The Slide Three Problem

Today I had an interesting meeting, which highlighted something that I call the "Slide Three Problem":

In any given technical presentation to management, you can't get past Slide Three.

The reason is simple: after Slide 1 (title and your name), you get into Slide 2, which usually generates so much freeform discussion, which concentrates on a single problem only, so you get to show a third slide - which probably generates more than enough discussion to last for the entire rest of the time.

You get to choose Slide 1, and Slide 2, but the choice of Slide Three is really up to the people in the room. They'll pick up on something on Slide 2 that they disagree with or want to challenge, and then you'd better have a Good Slide Three among the rest of your slides, which will be the focus of the debate. The others just became... garbage.

It does not really matter, whether the material has been read in advance or not (most often not, or perhaps only cursorily). You still have no power over which one is going to be the Slide Three.

I know that challenging each other is the way of working at large corporations (I know MS is very good at this). There are extremely bright people around, and they grasp ideas extremely rapidly. Sometimes they can pinpoint the problems fast, sometimes they don't. Sometimes you spend an hour explaining matters all over, because of a communication problem - you try and try to understand what the other guy really wants (or needs) to hear, and what his real problem is. Sometimes it can be just a simple misunderstanding; sometimes it can be a political issue; sometimes it can be a financial issue masquerading as a technical issue; sometimes it's a personal issue masquerading as a political issue masquerading as a technical issue; and sometimes it can be a serious technical issue that the person just cannot communicate efficiently. And sometimes you're just too stupid or inexperienced to get what the other guy is saying. It takes a long time to be able to do "efficient challenges"; problems that are not the result of poor preparation or inadequate communication skills.

I know, I do it myself, too, so I am no better than anyone else. Perhaps this is the reason why slides from the management are always so vague - they move at such a high level, and have so little real content, that there really is nothing you even could disagree with? I would really like to know if there's any way to mitigate this without resorting to drawing pretty, but empty pictures, and talking more vaguely than politician who knows he's done bad things.

(Or is it just that I make for a really lousy presenter, who can't keep his audience in check for two slides? Might be. Should I be more assertive? I know I can already be extremely assertive (to the point of a serious fault), but it's hard to judge by yourself.)


Well, at least it is better than the opposite problem - getting through all of your slides faster than you thought you could but only because everybody in the meeting was concentrating on their e-mail instead of paying attention.

--Joel, 03-Dec-2005

Heh. So very (annoyingly) true. :)

--JanneJalkanen, 03-Dec-2005

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