Decks Make You Stupid

I read recently that one of the trends to emerge during the remote working revolution is the increased emphasis on writing.  I’m not talking about the rapid-fire exchanges we see hundreds of times daily through emails, IMs, texts and Slack.  The trend is towards good, old-fashioned long form memos.  The kind of writing where you have to spend some thinking in order to string together coherent sentences and paragraphs.

We’ve heard a lot about how Zoom, Google Meet and other communication tools have become essential to the way we work.  So why is memo writing, a blast from the past, making a comeback? 

First, let me say that shamelessly provocative headline aside, I don’t really believe that Powerpoint decks make you stupid.  They are an incredibly powerful tool, especially in sales situations.  I’ve seen during the span of my own career how the rise of the personal computer and powerful presentation software like Powerpoint and Keynote have made it easy to create compelling, visual decks that wowed audiences. 

But after more than 20 years of building decks for all sorts of presentations, I’ve become increasingly wary of relying on bullet points and colorful charts to communicate business strategies. It allows for shortcuts and often can mask a failure to truly think through an issue.

Deck writing doesn’t make you stupid, but it is not the same kind of writing one must apply to craft a good memo.  In fact in many ways this is not a new trend. Several high profile business leaders have been fans of the memo since well before the pandemic.

Jeff Bezos famously banned the use of decks in meetings back in 2004.  He believed they led to sloppy and incomplete thinking.  Amazon executives must write six-page memos in the form of mock press releases that clearly detail the market impact of a proposed product or strategy.  There’s no hiding behind slick videos or animated graphics.

Warren Buffet’s letter to shareholders detailing his thoughts on the state of business and the economy each year is a must read for investors.  And numerous influential tech executives frequently maintain blogs where they opine in long form writing about the industry.

Anyone who writes regularly, whether it be blogging, journaling, reporting or even crafting fiction, knows that there is no better way to focus one’s thoughts than writing them down.  Long form or memo writing forces you to truly think through the problem and proposed solution.  Writing helps you reduce the essence of ideas and strategies to their fundamentals and thereby fosters better decision making.

From that perspective it probably should not come as a surprise that in the era of remote, geographically scattered teams the memo is making a comeback among high functioning teams.  Our days are already packed with Zooms and other distractions.  But nothing can replace long form writing for providing the essential narratives and back stories that form the foundation for our workplace cultures and product strategies.

Decks remain an important tool and any young person seeking to grow in this business would be wise to develop their deck-creating skills, especially for sales situations. A prospective client is more likely to fall asleep than give you the order if you try to convince them by reading a three- page memo in a sales meeting. 

But before you start putting together the snazzy deck, I suggest you take the time to write a memo about your project or concept.  Describe the problem, the marketplace situation, the idea and expected outcomes.  It will force you to think.  You won’t be able to cut corners or gloss over pesky details like you can when drafting a deck.

Perhaps the best place to start is to ask ourselves about the last time we wrote a memo or read one from someone on your team. If you can’t remember it might be time to turn off the message notifications, cancel a few Zooms and set aside time to write.

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2 thoughts on “Decks Make You Stupid

  1. I totally agree! I took a long hiatus from corporate America to raise my children, and when I came back, I couldn’t believe how dependent we were on PowerPoint decks. We were making multi-million dollar decisions based on some bullet points and colorful graphics. I really missed long form writing as a way to focus and progress.

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