Are Your Meetings DOA? The Case for Using Visuals in Meetings

By Paul Stannard, Founder & CEO, SmartDraw Software

There are an estimated 17 million business meetings held in the U.S. each day. But here’s an alarming statistic: Executives and managers say they believe that half or more of their meeting time is wasted.

Why? Reasons abound, but these are the ones mentioned most often:

  1. Disorganized and poorly run
  2. No detailed agenda
  3. Did not run on time
  4. Unsure whether anything gets accomplished

Many of these take place simply out of habit. Others are held for reasons as mundane as “checking in” or handing out project assignments. But meetings can be an effective forum for sharing strategic corporate information, fostering group collaboration and making important decisions. That is, if attendees are fully engaged and actually retain the information that is presented and shared.

Let’s face it. No one wants to sit through unproductive meetings. But if it’s true that 50 percent or more of meeting time is being wasted, then the people in these meetings and their organizations are losing an enormous amount of productivity. Clearly, something must be done, but what?

The solution is actually quite simple and inexpensive: visual productivity software. Strong, visionary business leaders have been leveraging the power of visuals in communication and presentations for years. But visuals are now quickly and successfully moving into the realm of productivity tools. They are easy to use and provide solutions to many business problems. Unproductive meetings are just one of those areas.

Solving the Unproductive Meeting Problem

Let’s analyze the problem in two parts. First, we need to make sure unnecessary meetings are eliminated before anyone’s time is wasted. Second, we need to maximize the productivity of meetings important enough to hold.

Is this Meeting Really Necessary?

Our first priority is to eliminate those meetings that are bound to be unproductive from the outset. As with most business situations, I find it best to analyze the situation visually. Let’s look at a decision process diagram for determining whether to have a meeting.

Taking an objective look at these questions can eliminate potential time-wasting meetings. Furthermore, it encourages those holding meetings to make sure that they are properly planned and organized and that the decision-makers will be there.

This process, or something like it, quickly identifies important meetings. So it becomes absolutely crucial that they be as productive as possible. There are three key elements to having a successful, productive meeting:

  1. An interesting, informative presentation
  2. Live capture of information
  3. Accountability and follow-through

Let’s take a brief look at each of these elements.

Use Visuals to Enhance Every Presentation

Most meetings are conducted by sharing information in oral form only. Information shared in this manner often will not “sink in” with the intended audience. Disengaged employees may doodle, fiddle with smart phones, or fight drowsiness. This only serves to perpetuate the negative perception of business meetings as time wasters. Visuals add interest to the presentation and also produce better comprehension, interaction and retention among attendees.

The best business presenter of our generation, perhaps of all time, was Steve Jobs. He was adamant in his use of visuals to drive his points across. And he never, ever used bullet points in his presentations. A presentation of slides with bullet-point lists is not visual and can actually be counter-productive. A visual replaces or enhances text or oral communication through illustrations, pictures, charts, and so forth.

Visuals are scientifically proven to be up to six times more effective than basic written text or the spoken word in improving recipient comprehension and information retention. Studies show that more than 80 percent of human learning occurs visually. Stanford University researchers have found that communicating concepts and relationships visually often reveals data that are otherwise overlooked, inadequately correlated or never actually collected.

Think of ways to present your data or thoughts in visual form. Charts and graphs are better than data tables, for example. Flowcharts can be used to explain processes. Mind maps or other “hub and spoke” diagrams are excellent ways to show plans or projects. There are a variety of good visual business tools that are useful in making presentations. But the very best ones go well beyond this point and offer tools for productivity.

Visuals Aren’t Just for Presentations: Make Them Go to Work for You

At the business level, improved communication enables corporations to refine operations and helps individual employees or teams to complete projects on time. Visual productivity solutions also allow companies to better track roles and responsibilities and implement business plans through information sharing.

Live visual capture goes one step farther by letting presenters and participants transform ideas into an action, in real time. This technology not only shortens meetings, it also encourages participant interaction, unlike traditional business meetings.

None of this Matters Until It Produces Results

Capturing ideas and information are only part of the equation, though. In the old system, information could be captured—at least temporarily—on note pads. But that clearly isn’t enough. The best ideas and information are only valuable if they are put into action and produce results.

The live capture of information on a projector or shared desktop using visual productivity tools promotes enthusiastic discussion and input from meeting participants. At the end of the session, this results in the assignment of clearly defined action items on a displayed diagram.

This is where visual productivity software really pays dividends. Programs that capture relevant meeting details and decisions create a real-time takeaway agenda in front of the entire group. This ensures that everyone leaves the gathering on the same page. Individual and group accountability is created via assignments and timelines. Here’s the bottom line: it generates real, tangible results.

Using today’s visual productivity software is as simple as working with a word processor. They are not complicated graphics programs. The best ones automatically format and create presentation-quality visuals nearly as quickly as the user can think. They also offer a wide variety of visual business tools useful for capturing, processing and communicating business information that addresses real, everyday issues.

Visual productivity software has advanced remarkably over the past 20 years. With its widespread implementation, this type of program has the power to fundamentally change, for the better, day-to-day business communication in much the same way word processors and PCs transformed the landscape 30 years ago. Enterprises that take advantage of this technology today will look back 20 years from now and ponder, “How did we ever do business without it?”


Paul Stannard is Founder and CEO of SmartDraw Software, San Diego. To learn more, visit