Death by slides: the workplace habit startups must avoid

Hours spent crafting the perfect slide deck can eat away at your ability to craft a true business narrative for your staff or investors.

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Many businesses are run on slide decks, and startups are no exception. When you have information to share and speed matters, we default to throwing some slides together to get the message across. Before you know it, a background hum of PowerPoint or Google Slides has become part of your organisational culture.

Slides can work when you’re rallying the troops or pitching to investors. But, you pay a price when you use slides to run your business – to develop strategies, shape plans, and review performance. That price is the quality of your thinking.

I’d like to make the case to startups to try something different. Any organisation looking to stay nimble needs to be run on narrative reports, not slide decks. It needs a writing culture.

The cost of our slide addiction

Slide decks might be quick to produce, and even quicker to read. But, they keep our thinking at surface level and give shelter to weak thinking.

It’s hard to convey nuance through bullet points. Worse still, it’s easy to make muddled thinking look good when you’re a dab hand at slide design.

The impact of our addiction to presentations shouldn’t be understated. In 15 years of working with boards and leadership teams, I’ve seen poor communication slow businesses down across the spectrum, from Fortune 500s to SMEs.

So pernicious is this impact, that slide decks were coined as the “silent killer of big companies” by Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind in the Harvard Business Review. That was over ten years ago, yet many scaleups have done little to move on from this addiction since.

Slow down to speed up

Spending more time writing might sound like the last thing a fast-moving start-up should do. But what I’ve found, having put this into action in my own business and observed it in many others, is that a writing culture will help you move faster.

Investing time in writing great reports, emails, or memos helps you avoid the missteps caused by poorly thought-through plans and rushed decisions. It also prevents bottlenecks when proposals go around in circles.

A few years ago, a client told us they’d missed out on a game-changing acquisition because they didn’t have a writing culture. Every time they presented the deal to the board, each time supported by a detailed slide deck, the directors asked for more information. This went on for weeks. But their exclusivity expired, and a rival pounced on the target.

Those slide decks bore the brunt of the blame. The directors kept finding gaps, which left them wondering what else had been missed. Ultimately, they couldn’t get comfortable with the deal. The CEO never wanted to score an own-goal like this again, and he asked us to help him make sure of it by building a writing culture.

An effective writing culture isn’t just beneficial for big businesses in regulated sectors. Tech firms like Amazon, Stripe, Slack, Square, Dropbox, Airbnb, TripAdvisor, Basecamp and SAP have also used a writing culture to stay nimble.

Building a writing culture doesn’t mean swapping long slide decks for even longer narrative reports. Nobody needs that.

Instead, it’s about giving everyone in the organisation the skills and tools to write pithy narrative reports that pack a punch. To make sure your business moves in the right direction at pace, you need to get everyone writing more and better.

Find your rubber duck

The first step to building a writing culture is simply to write in the first place. Writing helps us to think, and we need better thinking if we’re to make better choices.

Much like software engineers who use rubber ducks to help them debug code, writing is an opportunity to make sense of what’s in our heads. It’s only when we attempt to externalise our thinking that we can scrutinise, sharpen, and complete it. Or we realise that we can’t. With every draft your thinking gets stronger.

Even if you’re just at the stage of planning your start-up or great business idea, you might find this helps you to make sense of the tidal wave of ideas swimming around in your mind.

We’ve seen many people and organisations do this to powerful effect. I first met Rob Enslin when he was President of Google Cloud. But, before that, he’d helped grow SAP from $450m to $30bn revenue – and it was there that he picked up the writing bug.

Running one of their biggest accounts, he knew a course correction was needed, but was struggling to get his boss to support his new plan. So, he spent every night at his computer for six weeks, writing down his thoughts and editing them until he was able to condense his ideas to a two-pager. It worked, and he’s never looked back.

Train your writing muscles

The next step is to write well. Done badly, narrative reports are just as unhelpful as slide decks. But when they’re well-structured and easy-to-read, they’re great for getting people to buy into your thinking – which is crucial if you want them to do anything with the information you’re sharing.

To get behind your thinking, they have to see the layers of analysis you’ve worked through. They need to know what questions you’ve asked and which remain unanswered. If they don’t see this insight, they’ll make you go around in circles until they get it (as our client’s board did). This slows organisations down.

The good news is that writing is like a muscle you can train. This is something I’ve learned the hard way, having been diagnosed with dyslexia at an early age. Writing has never come naturally to me, but I’ve found ways of making it easier. And most of them involve ripping up the rulebook.

My top three tips for effective writing are:

1) Start with the right question

All good writing makes it clear what questions it’s answering.

At Board Intelligence, we’ve created set plays of questions based on our ‘Question Driven Insight’ methodology. Much like the plays you see on the football field, these are rehearsed patterns of questions that we apply to common situations, helping us cut through to insight more quickly.

For example, when we’re looking at performance we’ll ask:

  1. What are we trying to achieve?
  2. What’s gone well and what hasn’t?
  3. What are the key risks and opportunities?
  4. Given all of this, what should we stop doing/start doing/do differently, and are we confident we’ll achieve our aims?

If you’re thinking these questions are too simple for your business, you may be surprised to learn that QDI plays have helped global banks and SMEs alike to think critically about their performance and how best to move forward.

The simplest questions are always the most powerful.

2) BLUF, don’t BLAB

Your audience will always be time-poor and overwhelmed with information. The challenge is to overcome the school-taught habit of making them wait until the end before revealing your conclusion.

Through years of reading board materials, which count among an organisation’s most vital documents, I’ve realised how common and unhelpful this BLAB (‘Bottom Line at the Bottom’) approach is.

Instead, we need to BLUF – put the Bottom Line Up Front. Make those key messages the first thing your readers see. Then use the body of your memo to unpack them.

3) Say less and say it with your voice

Finally, keep it simple, short, and personal.

If your writing is hard to understand, your thinking will be hard to understand. Countless studies across countries and cultures, from Princeton to the University of Tokyo, have found that if you ask someone to score the intelligence of an author based on a passage of text, the authors who use shorter words and sentences are the ones who come out on top.

It’s also important to own your message.

If you want people to buy into your ideas and act on them, they need to buy into you too. This means using the active voice and putting your personality into your writing.

For example, by saying ‘we missed our sales targets’ instead of ‘sales targets were missed’, it makes it clear you’re sharing in the responsibility, rather than hiding out of view. This is a particularly useful precedent for any founder to set.

BLUF your way to the top

Startups have a huge advantage over big companies because they don’t have to battle against entrenched ways of working.

Use this advantage to build a writing culture, not a slide deck juggernaut. This won’t just make it easier to get others behind your ideas – you’ll get everyone in your business thinking harder and smarter.

headshot of Pippa Begg
Pippa Begg

Pippa Begg is Co-CEO of Board Intelligence. Pippa and her Co-CEO Jen Sundberg have spent 15 years helping the leadership teams of more than 3,000 organisations - from Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 corporates to SMEs and charities – to update their processes so that boards are getting the right information and can focus on the topics that matter. They have also both co-authored a new book launching next month, “Collective Intelligence: How to build a business that’s smarter than you”.

Pippa Begg
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