A colleague recently told me of sitting through a client’s board meeting in which senior staff ‘dumped’ a series of detailed, bullet-pointed PowerPoint slides on the board. Slides were filled entirely with letters and numerals—not a single visual element was used to help the board see connections, patterns and trends in the data.
This ignores the essential overview responsibilities of a board, which must be able to see the big picture. The slides were apparently so overloaded that the font sizes were too small to read from the screen. The slide deck was not pre-circulated in hard copy nor tabled at the meeting. To cap it all off, the presentation was mind-numbingly boring, line after line, and slide after slide. Not only was the material poorly conceived and presented but at some point you can be certain these executives are going to say to this board: “But we gave you that ‘information’ in February”.
Regrettably we frequently see variations on this theme—and not just from in-house presenters. We know ourselves how easy (and tempting) it is to try and download a lot of information in this form. However, technology is developing rapidly and delivering information in this way is no longer necessary. For example, iPads and similar devices are rapidly penetrating the boardroom. These personal devices mean that you no longer need to project onto a single screen at the front of the room. If you are going to project to a common screen, a profusion of idea-mapping software options offer better and more visually powerful and interactive alternatives to PowerPoint.
Boards are also increasingly populated by tech-savvy members who have neither the inclination nor the appetite to accept the relatively crude and passive methods of information transfer that have dominated boardroom presentations for the last 20 years.
We have also known for much of that time that using computer-generated graphics (or ‘slideware’) gets in the way of effective decision-making. Professor Edward Tufte of Yale University, for example, argues that the typical use of this type of presentation:
- reduces the analytical quality of presentations
- weakens verbal and spatial reasoning; and
- corrupts statistical analysis. 
Tufte describes the problem rather colourfully:
Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that promised to make us beautiful but didn't. Instead the drug had frequent, serious side effects: It induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication. These side effects would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall. 
He supports his contention by referring to examples like the presentations delivered to the NASA officials responsible for making important decisions about the launch of the Columbia space shuttle. When one of the shuttle’s wings was damaged shortly after take-off, the mission was doomed. Later, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board was critical that vital information was buried in a relatively obscure bullet point. It said the presentation process had a negative impact on decision-making.
Typical PowerPoint-type slides contain either too little or too much information. Too little information means boards endure a relentless stream of slides. Or the number of slides is reduced, but each is overloaded with words and numbers.
The resultant conditions (terminal boredom and/or eyes glazed over) are exacerbated when such presentations are poorly delivered (perhaps by almost verbatim reading of what is on screen). If nothing else, this limits the time available for questions and discussion. When the speaker says the same words presented on the screen, this inevitably distracts board members from the nuances and emphases one would expect to form part of an effective board presentation.
You can test how well your board is served by slide presentations by checking the number and type of questions asked during and after a slideware presentation. Do they lead to a greater depth of understanding and broaden decision options, or do they focus on making sense of the presentation? Does the presentation support or impede decision making?
What happens when directors do ask questions? How much information comes back? Research into the notion of ‘informed consent’ suggests a need for less transmitted information and more questions. For there to be an informed decision, information must be transferred from someone with more technical knowledge to another person (or group) with less technical knowledge. When, as often happens, individual directors do not have the same level of expertise as their executives or external advisers, this parallels the communication challenges inherent in a doctor/patient relationship.
Unfortunately, research shows that the more information a person with greater technical knowledge tries to provide, the less the recipient understands.  There is also an inverse relationship between the number of questions asked by lay-person and the likelihood of later problems. Apparently, the more someone asks of an expert, the better they understand what they are told.
Tufte argues that standard PowerPoint presentations tend to elevate format over content and turn everything into a sales pitch. A speaker makes ‘power points’ followed by ‘bullets’ that are fired at the audience. If this metaphor contains even a grain of truth (and I think it does) it suggests that this is not an appropriate, let alone an effective, way for senior executives to engage with their board. Tufte concludes:
At a minimum, a presentation format should do no harm. Yet the PowerPoint style routinely disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content. Thus PowerPoint presentations too often resemble a school play—very loud, very slow, and very simple.
The practical conclusions are clear. PowerPoint is a competent slide manager and projector. But rather than supplementing a presentation, it has become a substitute for it. Such misuse ignores the most important rule of speaking: Respect your audience. 
Boring, ineffective board presentations do nothing to enhance a board’s confidence in the executives or external advisers making those presentations. Poor presentations are fundamentally a waste of the board’s valuable meeting time. If not incompetent, this is at least disrespectful. Allowing your board to form either impression can be career limiting.
Presentations made by both staff and outside experts can add significantly to a board’s dialogue, understanding and strategic thinking. Board meeting time is precious, and all presenters should respect this. The visual aids used to support presentations should not be the only, or even the primary, source of information. They can, however, be useful to present ideas or images that support the transmission and understanding of important information.
- Edward Tufte (2006) The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within. Graphics Press, Second Ed.
- Edward Tufte (2003) PowerPoint is Evil. In Wired, September 2003.
- Cited by Eric Bergman (2005) Three Questions to Test Decision-Making at the Boardroom Table. Source: http://www.presentwithease.com/board_decisionmaking.html
- Edward Tufte (2003). Op cit.