Don’t Make Board Decks

Why and how my team built board reports instead of PowerPoint decks. Fifty pages, less work than slides, and more valuable.

Image courtesy of Drew Beamer.

Board meetings are a critical time of communication and reflection for a company. You have to share enough information that the people in the room can make existential decisions about the business. Yet most CEOs I know share only slides (the “board deck”) with their board.

This is a huge mistake.

People who worked for me at Puppet claimed I hate PowerPoint or Keynote. Nope. I use them myself when presenting on stage in front of a large crowd. But they are a horrible choice for communicating without a talk track, and are incapable of conveying large amounts of information, or anything of detail.

Don’t trust me? Ok, how about Edward Tufte , The Godfather of information design, who partially blamed them for the Columbia space shuttle explosion:

These [NASA] review boards examined what is probably the best evidence available on PP for technical work: hundreds of PP decks from a high-IQ government agency thoroughly practiced in PP. Both review boards concluded that (1) PowerPoint is an inappropriate tool for engineering reports, presentations, documentation and (2) the technical report is superior to PP. Matched up against alternative tools, PowerPoint loses.

What’s that you say? Running your business is easier than shooting rockets into space, so you are fine dumbing down your communication? You’re not in great company.

Amazon forbade PowerPoint in staff meetings, switching to a six page written memo:

Bezos revealed that “narrative structure” is more effective than PowerPoint. According to Bezos, new executives are in for a culture shock in their first Amazon meetings. Instead of reading bullet points on a PowerPoint slide, everyone sits silently for about 30 minutes to read a “six-page memo that’s narratively structured with real sentences, topic sentences, verbs, and nouns.”

Scott McNealy banned it at Sun Microsystems years earlier.

It’s not just that slides are bad.

There’s a much better option right in front of you.

For most of my time running Puppet, we prepared a board memo: A text document written in normal English, with supporting images and charts. It averaged between 35 and 55 pages in length.

It worked great.

It took less time to prepare, and conveyed the state of our company more effectively. I recently shared my last board report, from 2016, with a friend, and he protested, “This is an SEC filing, not a board report!”

I’m not sure if our process is a fit for you, but hopefully it will at least inspire you to find a better solution than slides.

I used to be like you. Well. I never walked through slides in the meeting. I always drove a short (3ish items) agenda. My goal was discussion, not presentation. But I did start out using a deck.

I still cringe a little at the thought. But one of my startup principles is “Innovate only when necessary.” Your business requires a certain amount of breaking new ground. But don’t add risk by doing something unnecessarily new. If I avoided everything I thought was dumb I’d never get anything done.

Everyone else did board decks. My team was used to them. 🤷‍♂️ Sure, we’ll give them a try.

I hated it.

We spent too much time, on the wrong work, and did a poor job in the end.

Wow. The team spent so much time on fonts. And arranging images. What, exactly, is this adding to the board meeting? I understand: An ugly deck makes us look bad. But it seemed like we were spending a third of our time prettifying something instead of actually communicating.

There’s a good reason it was so hard to make them attractive: We had a ton of information to convey. We had to include detailed information about sales, marketing, engineering, and operations. The reader needed to quickly gain a sense of what was working, what was not, and what the vectors were around the company. No amount of picking fonts and rearranging images could deliver that understanding with PowerPoint.

So one quarter we ran an experiment. It was early on, only a year or two after our first round.

I gave each member of my team a choice: You can produce slides, or prose (i.e., plain text, using full sentences and paragraphs). Unsurprisingly, sales and marketing picked slides, and engineering and services picked prose.

What a stark difference.

The prose was done faster, communicated more, and just felt so much better.

Experiment over, prose won, we switched.

But how?

I don’t remember exactly how the process evolved. I do remember where we ended up, six years into using producing what we called board reports.

We did all the writing in Google Docs. We could all work at once and not step on each other’s toes.

I would build a skeleton of the report: Write out each section heading (“Summary”, “OKRs”, “Product”, “Marketing”, “Sales”). Then I’d use a comment to assign each section to the relevant executive. They’d either produce the text themselves, or do so in partnership with their team. Sales, marketing, and finance would include a lot of charts and graphs; product tended to stick to prose with a couple of diagrams or screen shots.

As people filled out the document, I played a few roles.

I spent most of my time assessing when someone was done. I’d read through people’s work and mark something that was insufficient, unclear, or missing with a comment in Google Docs. These are easy to spot even when scrolling through a fifty page document. As people worked, they marked their progress as done or ready to review. A completed section was easy to recognize: All comments and suggestions were resolved.

In this way, I could scan a large document and instantly see where work remained to be done.

My second job was overcoming a shortcoming in Google Docs. Or maybe a lack of training of office workers. Docs has built-in headings, and if you use them, your document is visually consistent, and auto-generates a table of contents. However, most people who worked for me never used the headings. They’d make a headline bold and increase the font size. So I had to go through the entire document and correct the markup. This was probably a quarter of my time.

By the end, I delegated this to a senior copy-editor who we trusted to see the entire document in process.

My last major role, and the only one that resembled the work of a CEO instead of an editor, was to ensure we were telling a single, coherent story. I’d write the summary to set the key messages. Then as I assessed everyone’s work, I pointed out inconsistencies or gaps. Most of this simple editing: Ensure all of the text used the same voice (first person plural, usually). It involved plenty of strategic work, though: tying company goals to team performance, ensuring the whole story was told, and asking everyone to cover the ‘why’, not just what happened.

You can guess this process triggered a few tense side conversations as I dragged information to light.

That, in the end, is the real point of the board report: Make sure we all understand the true state of the business. The writing was more important than the reading. It was on me to ensure we did the real work, rather than just packing it with information without saying anything.

I usually spent about four hours on it. Again, on a fifty five page report. My team each spent 1-3 hours. I did have the odd executive here or there or spend more like four or five hours on their part. We also never invested enough in automated reporting, so I’m confident some parts of the org had to work harder than I’d like to admit to generate their charts.

We targeted completion at least a couple of days before the board meeting. I’d share it with the board as a PDF. A couple of times I tried sharing it as a Google Doc (copied, so they can’t see the edit history), in hopes they would ask questions that could drive the agenda. It never got much engagement so I stopped.

Without a board deck, what did we actually talk about? I mean, without slides driving every minute, don’t you lose track?

No way. I ran a tight ship. But we measured time in half hours and big topics, not individual clicks.

My board meetings were usually three hours long. I’d spend an hour with just the board discussing high level status of the business and team. Then we’d take an hour and a half to cover our agenda, usually with portions of my team in the room. Then we’d spend half an hour at the end again just with the board, discussing what we learned and what we expected to do about it. This is when we also assessed individual executive performance. By the end of my tenure we also had a few minutes set aside for just the board, with me absent.

This process created space for deep conversation in the meetings. Everyone who read the report (which was, well, nearly everyone) was caught up on the business. They were fully prepared to discuss the three topics. And we had no structured flipping of slides to get in the way of discussion.

After the meeting, I edited the report as needed then sent it to the whole company.

Usually this involved removing just a line or two. Sometimes it was larger surgery, and others no changes at all. Mostly I cut out discussion of personnel changes, or removed sentences that required more sensitive, political phrasing than I practiced in these reports.

The end of this cycle ensured everyone involved in the company was up to date on, well, everything. Goals, status, progress, weaknesses, strengths.

I don’t know if everyone should use this process. I know many people were raised by American business to think slides are the best form of communicating. That’s a hard habit to break. I won’t even judge you if you use slides during the meeting to display the agenda and schedule, and maybe key images.

Slides are perfect if you want to tightly control the message, and not leave much room for hard questions.

But if your goal is to do real work in board meetings, skip the deck and write a report.

A Writing Report: Two Years In

My biggest articles, lessons learned, and plans for this year.

Photo by Elijah O’Donnell

I started a daily writing habit two years ago. If you look at my output since then, it’s a bit haphazard: Lots of advice to founders, discussion of venture capital and the blockchain, and a bit of telling my own story.

My own review of my writing is mixed. I think the writing is good, and in most cases I think the topics are important and my viewpoint adds something. But the writing style is painfully far from how I talk, and thus too far from how I think of myself. There’s little humor in it, as one example, which is counter to how I present, or even just talk with friends. I have found a voice, but not my voice, nor one I’m terribly fond of. Maybe I read too much fancy writing in college, and too many Serious Business Books since then, but not enough that didn’t take itself seriously.

I expect one of the main reasons I struggle to include humor is that my jokes tend to be self-deprecating, but I still don’t feel comfortable writing much about my failures and problems at Puppet. I’m still involved, but can’t claim to be a spokesperson or any such thing, so a lot of topics aren’t available. Yes, these are my stories, but I recognize how much of an impact I could have on the company, its employees, and its community if I were flippant about my failures of the past. This was manageable when I was running the company, but doesn’t really work in this state. That can’t be the whole explanation, though, and I plan to do more experimentation this year to begin to suss it out.

I have mostly chosen topics by focusing on beliefs I have that others don’t. Some of this is insight I think is special to me, such as one of my favorite essays, Where Does Your Work Live, and some is straight disagreement, as in No, You Don’t Learn More From Failure. I still run into this last one all the time, and I love having a well practiced argument for how silly this popular belief is.

My series on VC was very different: An attempt to share with a wider world what I’ve learned about how venture works from the inside. Of course, I’m not inside venture in the normal sense: I raised a bunch of money, and spent a ton of time with investors, but have never been an investor myself. But my own learning over those years didn’t seem to be represented anywhere, and based on how often this is brought up, it seems people found it valuable. A year later, it’s a bit unclear even to me how much this series is an explanation of venture capital or an indictment. I truly do believe venture is totally broken, and it seems much of the rest of the world has now come to agree, based on the conversations I’m seeing. Even so, it is actually a fit for some people, and they should know how it works internally. Hopefully the series helps them.

I did a series on the blockchain, too, and this was much more an exploration on my part than an explanation. I had plenty of education and opinions going in, but I didn’t really know what unique insights or beliefs I had until I started writing. This is probably my best example of learning by writing. I started with the knowledge that the blockchain was primarily full of fraud and black market sales, and that I was more interested in the crypto legacy of git and BitTorrent than Bitcoin, but I learned a heckuva lot more in the course of exploring this area in more depth. I’m not sure anyone else learned anything; I’ve never had anyone mention these posts to me, nor seen them reposted anywhere. I am not sure what to take away from that.

My most frequently shared piece is Strategy is Culture. Even after all this time it still gets shared roughly weekly, which is more than all of my other pieces combined. This article took me more than a year to write; every week I’d try to write it, give up, then dash off something simpler and less important. I had to figure out a lot to get to the point where I could successfully explain how closely linked I think strategy is to day to day execution, and how that, in the end, is your company’s culture. It still feels like a fundamental insight that most other people are missing, something so important that my struggles at Puppet all make sense suddenly.

Unquestionably my most popular piece was Why We Hate Working for Big Companies. It was the only one I wrote that got mainstream visibility (albeit just a reposting on a sub-brand of CNBC), and it got shared far more often and widely than I could have hoped, especially given its length. Weirdly, after a big splash it has almost completely dropped off.

In addition to it getting the most reach, it also had the biggest impact on me. It forced me to express my weird combination of beliefs. In doing so, I realized how rare they are, and how important they are to what I do. It took a lot more work, but I eventually realized this essay introduces the topics I need to focus on, both in my writing and in my company building.

My interests today are at the intersection of economics, technology, and the individual worker. I’m educated and opinionated on each of them, but only by considering them together does a complete picture of my opinions and drive start to emerge. This piece on why it sucks to work at big companies is the first time I brought it all together, and I think that’s why it worked so well.

It’s also a longer piece than just about everything else I’ve published. I’ve tended to write articles around 1200 words, mostly because that’s right about what people recommend you write on a daily basis. But the success of this one began to make me think I might do better with longer works, and my struggles to get hard topics out over the last six months has helped validate that for me. It’s really hard to bring together a bunch of ideas into one coherent whole — it’s much easier to instead just write one article on each concept — but it’s more valuable and better work to do it all in one.

After two years of writing, my goals for the next year are, in no particular order:

Come closer to my real voice. This means being more funny, but also more relaxed. I feel like my writing style is too stiff, too formal, which is hilarious given how informally I speak.

Write more about what I think about. I have written a lot of things I believe, but mostly not written much about what’s filling my brain. I hope to do better on that this year.

Write bigger pieces. I think I’d worked through the bite-sized ideas that were fighting to get out, and now any effort to produce something easily digestible seems to require compromising the work, rather than making it better. I think it’s holding me back, not being a helpful constraint. I’m going to be a bit more willing to go long, and pull a complete thread together, even if it means plenty of people will skip it because of length or complexity.

Thanks for reading so far this time. I hope to keep you entertained this year, too.

Several short sentences

I have plenty to share. I can even write it. I just can’t publish it.

Picture courtesy of Cliff Johnson

Last year I decided to write more. Daily, in fact. One of my first actions was to ask Om Malik for advice. I had been following him since he was writing for Business 2.0, which was an actually valuable business magazine in the tech bubble. I am now lucky enough to know him through True Ventures.

When we talked, he shared a story about his first published piece. I did not find it helpful.

The magazine he was writing for (Fortune, I think) said his article was too long. He shortened it. A lot. It was still rejected. He compressed it more. Again. And again. I believe the original 1500 word piece became 300. Om’s punch line was that they told him it was their best-ever first contribution by an author.

I don’t think I’m cut out for writing 300 word articles. It’s not just that that kind of compressed writing is hard. It’s also about the missed opportunity: If you’re reading one of my articles, I want to take full advantage.

But my lack of desire to write short pieces is not why his story wasn’t helpful.

It’s one thing to say: “Write shorter”. Ok. I can see how that makes sense. Everyone knows the line, “I’m sorry this is so long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” It’s intuitive, implying that investing in the quality of writing somehow intrinsically shortens it.

But more than a year after this story from Om, I had still not found a way to put this principle into practice.

I could compress writing a bit. Programming taught me that shorter code is often simpler and clearer. Of course, it still took years to be good at it.

Stephen King had taught me that adverbs often indicate a problem. If you can get rid of them without losing meaning, your work is almost always better. One way to do this is to choose more expansive verbs.

I was able to translate my speaking coach’s advice into writing, too: She helped rid my talks of filler words. You might not think this is useful in writing — I never find myself typing out ‘um’1 — but I am over-fond of long phrases that can be easily replaced with a single word.

I tend to over-qualify. This is an opinion piece. You know that. I can skip all the incidences of “I think”. One “maybe” is enough, I don’t need “should maybe”. Two examples suffice; I don’t need three and an “etc”.

For example, in this piece, I replaced the phrase “was still not able to learn” with “had not learned”. “I had learned as a programmer” became “programming taught me”. Both of them are clearer, simpler, just… better. In particular, the verbs are much stronger.

Again, it’s not that I had learned nothing over the last year. I just… I knew I was using tactics. Simple rules. My writing was shorter, but… not short. The Hemingway app was still harshly judging all my failures.

Then I got lucky. I ran into Lucy Bellwood — a fellow Reedie! — at an event, and we traded book recommendations while her partner patiently slept on his feet. She recommended a new book to me: Several Short Sentences About Writing, by Verlyn Klinkenborg.

It’s amazing.

Of course, I doubt I’ll ever finish it.

It reads more like poetry than prose. I do not like poetry. Nearly every paragraph is a single sentence. Almost none grow to more than one line.

Many books on writing can be summarized as: Sit down and write. Seriously. Now. Keep doing that.

Not this one.

I can’t summarize it for you. It’s, it’s… dense. But I can share a little I have learned. And how it has cursed me.

I received a new term from it: Transitions. I knew what adverbs were long before Stephen King taught me that they’re suspect. Not to be entirely avoided, but hold your nose when you use them.

I already knew my sentences were too long. Even when I broke them up, I knew I relied too heavily on words that connect them (like the phrase at the beginning of this one). This knowledge wasn’t useful, because I wasn’t able to translate it into methods of fixing them.

The first thing Klinkenborg gave me was a name for these words: Transitions.

Like adverbs, they’re usually a sign that you’ve failed somewhere. That you were lazy.

This labeling did not magically fix my writing, but it gave me something to track. An easy measure for how I was doing.

Then he delivered the kicker: Simple guidance on how to eliminate them. Or at least, reduce them.

Knowing sentences should be shorter is not useful if you don’t know how to get there. What makes a great short sentence, vs a crappy long one?

His answer is incredibly dense. I have to slow down when reading it: You should minimize the distance between the period of your previous sentence and the point of this one.

Those long, complex sentences I like to write aren’t bad because they’re long, or because they have too many phrases. They’re bad because their point is so far away from their start. The reader is left to wander through it, holding out hope for a conclusion.

What are you trying to say? Say that. Immediately. Did you leave something important out? Say that. Now. Keep it up until you’re done.

Your old, complex sentence is now a series of short sentences, in order of importance, each getting right to the point.

Of course, that’s not how the book describes it. My description would likely horrify its author. There’s far more to it than this. But it’s a start. And a huge departure from what I was doing.

It’s also why I can’t write any more.

The topics I’m working on now are incredibly important to me. They’re hard to reason about, to capture. And while I’m sitting here struggling with the content, the writing itself keeps getting in the way. The form. The structure of the sentences. The line breaks.

Where I put paragraphs.

It’s not that I’m embarrassed. It’s that the process of writing is distracting me from what I am trying to write.

So please. Forgive me a little writer’s block. I promise I’ll get better.

When I do, I hope you’ll also tolerate experimentation and failure in how to put all this to work. Expect wild oscillations in sentence length. Inconsistency between sentences and paragraphs. Confusion across pieces. I’m in that ’conscious incompetence’ phase of short sentences, and it’s going to be a rough path for a little while.

I’ll come out a better writer, though. And hopefully you’ll gain something from witnessing the process.

I recently updated Om on my progress, sharing how much his story confused me and these tactical lessons I’d just received. Thankfully he appreciated the note, and was happy to see I took his story as a challenge, rather than a judgement. And he didn’t seem fazed in the slightest that it took more than a year to make anything of his help.

  1. Except, obviously, in this case. Not never. Just not usually.