Over the past few years, a veritable who’s who of business leaders (from Virgin’s Richard Branson, to Tesla’s Elon Musk, to Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg) have outwardly questioned the effectiveness of traditional PowerPoint presentations while gushing over the benefits of good-old-fashioned narrative.
Jeff Bezos has taken it a step further: in his 2018 annual shareholder letter, he wrote that “we don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon”. Instead, Bezos requires his executives to compose structured, six-page narrative memos to be read and discussed at every meeting.
It’s true that stories are generally more engaging than bullet-points, and I think most of us would agree that companies embracing them in the boardroom is an exciting trend. However, broadly assuming that narrative is a cure-all approach best suited to any-and-every type of business interaction is limiting and misguided.
When a carpenter is presented with a nail, for instance, she doesn’t throw away her screwdriver. Great craftsmen rely on a suite of tools to be used interchangeably depending upon the requirements of each unique situation.
The same must be true in business: rather than forcing the use of a single tool, a far wiser strategy is to ensure that employees have a deep understanding of every tool available, and know when (and how) to apply each one.
With that in mind, let’s explore when narratives and PowerPoint work best, respectively.
Narratives support the holistic … not the specific. Stories are not powerful because they include minute details; they are powerful because they weave ideas into large, unified concepts. It’s unimportant that you remember the name of every character from The Sopranos – what’s important is that you remember the larger themes of negotiating social and family conflict.
For this reason, narratives in business are incredibly effective tools when the objective of a meeting concerns meaning or purpose. What are your company values? Why is customer service so vital? How do certain products resonate with buyers? These questions of ‘gist’ (where details are less important than global themes) are perfectly suited to narrative.
No two people read (or hear) the same story. Because their focus is on the thematic organization of ideas, stories leave open many detail-gaps that must be filled in by the listener.
When Ernest Hemmingway wrote “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”, he was exploiting the open-ended nature of story by insisting readers bring their own understanding.
The fact that stories are inherently open to interpretation makes them an ideal tool when the intention of a presentation is to debate, collaborate, or innovate. A variety of unique voices each advocating a different understanding of any given narrative is a breeding ground for creative insight.
Oxytocin. Although the specifics of this chemical remain largely unknown, there is strong evidence to suggest that it fosters a sense of social connectivity and can drive neural-coupling: a fascinating phenomenon whereby the brains of different individuals begin to literally ‘sync-up’ and resonate with each other. During these periods of neural-coupling, people become deeply engaged with and focused on one another.
It turns out oxytocin is released into the brain when people listen to someone tell a compelling story. For this reason, narratives can prove useful when the objective of a conference is to promote engagement and/or relationship building. Be careful, though – I’m sure there are dozens of movies that you were completely engaged with while you watched them, only to forget about once they ended (Marvel … I’m looking at you). As such, never mistake engagement with learning.
There are times when interpretation, discussion, and innovation are off the table – when ideas are not open to debate. For instance, when training new employees on well-established organizational norms and protocol, it’s generally desired for individuals to take-in this information with as little speculation as possible.
When specific facts outweigh general themes, PowerPoint is a potent tool. Because it offers the ability to present ideas in a structured and progressive order, PowerPoint can help promote a deeper comprehension of prescribed information and ensure any non-negotiable facts are understood by different individuals in a similar manner.
When it comes to physical procedures or cognitive processes, explicit demonstration is one of the most powerful methods we can employ to drive understanding. Sure, you could regale me all day with a captivating narrative about entering travel expenses into a new company system – but I’ll be much more likely to actually learn this technical procedure if you divide the operation into its constituent parts and demonstrate each one in turn.
PowerPoint caters extremely well to the step-by-step deconstruction and demonstration of complex tasks. As before, this technique works best when the task in question is not open to personal interpretation or debate. Set procedures governing research documentation, program implementation or customer interaction, for example, would all fit the bill.
When people are verbally told a list of facts, they remember approximately 10% after a week’s time. When people are shown a list of images, they remember approximately 35% after the same period. But when people are simultaneously told a list of facts while being shown relevant images, their seven-day retention rate climbs to roughly 65%.
Regarding the combination of spoken language and visual images, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts – and PowerPoint is tailor-made for the presentation of images during an oral speech. Assuming they are relevant, images can help promote a level of deep-learning that simply isn’t possible with narrative alone.
So, now then …
When it comes to business communication, the trick is not to rely on any single approach. Instead, the best strategy is to embrace multiple approaches, and to select the right one for each situation based on the prevailing objective.
If the goal of a meeting is thematic (open-ended discussion meant to build identity, generate ideas, and drive collaborative bonding), then using narrative is a great option. However, if the goal of a meeting is specific (close-ended instruction meant to pass along prescribed facts, protocols, or information), then PowerPoint is the better choice.
With that said, however, it’s important to recognize that knowing when to use a tool is just the starting point. Knowing how to use a tool is what drives results.
Going back to Jeff Bezos, even though his company is fully-committed to using narrative memos, he’s quick to admit that the quality of those memos varies widely. “Some have the clarity of angels singing”, he wrote in his annual letter, before conceding that “others come in at the other end of the spectrum”.
For Bezos, it’s an issue of coaching. He knows that merely dictating which tools to use is not enough; for Amazon to be great, his associates must understand how to use them. And the same standard applies to all of us – to become great communicators, we must develop a strong grasp of how to use the tools available to us.
To that end, I recently led a masterclass for my inner-circle called “The Neuroscience of Presenting”, during which I dove into the latest brain research surrounding influence and communication, and (among other things) discussed the most effective strategies for using narrative and PowerPoint.
For anyone interested, the replay is available at lme.global/presenting. It’s a fantastic course for learning the how (and perhaps even more importantly, the why) that powers effective group communication.
Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath is a renowned cognitive neuroscientist with an expertise in human learning, memory, and brain stimulation. His company LME Global is a mission-based company aiming to serve teachers and business professionals through applied brain science. You can visit lmeglobal.net to learn about his popular neuro-courses, and to reserve a copy of his new book “Stop Talking, Start Influencing: 12 Ideas from Brain Science to Make Your Message Stick”.