If you want to demonstrate your intelligence in a meeting, you have two options.
Based on more than 60 workshops and meetings over the past few weeks for a bank in the United Kingdom, I noticed among all presentations one consistent element.
Of the time allotted to them, the presenter filled up the agenda with themselves – what I call it “ME” time – leaving little room for Q&A, and/or keeping audience interaction to a minimum. In you could draw the agenda visually, the meeting would look like Example A.
In contrast, a few presenters chose to use the agenda to get their organized points across quickly, spending the remaining time with key people discussing and debating the recommendations. These agendas looked like Example B.
Because most of these presenters would be participants in my workshops, I asked why they chose to organize the meeting as they did. The common answer was the presenter wanted to get the maximum amount of information across to their audience, to show how much they knew about their topic or recommendation, or to show they were thorough and comprehensive. Drilling deeper, I learnt they came from one of two backgrounds. First, the presenter reported to a supervisor who was anal-retentive and controlling of critical information. Although the objective of the meeting (and thus their PowerPoint document) was to make a decision, in reality the meeting was an exercise in wallowing in detail. Second, and equally important, most people knew the bank was on the verge of axing up to 1,000 jobs. In response, many people subconsciously were filling their slides with detail to justify their job, to prove they were master and commander of their detail, and finally, to save their jobs. No surprise, the people in Group A were exceptionally nervous presenters.
The people in the B group had a different mindset. They chose to convey their recommendations in messages which were clear, succinct or prioritised. They distilled a volume of information down to its essential points as a way to demonstrate as much (if not more) command of the topic rather than fill up a slide up with charts, graphs and detail. Their response to the anal retentive boss was to show they could differentiate between strategic data and minutiae. Their response to a tenuous position was to show their efficiency and effectiveness. In Group B, most presenters never showed any signs of nervousness. They seemed totally in control.
There’s a certain irony working here. The people who we meet in life which we’d define as ‘smart’ are the ones who take a complex subject and make it simple. It’s not the person who takes a complex subject and makes it more complex. To me, that’s the difference between Group B and Group A. In other words, what presenters in Group A ultimately wanted to achieve (show value, demonstrate intelligence, keep their job) was in direct opposition of what they actually did in their PowerPoint presentations.
(This discussion reminds me of a quote from Einstein. “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
A week later, these differences appeared again, in more detail. I was helping two people of equal senior-ish position, in the same department, reporting to the same person. Both were preparing a prevention on corporate governance. The first person (who would have been part of Group A) selected a detailed slide with lots of scans of document covers he’d read over the past 12 months. In the first 20 minutes of his presentation, he proceeded to tell us what each and every document said.
The second person took a photo of a pile of similar documents on her desk. Using this simple photo, she began her presentation with “We don’t need to read all of these documents. I already have … and here’s the five things that we need to know to make the best possible decision.”
If you were the supervisor which person would you think is more qualified? We debated this in the workshops, with many people saying they had to develop their presentation to the anal-retentive supervisor. Others though asked if the point was missed. To be seen as a leader, do you write the presentation for the supervisor, or do you write it for the good of the decision? And, at what point do you take control of the presentation as your own? Neither person was junior. Both had long successful careers at the bank. But one showed initiative and back-bone. The other acquiesced to the supervisor, which in another turn of irony, was the first person to be axed.
So, do you want to demonstrate your intelligence in a meeting? My suggestion is to make the Q&A section be the largest part of the agenda, not the smallest. The most engaging and dynamic part of the meeting is the interaction between presenter and audience, not the reading of the information to the audience (who can read it faster than the presenter can say it). I’d go so far as to say that no one – ever – has demonstrated their intelligence of a topic by reading a slide. Instead, tell us what the data means. What does the information tell us to do?
You demonstrate your intelligence and insight when you allow us (the audience) to watch you think on your feet. It shows you trust what you know.
In other words, if you can’t trust your brain, why should we?