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How to Transform Your Board Meeting with Written Narratives

Written materials transform board meetings. With most of us working remotely, many startups have thrown out Google slides and replaced them with Google docs. It’s a fundamental change, and one I hope persists after work returns to the new normal.

Amazon is famous for its narrative process and contempt of slides. The email in which Bezos banishes decks reads:

“The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than ‘writing’ a 20 page PowerPoint is because the narrative structure of good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what how things are related. Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.”

Reading about this methodology is one thing. Living it is quite another. Once you experience it, you never go back. Many of the companies I work with have moved to this format and it’s a radical advance.

Board meetings with written materials are better. They are shorter, more focused, more effective. There is no briefing section. No one reads slides aloud. There is no guessing what’s interesting to talk about because most of these meetings start with questions.

If you have read the materials, you know what is important. So the conversation naturally focuses on the 2-3 most salient topics facing the company.

Conversation is doubly important on video. When presenting, you can’t read the room and ensure that attendees are focused on the conversation. Starting with discussion engages most attendees immediately.

Also, the startup’s team benefits from less time spent preparing because they expend no time on slide formatting. Once you start writing, you realize how much time slide decks consume on font size, icon alignment, and formatting detail.

So how do you do this?

  1. Each team leader writes their own section, no more than 1-2 pages summarizing the state of the business. Introduction, things going well, challenges, plans for the future, update on items from last time. These sections can contain graphs and charts.
  2. The CEO summarizes and provides a narrative at the beginning of the document.
  3. The VP Finance attaches the financial statements and key reports.
  4. The team circulates the narrative with the board ahead of time. Board members comment and ask questions as they read. The team clarifies points and provides analysis where necessary.

At first, the process may feel awkward. Many people don’t write in business. But after one or two meetings, the team finds its groove, it’s hard to look back.

I’m convinced written materials produce superior board meetings. Teams expend less effort preparing, the meeting focuses on the strategic questions, and the meetings are shorter and effective.