executes plans to achieve the policy objectives. Only the CEO bridges these two functions.Strong, confident CEOs really want and need a no-baloney assessment of exactly where the business is going particularly during times of high risk. In addition to discussion they need a good critique of their performance.Any Board which does not provide a written critique of its CEO once a year is not going to get the maximum performance out of its CEO.

    1. Carl Rahn Griffith

      Well said.

    2. fredwilson

      Yes to all of this. I am in the middle of leading a number of year end reviews for our portfolio CEOs and I like them to be 360s with real feedback from their direct reports

      1. JLM

        A very effective tool to get a sense of how a CEO is leading a company is to conduct a company survey which asks questions intended to elicit answers which are seemingly only tangentially related to the CEO.I like to know why folks like to work here, what they do not like, the 3 things they like the best, the 3 things they like the least, the things they would do if they were the CEO and the things they think I do not know. The last is my favorite.I want to know if they think the company has integrity, whether its reputation is good or not, whether they are fairly compensated, whether they know what the company’s benefits are, whether they think that package is “competitive” and who they think is the company’s MVP.I have been doing this for over 25 years and the results continue to surprise me. I once closed down an operating unit the next day after the survey because a great number of folks thought I had a “blind spot” about the unit’s losses. I did.I cover a lot more than just that but if you carefully consider the above, you will find out whether the CEO is effectively leading.

        1. Keenan

          Love the three things the like best and least idea. Problem is most CEO’s and the minions that protect them don’t have the guts for that type of feedback.It would mean they would actually have to do something.

  28. ShanaC

    No your not. I’m like that too.Being prepared means you’ll have some questions prepared in advanced, and prepared to jump in with those questions. Also, it may mean that you are like me, the fidgety type- bring a squeeze ball.

  29. ShanaC

    Spoken like a true military man and a good leader. And I get what you mean about the stretch. Be with people who want to stretch you. Though Naked in Times Square would not be my metaphor of choice… o_O

  30. ShanaC

    Trying this again:Spoken like a true military man and spoken like a leader. Though I think I disagree a bit about friendship, I’m not totally sure you can buy friends (unless you imply that leadership is inherently lonely)I get the discomfort thing. Just wish the metaphor wasn’t walking through times square naked. o_O. And the 5 purple hearts, don’t want anyone who is going to basically kill themselves in heroism, and is just scraping by.Good answer.

  31. ShanaC

    Test Test…This is from Safari…Test. Hmm why can’t I post from Firefox?

  32. Steve Rubel

    I am trying to do less PPT and more mindmapping. I find it works really well.

    1. fredwilson

      Do you have a mindmapping tool of choice?

  33. Donna Murdoch

    In education that’s being the “guide on the side” vs the “sage on the sage” – the newer paradigm

  34. Whitney Johnson

    Great advice. I’ve bookmarked this for future investor days!

  35. kevinmurphy

    was curious if you would allow a silent observer to see it all in action in hopes of recreating in another organization?

    1. fredwilson

      board meetings are generally private affairs so that’s unlikely

      1. kevinmurphy

        my bad, didn’t see reference to board meetings in para 2- sorry…

  36. Keenan

    Two thoughts,1) Leaders, companies, people who can do this are self-confident and informal leaders. They don’t require “control” to run a meeting. Control is systemic to large corporations. This is because politics, and posturing are an unspoken component of the meetings. Because of all the secondary agendas control becomes the order of the day.2) How do you capture the output? How is it determined what are the most important things to come out of the meeting and how do you then develop the ongoing action plans? Curious as to the execution component.3) OK, one more. I love this approach, because it fits my learning style. I’m an experiential learner. The more I can participate and engage the more I learn.