The NYT ran a piece a couple of years ago “We have met the enemy and he is powerpoint” (www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/world/27powerpoint.html), about the military’s overuse of PP. In it, General James Mattis asserts “powerpoint makes us stupid” because it oversimplifies and creates the illusion of understanding and mastery of an issue or situation. In my work I’ve seen a lot of powerpoints that make too much sense: reduce a complicated wicked issue into something that can be magically solved with a simple intervention and some of the Foundation’s money.
But in this piece I also learned that about the practice of deliberately creating long , complex and boring powerpoints that take up most of the time in press briefings and leave reporters so paralyzingly bored that they won’t ask pesky questions. This kind of presentation is referred to as “hynotizing chickens.”
I’ve been put through a lot of both kinds of powerpoints – some as simple as a Dick and Jane reader, others as dense as an Escher etching. Sometimes I feel like a hynotized chicken when I am meeting with grant seekers. They come in with a deck of 20 to 30 slides and go through them, often, forgetting I can read, line by excruciating line. They show me logic models that make my eyes glaze over, org charts my non-visual brain can barely follow. They talk and talk about why their work is important, why it should be supported. They are so thorough that at the end, I am exhausted and can’t think of good questions. I feel cranky, like I’ve been bludgeoned with goodness and have no right to complain because good has been done to me.
I feel like a jerk complaining about this. Don’t get me wrong: working for a foundation provides an extraordinary, wonderful window on countless worlds and enterprises. I feel lucky to get a glimpse of them in these meetings. I hear great stories and powerful data- an unbeatable combination -sometimes. But too many fund raisers diminish their organization in presentations; take the richness, complexity and uncertainties out of the work in order to make a better case for it. And I think that’s a shame.
Too often, the groups who come in to see me lead not with vision or purpose but mechanics. Activities and events are presented as if they were ends in themselves. To show they’ve read our website, they deliver all the reasons we should support this enterprise, parroting the language of our website and guidelines. It all feels strenuous and formulaic.
The one-way nature of this kind of presentation makes the leader delivering it appear less dynamic and engaged with the world. At its worst, it seems as if, as Woody Allen once wrote about his mother’s cooking, the chicken has been put through the deflavorizer.
Often, more experienced leaders have received some training that has taught them that building a relationship is important. So they tend to lead with a couple of questions in a painfully obvious effort to “connect.” But instead of building my responses into a conversation, they quickly move to the deck and the endless monologue. Instead of the elevator speech, I feel I am getting stuck on the elevator.
I understand why it happens. There’s a lot we do as funders to create this dynamic. We are always talking about how busy we are (trying to convince grant seekers how tough things are on this side of the table – as if!) It’s not easy to get time with us, so by the time you get a meeting it feels like your one and only shot. Often the only way to get a meeting is to pretend you are coming in for advice instead of asking for money. And there’s a natural and earnest desire when the work is important, to show ’em everything you’ve got. I made the same mistake over and over again when I taught grad students. I was supposed to be the expert, and I desperately wanted to give value, so I talked way too much, cramming everything I knew into a rushed nonstop monologue during class. When I learned instead to frame things up and ask questions, encourage students to connect what I was talking about to their own experiences, things went better.
And some leaders do that when they present. A meeting with them is like an invitation to take a walk together, to look into their world. There’s a story to start maybe, one that tells us how and why this project was conceived, the hopes and dreams it represents. Sometimes there is an invitation to stand side by side and gaze at some difficult and discouraging data. Often there’s a deck, but it’s used like a map, taken out occasionally to illustrate something in the conversation; or its left behind as an artifact of the meeting. The meeting itself, somehow, becomes a conversation.
There’s no blueprint for how to craft a presentation that does this. But for me, what the best leaders do is somehow convey what Harvard Physics Professor said when she talked about the work of science:
It’s how to ask the right questions, how to understand the questions we are asking. How to understand what our assumptions are. what are the uncertainties that go into these assumptions? What are the uncertainties about the predictions that we make?
When I have a conversation with a leader who is open to and about the questions presented by the work, willing to poke at them with me, I am wide awake and wanting more. And often, in the end, recommending the grant.