November 23, 2009



We tried an experiment last week at a Return Path Board meeting — and not just a regular Board meeting, but our once-a-year, full-day (~9 hour) annual planning session attended in person by all Board members, observers, and executives.  First, a little background.

We have been driving two important trends over the years at our Board meetings:

1. Focusing on the future, not the past.  In the early years of the business, our Board meetings were probably 75% “looking backwards” and 25% “looking forwards.”  They were reporting meetings — reports which were largely in the hands of Board members before the meetings anyway.  They were dull as all get out.  This past meeting was probably 10% “looking backwards” and 90% “looking forwards” and much more interesting as a result.

2. Focusing on creating a more engaging dialog during the meeting by separating out “background reading” vs. “presentation materials.”  We used to do a huge Powerpoint deck as both a handout the week before the meeting and as the in-meeting deck.  Then we separated the two things so people weren’t bored by the Powerpoint.  Then we started making the decks more fun and engaging and “zen.”  This meeting took the trend to its logical conclusion, which was that we sent out a great set of comprehensive reading materials and reports ahead of the meeting, and then…

…we didn’t have a single Powerpoint slide to run the meeting.  We thought that the best way to foster two-way dialog in the meeting was to change the paradigm away from a presentation — the whole concept of “management presenting to the Board” was what we were trying to change, not just what was on the wall.  The result was fantastic.  We had a very long meeting, but one where everyone — management and Board alike — was highly engaged.  No blackberries or iPhones.  Not too many yawns or walkabouts.  It was literally the best Board meeting we’ve had in almost 10 years of existence, out of probably 75 or 80 total.

I’m not sure this would work for all companies at all stages at all times, and we had a handful of graphics “ready to go” in case we wanted to shoot something up on the wall, as we likely will always have.  But I can’t say enough about how this evolution in meeting setup and execution changed the dynamic.

15 responses to “Powerpointless”

  1. bfeld says:

    It was an excellent meeting. The only really difficult part for me was the 30 minutes after I had my second chocolate milkshake from the Shake Shack. The only things I remember from that 30 minute segment were (a) George talking about something and (b) using 99.9% of my energy to prevent the onset of a diabetic coma.

  2. Power point for sure would have induced the coma, so that was a good decision for them not to use that.

  3. Bruce Wilson says:

    Thanks for trying this and reporting the results.

    Coincidentally I just discussed this with someone as a "what if" scenario Friday, but we remained resigned to the status quo.

    What, besides inertia, drives PowerPoint dependency?
    Besides the boredom, what did you lose?

  4. Paul says:

    This is amazing. I read Fred Wilson's blog on this too.

    A couple of questions:
    1. How did you get the meeting attendees to digest the pre-meeting material… pre meeting? I assume that without everyone's preparation, the meeting discussion would not have gone as well.
    2. How did you ask and get everyone to "leave their weapons at the door"? Blackberries, iPhones, laptops.

  5. I posted this on Fred’s blog as a comment as well.  We sent out a detailed agenda and whatever supporting/background materials were most useful for each section. Could be an analyst report or article or blog post. Could be a spreadsheet or table. Could be a short 1-2 page memo. Could be a presentation. We send them out as a single pdf on the Friday prior to the meeting so people have a weekend to digest.  And we set the expectation years ago to come prepared.

    I just remind people at the beginning of every meeting to be laptop and smartphone free, and tell them if they have to do something on a device, to please step out of the room.  And when things get slow or bogged down, I call a break.

  6. Paul says:


    Your thoughts on the applicability of this approach outside of board meetings?

  7. We’re trying it with an all-company annual meeting next week and are very excited about it for that as well.  I almost never use Powerpoint for sales pitches any more, and most of our sales team doesn’t, either. 

  8. joshuabaer says:

    I'm at a much earlier stage with OtherInbox but this type of board meeting is working great for me too. We have a small board and we talk regularly. They get frequent email updates with stats about the business so when we talk interactively we're able to focus a lot more on the future than on the past. I've never made a powerpoint for the board yet!

  9. pwb says:

    I've always found MacBooks to be extremely useful at these types of meetings. Why the ban?

  10. In what way do you find them useful? 

  11. mbsolon says:

    That was the hardest I've laughed all day. Impossible to A) resist the Shake Shack and B) prevent the inevitable nap…

  12. rosebud says:

    You bet. We avoid PowerPoint since Bill Gates was found to be a monopolist. Luckily, we all have serious choices – Freelance.and Corel Presentations.

  13. jintropin says:

    ye..its the same by me…

  14. Joe Payne says:

    Good Post Matt. Your board loves you for not giving them a good old fashioned slide whipping. Sometimes slides do help though. I find that having data slides on a particular topic (mostly graphs and pictures) can really encourage the conversation to be data-driven vs "at one of my other companies, they tried…" Kudos to you for skaking up the status quo.

  15. Slides definitely help. We will always have a few key ones on hand to put up as needed or at least include the visuals in the advance materials and have people flip to them.