By Bill Lane
McGraw Hill, $29.95
Enough with the PowerPoint. Please. You’re killing us. And hurting yourself.
I’ve long since exceeded maximum safe exposure levels for PowerPoint in the workplace. Too bad you can’t build up immunity to brutal slide shows delivered by boring presenters who are apparently competing with the audience for the title of most disinterested person in the room.
Not that I’m any better. I too have indiscriminately inflicted death by PowerPoint. In a previous life, other duties as assigned included churning out supersized presentations to "facilitate the timely dissemination of strategic corporate communications between management and frontline employees." Seriously.
One can only imagine what was muttered behind closed doors by the ever-diminishing number of managers who opened my e-mail attachments and tried to make sense of slides with a four-chart mash-up and 15 bullet points.
But then a few weeks ago, it finally happened. All the fruitless searches for a PowerPoint done right ended in a hotel banquet room on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. I was in the Windy City for a conference.
One of the presenters was Lawrence Hincker, an associate VP with Virginia Tech. Hincker told us the story of how his college responded to, recovered from and refused to be defined by the April, 2007 tragedy where a gunman murdered 32 students and staff in nine horrific minutes.
Hincker delivered the best presentation of the conference. He spoke with passion and a sense of purpose. The emotional scars hadn’t healed yet.
Hincker grabbed and held our attention the whole time. He talked about lessons learned. What went right. What he would have done differently in the hours and days after the crisis. How we can prepare now for the unthinkable. Everyone in the room took notes. No one played with their CrackBerry or wandered off to Nike Town, Borders or American Girl.
And Hincker’s PowerPoint wasn’t the usual crutch, prop or distraction. As he talked about the waves of media that rolled into Blacksburg, Va., we saw photos of 140 satellite news trucks jammed in a parking lot. NBC Today co-anchor Matt Lauer broadcasting live from the campus green. A student surrounded in a media scrum by reporters jockeying for an eyewitness account and local reaction.
And as Hincker spoke of how his college healed, there were unforgettable images of candlelight vigils, memorial services and convocation ceremonies.
Jack Welch would have been impressed. The former chairman of General Electric rewarded folks who could stand and deliver a powerful presentation or pitch, and punished anyone who didn’t have a clue.
And no one worked a room better than Jack. According to Bill Lane, Welch’s speech writer for 20 years, the chairman talked GE into becoming the world’s greatest company. Or as Welch would say, he made GE better than the best.
Lane says Welch, as GE’s communicator-in-chief, changed the corporate culture by insisting on absolute candour. An inability or unwillingness to speak the truth in clear, compelling and concise ways was a career-limiting move.
Welch did a major overhaul of GE’s annual management get-togethers where a whole lot of time and money was spent to say very little of any real value.
"When I joined GE, the corporate presentations at the major company meetings were among the most polished (and expensive) in corporate America," says Lane. "But they were — if not outright dishonest — mostly useless and often, just plain dull.
"Within a few years, Jack’s impatience with crap and sham grew, and I was able to guide presenters (with Welch’s backing) toward changing GE meetings into what I would call ‘helpful conversations’ — which resembled family gatherings, where men and women shared what they had learned, sometimes painfully.
"Meetings that were once typified by demonstrations of corporate pomposity, laughed at in hushed tones at late-night bar conversations, became opportunities to develop useful, competitive tools. Speakers had no hidden agenda and no other objective than to share with one another, and to look good in the process."
And orchestrating those family gatherings and helpful conversations was Welch. He not only picked who presented, he also decided what presenters would say. Drafts of presentations would be fired back from Welch’s office with tough love comments. Boring, Jack would write. Off the point. Too much detail. Too long. Can you make this point with more passion? Pound this home. Can’t read this. It’s too busy. Why not just say it? What’s the point? Are you kidding? A nightmare.
Yet once the revisions were made, Welch reassured the bruised and battered managers that they were going to ace their presentations and rock the house.
"This stage-managing of company meetings might sound prehistoric, old-fashioned, tyrannical, repressive and dictatorial," says Lane. "All I know is, it worked. These meetings were Jack’s megaphone, and everyone knew it. Do the people who attend your key meetings know whose thoughts and views they are hearing?"
And when it came time for Welch to present, no one at GE was better prepared. He’d spend days "noodling" an eight-minute speech, all the while pacing around his office and stuffing his mouth with packs of gum and later carrot sticks.
Lane says Welch had a passion to always be the one speaker everyone remembered. And he was willing to invest whatever time and effort was necessary to be the best.
"There was no such thing as getting a pitch to where it was ‘good enough’. It had to be the best," says Lane.
While mostly a memoir of life in the trenches with America’s best known CEO, Lane has also written a handbook on effective leadership communications.
Want to drive culture change in your workplace? Listen up.
"If you are a CEO or leader of an organization and merely sign off on your communications, or read things written for you, or sign messages to your employees put in front of you, you are probably not a bad CEO. But you are not a fanatic — the best leader you can be. It’s not the stuff of which transformational leaders are made."