Why are meetings so boring?

It's difficult to find fans of business meetings anywhere. On the contrary, we see articles and blog posts with titles like "Why meetings are a waste of time" and sarcastic "get out of meetings free" cards. Some remedies for the seemingly endless/unnecessary meeting include no meetings at all, "fun" meetings with ice-breakers and games, shorter and/or virtual meetings, and specific meeting rules of order like strict agendas and "why am I talking" flow charts.

In her book Storytelling With Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals, author Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic takes the usual easy shots at PowerPoint but argues that meetings and their requisite slideshows are often boring and ineffective because the data that they are meant to communicate are often presented in such a confusing, unintelligible manner that viewers just give up trying to understand them -- what Knaflic calls the "ugh" moment.

Assuming that attending a business meeting is eventually inevitable, many observers have instead searched for the reason for that sinking-in-quicksand feeling that the typical meeting presentation can evoke. A frequent suspect is that "deck" that your well-meaning co-worker has toiled over, complete with jarring colours, theme music and cartoon-like slide transitions and animations. And yes, not wanting to be accused of "not playing with a full deck" it always seems to contain at least 52 slides.

Author Knaflic's book aims to help change all that. She is a math wunderkind with a degree in applied math and an MBA. She has worked as an analyst on Wall Street and for the Gates Foundation, as part of Google's People Operations team and as a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Now also as an author, speaker and trainer she specializes in helping people make data understandable.

The book focusses on the presentation of numerical data in tables, charts and graphs. It is arranged in ten chapters, each containing a "lesson" with before and after examples. Everything suggested can be accomplished by users without design training using common tools like Excel. Drawing on research in cognitive science, design and psychology, the author advocates for a "less is more" approach of clean, uncluttered, visually pleasing data presentations that communicate with the viewer clearly and quickly.

"Studies have shown that we have about 3-8 seconds with our audience, during which time they decide whether to continue to look at what we've put in front of them or direct their attention to something else."

Some of Knaflic's maxims:

  • Pie charts are evil
  • Don't use 3D
  • Clutter is your enemy
  • Use colour sparingly
  • Highlight the important stuff

Anyone who has to do a business meeting presentation should read this book. Once you have read it and put its lessons to use you will wish that everyone else had. Let's put an end to boring meetings!