PowerPoint, clones of Usain Bolt and long silences. A recent RSA Event with Matthew Syed got Duncan Bartlett FRSA thinking about cognitive diversity and how best to solve complex problems.
The Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has banned PowerPoint in meetings.
This strikes me as a brilliant move, as there are so many better ways to communicate ideas than using a clunky, outdated tool, which most viewers regard as inherently boring.
PowerPoint was launched by Microsoft in 1987, long before the internet became massively popular. Yet it retains a stranglehold on millions of people, not because it is good but because it’s familiar.
University teachers seem to regard it as the clever person’s method of explaining complex data. But unfortunately, most professors still use PowerPoint slides in exactly the same way as their Eighties predecessors, despite all the recent useful advice on how to freshen up the visuals and purge the words.
I recently attended a seminar at a leading British university about the latest technological developments in Silicon Valley. The presenter used a muddled deck of slides, which were almost impossible to read.
When she glanced up at the students, she realised she had lost their attention. In asbolute dismay at their glazed faces, all she could say was:
“Sorry it’s so boring... I hope I haven’t mumbled on too long.”
I cringed at those remarks but I know why she struggled. It was not because her topic was dull. Nor was it because the audience was hard to please: they were all bright people who had made a considerable effort to attend this talk by an acclaimed expert.
No, the lecturer’s problems stem from the fact that she has received no training in public speaking. She also arrived at the lecture theatre with no one to support her with the technology that connects a memory stick with a laptop and a projector.
She was therefore isolated at the front of the classroom and her impressive academic achievements gave her no help in getting her ideas into the heads of the students. I felt sorry for her.
But I have to admit that alongside my sympathy there was a tinge of frustration. University lecturers are a big influence on their students. Is this the standard they will aspire to upon graduation?
I hope that they will seek inspiration from public speakers in other spheres, outside of academia. Fortunately, the RSA offers many opportunities to hear brilliantly-delivered speeches.
I particularly enjoyed a recent presentation by the bestselling author Matthew Syed. He explained to the present audience how cognitive diversity can strengthen team performance and help us to solve complex problems.
He didn’t use any slides or graphs. He didn’t need them. His whole speech was based on stories, each one conveying a profound idea.
For example, he suggested that if you want to assemble a world-beating team of Olympic relay runners, you might want to clone Usain Bolt and enter him in a race alongside his genetic triplets.
However, Syed warned that teams of people who think like clones are a liability:
“Imagine you're putting together a group of ten people in a team to come up with creative ideas to do the next big thing. Let’s also assume that this is an intelligent group of people, each of whom comes up with ten genuinely useful ideas...
If they’re cognitively homogeneous – and all think in the same way – overall they’ll only come up with ten percent of new ideas. However, if they are cognitively diverse and come up with different ideas from one another you can get a hundred useful new ideas from them."
This theory forms the basis of Matthew Syed’s new book Rebel Ideas, in which he explores how diverse thinking can be applied in a whole range of situations.
He has an interesting take on how best to start a meeting; he suggests that people are invited to sit quietly and think about an issue before the topic is opened to discussion. The argument goes that this encourages each person to delve deep mentally, finding their own original insights.
Matthew Syed is a great presenter but I noticed that when he spoke at the RSA he didn’t ask us to start the meeting with a prolonged period of meditation. In fact, he began his talk by throwing ideas out at the audience and challenging many of our deeply-held preconceptions.
Of course, we might have felt uncomfortable – or even resentful – if he had asked us all to sit in silence for thirty minutes. But I wonder if a really rebellious gesture like that would have been a powerful way to stimulate our own cognitive diversity. We’d have certainly have remembered it for much longer than another frustrating and forgettable PowerPoint presentation.
Duncan Bartlett FRSA is the Editor of Asian Affairs, a magazine focusing on political and cultural affairs across the Asian region.