Businesswoman in bright office getting bored while attending presentation

Your PowerPoints Are Killing Engagement

Thursday, November 8, 2018

We think Yale Professor Emeritus Edward R. Tufte said it best when he stated, “PowerPoint is evil.”

What’s so wrong with PowerPoint? The problem with a PowerPoint presentation is that it elevates format over content and turns everything into a sales pitch. Many organizations spend a lot of money creating strategies that are then communicated through presentations that make people feel like they’re being sold something they didn’t have a choice to buy. Leaders don’t connect with their people when they use PowerPoint; they typically fall into a direct, tell-and-sell mode. This approach fails to invigorate people to feel challenged and engaged.

This “selling and telling” is a common leadership blind spot in which leaders think they can present their way into the hearts and minds of their people. The alternative is simple: Move from presentations to conversations, and the result is game-changing—genuine engagement.

The Power of Conversations and Engagement

We like to define engagement as the emotional commitment people have to their team, the organization, and the strategies of their company. Being emotionally committed means people really care about and are invested in their work and in the success of their organization.

Consider this story: When we were running an exercise at a large Canadian bank to transform the culture into one rich in dialogue, voices raised a level or two with bold suggestions and ideas. The leaders were surprised by the untapped intelligence, passion, and curiosity of their people. Meanwhile, the employees felt valued by being invited to engage in a conversation about the future of the organization and their role in it.

One woman’s comments were memorable. She said this was the first time in 14 years at the bank that she had learned anything, and told her leaders, “Learning requires thinking, and this conversation is the first time that you didn’t think for me and tell me what I should believe and how I should behave.”

What the people in the group discovered together caused them to change their conclusions about how the bank worked now and would work in the future. And once they changed their conclusions, it set the stage for them to change behaviors and get extraordinary results.

How to Inspire Engagement

Authentic engagement is created by one act: inviting your people to co-think. And this is done through conversations. The dignity people feel when their ideas and perspectives are valued, and the power that is unleashed when their discretionary effort is freely contributed, is an unparalleled competitive advantage for any organization.


Shifting your thinking from “I am the creator, and my people are the implementers” to “I know this business well, but so do my people, and I can learn from them if I really listen” will transform your organization. But transforming a culture into one that is rich in dialogue doesn’t happen overnight; it requires a proactive and thoughtful approach.

Here are three ways to get started:

Ask Socratic questions. Socratic questioning lies at the core of co-thinking. It is a way to explore complex ideas, open up problems, uncover assumptions, connect relationships, and analyze concepts. Here are several Socratic questions we have seen that generate successful conversations. They prompt thinking and do not have right or wrong answers.

  • Why do you say that?
  • What would be an example?
  • What would be an alternative?
  • What are your observations?
  • How does this relate to our major concerns?

Have small-group conversations. We have found that the optimal number for great dialogue is eight to 10 people. This number allows all the members of the group to have a voice while also allowing them to feel safe to express what they truly think and feel.

In thousands of small-group dialogue debriefs, participants have told us that when they are with their peers in small groups, they are least fearful of suggesting the wrong answer and most willing to explore and reach for new insights.

Create visuals. Data and pictures create a mental practice field or brain gym to focus the dialogue that will take place. They encourage big-picture and system thinking. This data can be infographics, a single chart, or even a dynamic metaphor. Whatever it is, it must capture multiple factors that help form a connected story to discuss.

In our experience, dialogue-driven conversations are greatly enhanced when Socratic questions, small groups, and visuals and data are used together to enable co-thinking and emotional connection. In the end, dialogue is the oxygen of engagement and change.

As leaders, we tend to think people are rational, and we approach our people with a rational mindset. Leaders assume that if they give their people accurate and succinct information, they will make the right decisions and change. But selling and telling your people strips out the heart of their work and any chance for engagement. The most successful change takes place when leaders emotionally connect with their people and inspire a new sense of hope.

About the Author
Jim Haudan is co-founder and CEO of Root, which brings strategy execution to life and helps leaders and managers engage their employees as the engines for change. Haudan is a popular speaker and author of The Art of Engagement.
About the Author
Rich Berens is president and chief client fanatic fo Root Inc. For over 10 years, Rich has had the opportunity to lead Root and its artists, designers, researchers, programmers, and MBAs in creating breakthrough approaches to change that have reached millions of people around the world.Rich has personally worked with dozens of Global 2000 organizations, including Hilton, Verizon, Masco, Petco, Procter & Gamble, Daimler, and many others to help align leaders and drive strategic and cultural change at scale.

Rich is a frequent author, thought leader, and speaker on the subject of leadership, transformation, and how to create lasting change. Rich’s latest project is a book called What Are Your Blind Spots?, which he is co-authoring with Root’s founder, Jim Haudan. The book focuses on five key blind spots they have seen many leaders fall victim to that prevent them from leading their organizations and engaging their people effectively.
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This is a great article. I personally know Robyn and she does invest in each and every person that she works with along the way. The strongest leaders are the ones who take time and listen to their employees. This is how they find out the strengths and opportunities to build their team up even stronger.
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Wonderful article! As a corporate trainer who is a huge advocate of PowerPoint, I need to change my training approach from being "tell-and-sell" to conversational. PowerPoint should still be used as a tool to help guide your conversation, not tell it.
Yes! Blaine you are spot-on; PowerPoint in conjunction with good questions sets the stage to create an engaging conversation. When done well, this can be a "powerful" combination! :)
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Conversations can shift a culture . . .
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