About Using Slide Decks for Technical Design Reviews [transcript]

You’re preparing for a design review and you have it all planned. You have your cross functional team scheduled, and the key players have accepted. You sent out your materials at least 24 hours ahead of time. Now it’s time for your meeting, so you power up the computer to present the slide deck. But hold on! Let’s pause this scenario. There’s another way to review data in a meeting. And it’s better. Listen in after this brief introduction.

Hello and welcome to Quality During Design the place to use quality thinking to create products, others love for less. My name is Dianna. I’m a senior level quality professional and engineer with over 20 years of experience in manufacturing and design. Listen in and then join the conversation at QualityDuringDesign.com.

I’ve conducted my fair share of design reviews and I’ve participated in even more. These are tough meetings enduring over long periods, and there’s usually difficult questions. And that’s okay! Big decisions are being made at these meetings, usually in the order of “do we move forward through the design process”. Here’s the thing: slide decks don’t work for technical meetings. And, let me clarify this statement: slide decks do work to make it easier for the presenter to put together meeting. Slide decks don’t work to effectively communicate technical information to reviewers.

I participated in lots of design reviews with slide decks and some of them I hosted. Here are some of the issues with using slide decks for technical design reviews.  

  • Instead of presenting and showing the data with its information and conclusions all together, the slide deck sort-of tells a technical story and is summarized by the presenter. Usually, raw data is limited because of how slides are formatted and presented. You can’t really fit graphs, or if you do, they’re not really readable when they’re presented. And reviewers can’t study the graph closely.
  • Using slide decks also chops up the data so the reviewers don’t see the whole picture. For example, if questions come up during slide #2 that are answered in slide #4, what do you do? I’m guilty of saying, “Oh, hold on, we’ll cover that in slide #4.” I didn’t like saying that as the words tripped out of my mouth and neither did the reviewer. I mean, why keep them waiting? It just interrupts a chain of thought. It is frustrating for anyone having to make decisions during a technical design review.
  • We have to let go of the need to control the conversation and let discussions happen so good decisions can be made. It’s better to give up the power of controlling the flow of information. Let reviewers ask questions, challenge conclusions, evaluate options, and make the best decisions.

The presenter has to present the technical information adequately for the reviewers to be able to give a good review and slide decks impede this goal.

Do you know who else hates slide decks? Edward Tufte hates slide decks. He is a “data artist” or a “Galileo of graphics”. He pioneered the field of data visualization. He tries to bring awareness to how to present data so it’s factual, honest, scientific, without spin or persuasion. I attended a one-day seminar with Edward Tufte. As part of attending the conference, or seminar, we received four of his books. This seminar was hosted and presented by Edward Tufte himself. It was at a hotel conference center, so tables were lined up in long rows facing a podium and projector screen on the stage. On the screen was, “Our first 30 minutes is study hall. Please read *these* pages from *these* books.” So, that was a little weird and uncomfortable! Usually conferences are bustling with people, networking and making introductions with each other. Or, it’s high energy with slideshows to music. This was not that kind of a conference. When I walked into the room, everyone was really quiet, sitting, whispering…it was sort of like a library and they were treating it like a study hall. They had taken his books out of their covers and opened them to the pages and was studying and taking notes.

What he was doing is he was introducing us to this concept that he heard and liked [correction here, I think he was one of the original, big promoters for this methodology]. For technical meetings, have a dedicated time at the beginning of the meeting to read and review the information to be discussed. And when you present, your information is presented in full technical reports with an executive summary, purpose, test methods, raw data graphs, and a conclusion. The idea is that the technical report would be sent to reviewers ahead of time for their own independent review. And the time before the technical meeting would actually start would be treated like a study hall, where the reviewers would either finally get a chance to review that information or reacquaint themselves with what they had reviewed before.

The people making decisions in a design review: we don’t need to dumb it down for them. Provide an executive summary, but then also provide your report to read, pick apart and for them to ask questions until they are comfortable that they can come to an informed decision. This was sort of an epiphany for executives around 2013. Executives from Twitter, Amazon, and LinkedIn were all quoted or posted or interviewed about it. I copied the LinkedIn letter from Jeff Weiner and put it on the blog. But, Edward Tufte is who introduced me to it.

So, I tried it. I had a technical design review coming up. I told people what I was going to do, provided the materials for self-review at least 24 hours in advance (I think it was a couple days). We had the first 10 minutes of the meeting as a study hall. And, it was weird and uncomfortable! We were used to filing in, getting settled, dimming the lights, and staring at a wall. But it was good to present the information in its desired format: a technical report. And I think that discussion was more lively and there were more questions. I asked the team what they thought and they said, “Good,” and ran off to the next meeting.

Is conducting technical design reviews this way a culture shift? I think so. I think it’d be best if a project team decided that’s how they’re going to conduct design reviews and try it for an entire cycle. Now, if you really just can’t part ways from slides, Nancy Duarte is a communication expert and she proposes reorganizing typical technical reports into a report/slide hybrid. She calls it Slidedocs®. I’ll copy a link to her website in this podcast blog.

Do I run my technical meetings this way today without the typical PowerPoint slides? You bet. My clients don’t need me to dumb it down; they’re smart people. If presenting technical information, that technical report is the focus, not the slide deck. I need to gauge my audience, though. If there really has to be slides, I’ll go to extremes. I either go really minimalist or go all out, Slidedoc® style. I will use a projector for images if I think it would be helpful. Maybe I’ll schedule the meeting from 2:45 to 3:30 and give the first 15 minutes of study hall, but I’m transparent with what I’m doing and what it’s for.

What can you do with this today? If you’ve got a design review coming up, talk over this approach with your project manager or team and see if they want to try it. If they can’t bring themselves to ditch the slide deck altogether, then create your technical report, make it available to them at least 24 hours in advance, and speak to it from the meeting. Have your slide deck refer to the report. If someone’s got a question, don’t make them wait till later in the presentation. Dig into your technical report and have that discussion then and there. Your design review meeting minutes can attach or reference the technical report instead of the slide deck.

I have a question for you: do you have any other suggestions for presenting data at a design review? You can comment on this podcast blog at qualityduringdesign.com. Reach out to me on LinkedIn (I’m Dianna Deeney), or you can leave me a voicemail at 484-341-0238. I get all the messages and I might include yours in an upcoming episode. If you like this podcast or have a suggestion for an upcoming episode, let me know and share this podcast with your designing peers. This has been the production of Deeney Enterprises. Thanks for listening!