Sheryl Sandberg, Richard Branson & the two Jeffs CANNOT save your presentation

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015 by Simon Morton

I like Sheryl Sandberg…a lot.  Of course there’s lots to admire – the extraordinary career, the fundamental fairness of her ideas in Lean In and, above all, her unblinking honesty.  She strikes me as an all round good egg.

It was her honesty that underpinned her heartfelt message regarding grief, has armed her against (often unfair) criticism and, perhaps less famously, gifted the world of presentations a story to savour and learn from.  Allow me to share…

Sheryl’s status as a business icon means that every utterance is greedily consumed by the public.  In common with Richard Branson and the two Jeffs (Weiner and Bezos), she’s gone public on her distaste of the over reliance on PowerPoint in presentations and meetings.  Quite right too – I hate PowerPoint being used at the wrong time to the wrong audiences too.  So far, so good.

The story goes that Sheryl started her push against the perils of PowerPoint in internal meetings early on at Facebook.  What started as a general nudge culminated in a company wide ban of the use of PowerPoint in all internal meetings.  The message was clear – Sheryl thinks it kills creativity, stifles engagement and woe betide anyone who uses it when she’s around.

What started off as a sensible questioning of inefficient practices had quickly become folklore within the organisation.  I wager the majority of internal meetings were improved by the removal of the dreaded slideshow while a few would have benefited from a visual now and again…but what goes on in Facebook stays in Facebook.

Fast forward a month or so and Sheryl is about to step up onto the stage at a Facebook sales conference:

“About a month later I was about to address our global sales team,” Sandberg said, “when someone said to me, ‘Before you get on that stage, you really should know everyone’s pretty upset about the no PowerPoint with clients thing.’”

She was shocked.

At no point was an edict issued from on high stating that PowerPoint couldn’t be used for external meetings. 

Indeed Sheryl was smart enough to recognise that at times (notably in Formal and Interactive meetings on the Presentation Landscape), PowerPoint was the perfect support for the presenter.  Yet people, including the incredibly smart people that walk the halls of Facebook, had misinterpreted her message, consumed it and blindly followed it to the letter, sheep style.

Extraordinary.  And worryingly, if it can happen in a business as smart and savvy as Facebook, it could happen to you and yours.

So what can we learn from this?

Business leaders

Never ever forget the influence you have over your people.  The pearls of wisdom that fall from your lips can become gospel overnight.  Clarify what you mean and keep the lines of communication open so people can question when it’s appropriate.

To quote Sheryl speaking with her team:

“Next time you hear a bad idea — like not doing proper client presentations — speak up. Even if you think it is what I have asked for, tell me I am wrong!”

That level of honesty and transparency is priceless.  Bravo Sheryl.

Presenters

Sorry but there is no silver bullet for presentations – Sheryl, Richard and the two Jeffs don’t have all the answers.  It is down to you to engage your brain and think through what is appropriate to your audience and your message.

So let’s get a few things straight:

  • PowerPoint isn’t intrinsically evil (it’s damned good for certain presentations)
  • Prezi isn’t the answer to all your woes (a presenter cannot live on zoom alone)
  • Whiteboarding/Back of a Napkin style presenting only works some of the time

The truth is that we’ve never had it so good as presenters.  Take a look around – we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to presentation aids.  The key is choosing the right one (or combination) to engage your audience…and only you can make that decision.

Don’t get me wrong.  Sheryl, Richard and the two Jeffs are my business heroes too…but I respect my audiences way too much to blindly follow the utterances that become edicts that end up as folklore via blogs, magazines and Podcasts.

Presentations are too important to look for the short cuts – it’s time presenters thought for themselves and on behalf of their audiences.

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One Response to “Sheryl Sandberg, Richard Branson & the two Jeffs CANNOT save your presentation”

  1. In my “small world” I can hardly spot “…sheep style…” in the same sentence as “…incredibly smart people…”. Human shaped or not, sheeps will always be sheeps…
    Sheryl ended up proving being a leader if not only, by inviting the (believable few) non-sheeps to raise from the middle of the herd and become… leaders!

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