Using Systems Thinking: How to Go from 140 PPt Slides to 2

What kind of motivation does a trainer need to liberate herself from an unweildly PowerPoint slide set? What about the above – might that work for you too?

Last Wednesday in London I delivered a systems thinking module for LEAD Europe Cohort 14 (I was the Director of Capacity Development at LEAD International for 6 years). For several years at LEAD I delivered a systems thinking training module that had 5 heavy PPt files which contained over 140 PPt slides. People generally liked the module, and it was always a bit of a marathon and rather overwhelming even in its one day version.

Last week I delivered the module with the same learning objectives (common archetypes, goal setting, Behaviour Over Time graphing/Reference Mode diagramming, and introduction to Causal Loop diagrams), in half the time, and with only 2 PPt slides! Even with this incredible dematerialisation (literally and figuratively), people found the module incredibly useful and perhaps even more deeply so.

What could get me to break my dependence on that pile of carefully crafted slides, and get me closer to the point in half the time?

I knew that in the amount of time we had (4 hours) there was simply no way I could run through those slide sets and do the exercises. So I decided to change the format, and have me be the medium for content delivery rather than the slide deck. As a result, people really got more of me, the trainer, as I went through the steps with them of the various games and exercises, helped them identify their own examples for application, and coached them as they tested the two diagramming tools on these examples. Because they were interacting with me instead of the slide set, I got more immediate feedback, which gave me more confidence in what I was delivering, which in turn helped me to resist hiding behind an enormous slide set.

Here are a few other practical things I did to reduce my need for slides:

  1. I wrote the schedule on a flip chart and used it for signposting and transitions, instead of slides. This was for myself as much as participants. I also wrote up the short hand of the overall sequence and narrative of the module and carried that around with me so I could make and remake the key points for people, and never lose the plot that was so carefully constructed in the slides.
  2. I learned the game briefings by heart and gave them orally with a physical demonstration to help people follow (rather than the rules on a slide and a picture of the action);
  3. I took out ALL the examples. As heretical as that sounds, it helped quickly contextualise the tools for this particular group, as they came up with stories related to their collective knowledge based on past discussions. For example, I gave people the archetypes (like “better before worse”), with a cartoon which illustrated each one, and asked people in pairs to come up with the examples of these archetypes from their discussions together that week, as well as from their own life and work. These were then used to breathe life into the generic structures (rather than my generic examples).
  4. My only 2 slides described the anatomy of the two diagramming tools, which I put up to talk through briefly. Then I took them down. I had photocopied these and put the tips on the back, (e.g. for selecting good variable names, or for assigning polarity on a CLD), and handed these out, so that they could be used as a reference when they drew their own diagrams.

Overall it was an exercise in getting to the essence of the learning. Deriving the most critical points, and having people do all their learning through application. It was such a success, I will probably never use those 140 slides again!

4 replies
  1. Tom Fiddaman
    Tom Fiddaman says:

    I think there are some more positive loops: one I've noticed is that the less I noodle around with slides, the more I get to think about the actual point of the presentation, which reinforces "focus on key points" and "quality of delivery". Fewer slides also translates to more attention per slide in the design process. Stepping away from the computer helps body language and attention to the audience – there ought to be a sniglet for the hunched-over-reaching-for-the-laptop-arrow-key posture.

    Of course, some pictures are worth a thousand words, like the one in Tufte's ppt satire. "Comrade, the rate of information transfer is asymptotically approaching zero."

  2. Michael Randel
    Michael Randel says:

    Great post!

    I think this works when you know the subject matter very well, and have confidence in being able to spin a tale with few visual cues. I could see myself doing this with one or two topics I know intimately, but I'm not sure the approach could be easily replicated by someone else who didn't have the same deep experience with a given topic.

  3. Gillian Martin Mehers
    Gillian Martin Mehers says:

    Hi Michelle, Tom and Michael, Thanks so much for your comments to this post! Tom, you are right about those other positive loops, I thought especially about the focus of the presenter on fewer slides, so more attention per slide. I definitely spent more time explaining what I felt where the essential points on the two slides that I did show, as opposed to whizzing through them as I usually did.

    Michael, I totally agree that it is going to be easier to do this with content that you feel most comfortable with. And I guess at that point, when you know something backwards and forwards, to keep it interesting and fresh, then an exercise like this would be appealing. But you really need to make yourself go to this next stage, otherwise it is easy to just do little prep and do the same old thing, with the huge slide decks. Asking yourself, what do I really want to say here and what do I want people to learn, seems like such a routine question, but one that takes thought and potential change to what might otherwise be on autopilot!

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