Meetings shouldn’t be monologues

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
February 21, 2024
A graphic with a blue background and black text that reads 'What if every presentation was a conversation?'
Meetings shouldn’t be monologues
Written by 
Jim Kalbach
February 21, 2024

On February 1, 2003, the Columbia space shuttle was destroyed while re-entering the atmosphere after a 16-day mission. An investigation showed that a hole was punctured in the edge of a wing when a piece of insulation peeled off during the launch. In the intense heat of re-entry, hot gasses penetrated the inside of the wing, eventually leading to a complete break-up.

Could this tragedy have been prevented? Possibly — but how it could have been prevented might surprise you.

According to Edward Tufte, Yale professor and thought leader in the field of information design, poor presentation of the risk and lack of differentiation of information — not lack of knowledge — led to the oversight. 

This isn’t an isolated incident. Again, according to Tufte, slide presentations come with their own cognitive style that doesn't necessarily favor clarity of communication or better insights. 

The style of slide presentations offers a passive, “lean back” mode of communication, like watching a TV show from an armchair. Bullet points appear to indicate facts about the current state of affairs, not how things might be in the future. Slides don’t invite participation or the exploration of concepts; instead, they lull audiences to sleep. 

So if the medium really is the message — as media philosopher Marshall McLuhan once claimed — then we must ask: What tools and practices are best for expressing and collaborating on touch business challenges in modern teams?  

A new way is needed — one that'll unleash our collective creativity and imagination.  

Just imagine if instead of a list of bullet points, the NASA engineers offered their insights in a more open, participatory format — one that allowed for interactivity and divergent opinions and thoughts to merge with their information. Perhaps the disaster could have been avoided. 

Beyond slide decks: A new cognitive style

In 2009, the founders of Mural created a small company called Three Melons, which focused on creating online video games. After some time on the market, it was acquired by Disney in 2010. 

No longer a tiny three-person start-up, the team collaborated between Buenos Aires (their home city) and Los Angeles. And they experienced the passive cognitive style of slide presentations firsthand: the new colleagues in LA leaned back and judged each bullet point, despite the desire to have them lean forward and participate in the creative process.

How might we collaborate online across distances and still maintain an imaginative atmosphere akin to an in-person workshop? To answer that question and solve their own problem, the founders came up with the concept of Mural, originally called “Medley Board.”

An early brainstorming sketch of Medley Board
Early ideation on Medley Board

Medley Board was a concept for an online environment that allowed participants to visualize their thoughts and ideas in a variety of ways in a very participatory, collaborative mode of interaction. It made use of color and shapes and different formats. Participants could move around freely in an extended virtual space as they might move around a workshop room. 

What’s more, working in a digital medium also overcomes challenges with physical sketchbooks and the like. Online, you can create, share, store, and archive your imagination fluidly to keep your creative momentum going and soothe your inner creative beast, no matter where you are. 

The evolution of presentations: What's next?

When PowerPoint was introduced in 1987, presentations changed forever. But presentations didn’t start with bullet points on slides. Long before ‌presentation software took over, tools like overhead projectors and slide carousels served a similar purpose. 

Back in those days, presentations were visualized with tools like paper flip charts and slide projectors, and these were used in classrooms and meeting rooms all over the world. But presentations were still a one-to-many communication scenario.

Now, with collaborative visual platforms like Mural, we continue to see the frontstage of a presentation and the backstage preparations blurring. 

For instance, a design leader at a large investment banking institution — let’s call him Brad — told us that he doesn’t create a separate presentation to communicate with stakeholders anymore. Instead, his scribbles and sketches become the material that goes into a summary for stakeholders that's right next to his notes. 

He then invites stakeholders into his mural to not only view and comment on his summary, but also see the thinking that went into it firsthand. The frontstage and backstage are one thing. 

This changes the relationship with Brad’s stakeholders. Rather than presenting at the front of the room and communicating his message to them, he invites them in to co-create and participate in making sense of the challenge at hand. Psychological safety and trust are absolutely necessary for this shift in relationship, among other aspects of collaborative teamwork.  

But the results are astounding: Brad reports that decision making isn't only quicker, it’s also stickier. He’s more aligned with the stakeholders above and below him. And the collaboration is richer and rewarding at the same time, with participants‌ telling him how much fun they’ve had in his sessions. 

What is visual co-creation?

Co-creation runs counter to the secrecy and silos of traditional companies and product development, and instead pulls all the key stakeholders into the process, resulting in less rework and more immediate impact. 

Teams and organizations are often confronted with complex business challenges that we try to talk through or document as bullet points in a PowerPoint deck. Why? Why not get the pieces out on the table to solve the challenges? That’s where visual cocreation comes in. 

First, visual teamwork has important effects on how the group solves problems.

The benefits of visual teamwork

  • Visualizing thoughts makes thoughts tangible: Everyone can literally see what others are thinking. This provides transparency and immediacy of feedback. 
  • Visual work subverts hierarchy: collaborators are on an equal footing, from the newbie intern right up to the CEO. The ability to visualize is empowering. 
  • Working visually is nimble: You can change directions and move conversations in a nonlinear way, allowing you to shift as needed. 
  • Visualization invites participation: Diverse perspectives emerge from visual collaboration because everyone can join in. People who are often reticent in meetings and workshops are suddenly the “loudest” in the visual conversation, contributing valuable thoughts. 
  • Visualization is spontaneous: Not only is our visual perception fast, visual collaboration also happens at a quick rate. It’s easy to visualize a conversation on the fly and record a conversation graphically as it happens verbally. 
  • Visualization builds shared understanding: A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say, and visualization goes far to build alignment across team members. Perspectives are aligned, and reality can be negotiated when imagination is expressed visually. 
  • Visualization is playful: It’s just fun to work with pictures, shapes, and colors. People can express themselves and their thoughts in a playful manner. This engages teams and raises the spirits of everyone involved. 

How to get started with visual teamwork

Getting to a visual co-creation doesn’t have to be hard, though. Here are a few simple things you could do to get started:

1. Invite live commenting

Import slides from a deck into a Mural canvas and lay them out from left to right. Then, invite your audience into the board as you go through the points and invite them to make comments below each slide. You could structure this with different colored notes for positive and negative points or for questions and suggestions or similar.

2. Insert exercises

Build pauses into a presentation to ask for input from the audience. This goes beyond just having people raise their hands or a quick poll. You can actually get work done together. Invite people into a quick brainstorming session for finance. Or, you could have a “scavenger hunt” to collect and compile information on the fly. 

3. Create an immersive story

At Mural, we’ve developed a technique we call immersive storytelling. Using a mural, we’ve effectively replaced slides as a primary means of communication.

But immersive storytelling is more than just replacing slides — it’s also about building in interaction and engagement throughout the presentation. 

Since Mural is interactive, you can reveal hidden notes, rate items on a scale, or even rearrange information in real time. Additionally, due to the nonlinear format of such a presentation, the conversation can go in any direction. 

Related: 5 actionable tips to improve meeting engagement

Go further with Mural

The need for teamwork to be open and collaboration has never been greater. With visual co-creation, presentation goes from passive to active — from lean-back to lean forward. The massive shift in the workplace experienced during the pandemic with distributed teams isn’t just a burden; it's an opportunity to reimagine teamwork. 

Visual co-creation changes the game on many levels. 

Learn more about how to shift from a one-to-many presentation style to co-creation by getting in touch with our Professional Services team

About the authors

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in innovation, design, and the future of work. He is currently Chief Evangelist at Mural, the leading visual work platform.