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March 28, 2013
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April 5, 2013
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(Originally published March 25, 2013, in Capital, here.)

Years ago, when I worked at a very large bank, I was in a meeting. The CEO was there, the President, the CMO, several vice chairmen, and a few others, including me. The director of advertising was showing us a very important and very expensive commercial he created for the company.

It was awful. I think everyone agreed it was awful, but no one said much. I suppose we all doubted our judgment. The advertising director was the expert after all. And he loved it. Who were we to disagree? So millions of dollars were paid, the commercial ran, the reviews came in, and the director was gone.

I was reminded of this recently when I was shown a confidential presentation from inside one of the big banks here. It was for a product that I’m convinced is terribly conceived. I consider it awful. Yet the management approved it. And now I know why. I’ve seen what they saw.

As with that ill-fated commercial, I know what happened. Because it happens all the time. These were not presentations for discussion to decide what was best. They were sales, pure and simple, meant to convince and persuade.

You know how this happens – see if this reminds you of your meetings: The presenter (a senior manager who wants to seem smart), makes it clear that he knows the topic much better than anyone in the room. Are you convinced? (That’s called the “cognitive estrangement” that sets up the rest.) And so you quickly believe you’re watching something you don’t fully understand. And why should you? It’s not your job to know this stuff.

Then the presenter moves on and leverages this weakness (the one we think we must have), and we settle into listening, passively watching with what Coleridge long ago termed the “willing suspension of disbelief.” And then you sit back and go along for the ride.

It’s no different than the way we watch movies. We uncritically accept some world that we’re convinced we don’t understand and so we shrug at inconsistencies or doubts. And when the presentation ends, it was as if we had just seen the Matrix – we start debating what happened. No one jumps out of their seat and screams the whole thing was fake.

Now, I’m not suggesting this is all done with premeditation. It’s in the nature of departments to try to sell their ideas and for managers with proposals to try to look smart. It’s in the nature of people, when placed in the audience, to sit back and watch, often impassively, uncritically, when they are shown a new story.

But that does not change the fact that it’s the obligation of others who sit in these meetings to ensure they’re not sold. Indeed, in either of those meetings, the ones mentioned above, if someone had thought and simply started to say: “I don’t get it. If I was the customer, I’d never buy this thing,” a lot of money would have been saved and reputations preserved.

So let me propose a new rule to keep in mind for these presentations. You know Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 PowerPoint rule (no more than 10 slides, no more than 20 minutes, and no smaller than 30 point font).

Well, next time you present (or the next time you watch), add a big Zero and place it up front. Call it the 0/10/20/30 Rule. Yes, a Big Zero – for NO selling, NO buying, NO uncritical thinking. Just a good tough discussion to make sure that you’re right.

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