Meetings: When to present and when to converse

Nancy Duarte

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Nancy Duarte

Meeting hosts often think that presenting to a room full of people is the best way to share ideas. Westerners in particular, with their Greco-Roman oratorical roots (think Aristotle and Cicero), tend to craft a verbal case and then declare their views to the audience. But sometimes it’s better to have a conversation, where other voices are considered and different views are exchanged.

How do you decide which approach to take? Map out what you’re trying to accomplish. Before hitting “send” on your next meeting request, carefully consider what your goals are.

If you want to inform or persuade, by all means, plan to present. But if you’re looking for give-and-take, you won’t get it by speaking at length — more likely, you’ll shut people down.

Facilitating a conversation is a better way to solicit ideas, but it’s also harder to do. When you’re presenting, you have the benefit of being in near-total control. In the moment, all you have to do is focus on your message and your delivery to engage your audience. When you’re leading a conversation, you open the door to a host of other challenges. You want to encourage people to share thoughts freely and honestly, but that also means you have to juggle multiple viewpoints, manage conflicts, and make sure everyone is heard.

The benefits of having a conversation outweigh the risks — if you do it right. Facilitation is a skill that takes time to develop, but here are a couple of techniques to help you get started.

Use a Slidedoc as a Pre-Read

Consensus-building meetings are best held after an audience has been informed on a topic. Skimmable, visual documents that people can quickly digest are a great way to educate participants—we call these Slidedocs™. Give attendees 10 minutes before starting the meeting to read through the Slidedoc, or send it over in advance. Once you’ve successfully gotten everyone up to speed, you’ll have a more informed and lively discussion.

Cartoon triangle, square, and circle surrounded by sticky notes

Collaborate with Sticky Notes and Flip Charts

To encourage meeting participants to brainstorm and build on each other’s ideas, use sticky notes and flip charts to gather the information instead of having one person take notes on a laptop. That way, attendees can capture ideas quickly, cluster them, and rearrange them. You can use different colors to distinguish between types of content and different sizes to denote hierarchy.

Posting sticky notes and flip chart pages on the wall allows the entire group to see all the ideas and incorporates the benefits of kinesthetic learning by encouraging movement through writing, standing, and physically shifting ideas into place. Whenever I build a presentation, write a book, or think of a new initiative, I post my thoughts on sticky notes and printouts all over the wall. Then I invite a bunch of smart people to come in and review, remove, and re-organize my notes to refine my idea.

Cartoon triangle, square, and circle on a flip chart page

Capture the Meeting Graphically

Visual note taking, doodling, graphic recording, sketching — whatever you call it, it can greatly enhance collaborative meetings. When people can see what you’re saying, they understand you more quickly and clearly. If you record notes visually, especially on a mural, attendees retain more details through visual memory and spatial recall. Plus, you have an artifact that can be displayed to remind the team of the discussion. Visualizing helps participants pay attention, stay engaged, clarify individual ideas, and see the big picture. A large-scale graphic provided by an experienced facilitator summarizes and memorializes the discussion–and it serves as a starting point for the next meeting.

Visual note taking and doodling
Source: Eric Albertson

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used these two techniques to turn even the most lethargic and uninterested groups of people into active contributors working together to get something done.

Presenting can go a long way toward changing minds and bringing people together around a common idea. But when it’s input and consensus that you need, consider having a conversation. It can be tougher to manage, but these tools will make it a little less unwieldy and help you turn boring meetings into experiences that leave people excited and energized.

A version of this article originally appeared in HBR.

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Illustrated by Trami Truong