PowerPoint At GM: How Slideshow Culture Buries Critical Information (And Costs Lives)

People are Dying.002

You’ve probably heard the phrase “death by PowerPoint,” but didn’t take it literally. No one has ever died because of PowerPoint, right? Think again. It may have happened–but probably not the way you imagined.

A post from Joseph B. White on wallstreetjournal.com asks whether General Motors’ corporate culture of over-reliance on PowerPoint presentations is responsible for their current recalls, safety scandal and, ultimately, the deaths of customers. As White explains, slideshows are a pervasive part of GM’s communications:

References to PowerPoint and “slide decks” show up throughout former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas’s brutal, 315-page dissection of how GM executives failed to act on evidence of deadly defects in its cars. There’s a good reason. Lengthy slide presentations have been a substitute for meaningful communication at GM since before Microsoft’s ubiquitous PowerPoint software was invented.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, company executives would lull outside directors with slide shows about their strategies to boost sales and stop growing losses in the U.S. operations – until the directors woke up as the company veered toward collapse in 1992, ousted the top management and promoted a new team committed to…changing the corporate culture.

One of the problems with relying on PowerPoint to convey critical facts or ideas that are uncertain is that the people who write these presentations often create so many slides with so many bullets that it’s hard to tell what’s important. Viewers who need to understand what’s going on would usually be better off with a written report that analyzes and distills the issues at stake instead of a barrage of bullets that are, ultimately, forgettable:

In one example of the numbing barrage of slides that obscured important information about safety risks, the Valukas report says that in March 2009, as GM was sliding toward its government-led bankruptcy, former GM CEO Rick Wagoner “may have viewed” a 72-slide presentation that mentioned, in a “back-up slide,” a change in the design to the Chevrolet Cobalt’s key that replaced a slot for attaching key rings to a small hole.

Now, of course, it’s clear those complaints were a vital clue to a grave issue. If the switch turned off just before a crash, there would be no power to the airbags, and no power assist for steering and brakes. GM now connects 13 deaths to the defect; lawyers for victims say the number is much higher.

In any case, Mr. Valukas’s report states that Mr. Wagoner doesn’t recall reviewing “any part of the slide deck.”

It’s just too easy to stop paying attention when you’re presented with such a huge amount of information (72 slides worth) that doesn’t highlight what’s really critical (like fatalities caused by something as seemingly innocuous and easy to fix as the design of a hole in a key). Why, you have to wonder, were references to deadly accidents relegated to backup slides and kept out of those shown to executives? No one at GM seems to know:

 An engineer who’d been investigating the problem presented PowerPoint slides – but apparently didn’t discuss “backup” slides that made reference to five deaths and some serious injuries.

The report details confusion among the engineers and executives over what was in the slides, which slides were presented and which were not.

One engineer told Mr. Valukas he did present the slide. Three other executives at the meeting said they didn’t recall fatalities being discussed. Others who attended the meeting said they didn’t learn about the deaths until later.

Alicia Boler-Davis, GM’s senior vice president for quality and a member of the committee, told investigators that “backup slides” to presentations usually aren’t distributed or presented, but that death and injury data “should always be included” in a discussion of a proposed recall.

Ms. Boler-Davis also told investigators “that had she known at the time of the December 17, 2013 EFADC meeting that fatalities were involved, she would have treated the issue with more urgency.”

You would certainly think that fatalities would be included in such a briefing. In his post White wonders:

What if someone had simply stood up, without a visual prop, and said: “People are dying.”

But there’s another cultural problem at GM that also seems to be responsible for allowing this scandal to grow. And evidence for it is also found in one of GM’s ubiquitous PowerPoint presentations. Looking at some of the actual slides that were released as part of a government order, it’s amazingly clear how employees were instructed to understate risks and how that policy could lead to disaster. These slides from a GM recall briefing show how their guidelines for writing internal documents–obviously intended to help protect the company from lawsuits–actually led them to avoid “emotional” words that would have helped highlight the importance of the problems they faced. Ultimately, this strategy increased the threat to GM itself and may have cost more lives.

GM Slides.001 GM Slides.002 GM Slides.003Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that over-reliance on PowerPoint has been implicated in failed communications that led to disaster. After the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, professor Edward Tufte conducted a study of NASA communications and filed a Freedom of Information Act request that included slides that had been used in briefings about the final flight. An article from Government Executive by Shane Harris describes how:

Among those he received were three briefings to NASA senior managers by contract engineers with the Boeing Co. about possible damage to Columbia’s wing, caused by impact with foam debris.

Tufte was aghast. The slides were a muddle of banner headings and bullet points. Important findings were buried in subheadings. Information in data tables was squished into tight cells, making it hard to read. The engineers wrote in a mishmash of acronyms and parenthetical notes that didn’t clearly convey that Columbia was in danger.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Tufte recalls. So he posted the slides on the Internet.

The members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board couldn’t believe it either. Their final report cited Tufte’s analysis and excoriated NASA for favoring slides over prosaic explanations.

The investigators singled out one slide that proved pivotal in the failure of NASA executives to grasp Columbia’s jeopardy. It is classically bad PowerPoint, a “festival of bureaucratic hyper-rationalism,” Tufte writes. It contains six levels of hierarchy: A banner title followed by a big bullet point, a dash, a diamond and a little bullet point to denote subpoints, and finally, a set of parentheses.

“It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation,” the Columbia investigators wrote. “The board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of communication at NASA.”

PowerPoint slides aren’t usually a matter of life and death. (In fact, a huge number of presentations don’t seem to have any reason to exist at all). But these examples of catastrophic results have a lot to teach us about how relying too much on PowerPoint can obscure what’s really important.

Instead of using slides as a container for vast amounts of data, in the place of a complex report, or as a script for a speech, try to use them as they were meant to be used–as the visual aids that accompany a presentation instead of the whole thing. Try to keep them simple in order to make the biggest impact.

After all, a slide that says “People are Dying” is pretty clear.

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Confidence Makes You More Persuasive (Even When You’re Totally Wrong)

One of the most important strategies for all presenters (especially those who are nervous about public speaking) is to make sure they are an expert on their topic. When you know your subject matter backwards and forwards you’re much less likely to freeze or lose your place in your talk, you’ll be able to answer questions from the audience easily, and you’ll be able to ad lib when unexpected things happen.

But becoming an expert can also help accomplish something that may be more important than just giving you command over facts and information. It can give you confidence. And being confident, it turns out, may be even more important than being right when it comes to persuading people. Studies show that confident people are seen as more competent, more persuasive, and even more attractive than less confident individuals–even when their confidence is totally misplaced. Here’s a quick summary of one experiment from an article in Slate:

In 2009, Cameron Anderson, a psychologist at the University of California–Berkeley Haas School of Business, decided to run an experiment on his students. He gave them a “list of historical names and events, and asked them to tick off the ones they knew.” But he also stacked the deck with fakes: Made-up figures he called “Queen Shaddock” and “Galileo Lovano,” and a fictitious event called “Murphy’s Last Ride.” Anderson found that the students who ticked off the most fake names showed signs of excessive confidence, if not competence. At the end of the semester, he surveyed the students about one another and found that those who held the most “respect, prominence, and influence” in the classroom were the same ones who claimed they totally knew who “Queen Shaddock” was. Anderson concluded that it’s confidence, not ability, skill, or accomplishment, that ends up swaying other people. “Whether they are good or not,” he said, “is kind of irrelevant.”

I’m not encouraging anyone to be a blowhard or pretend they are an expert on the reign of Queen Shaddock. There are few things more obnoxious than someone who exhibits confidence they clearly haven’t earned, and audiences will quickly turn on a presenter as soon as it becomes clear that their confidence is misplaced. Few people like a fraud once they’ve been exposed.

But there are all kinds of things you can do to boost your confidence without being a phony. Study your material. Rehearse your talk. Get to know the room you’re speaking in and make yourself comfortable. And try to interact with the audience in a natural way so it feels more like a conversation than a big scary performance. All of these strategies will help calm your nerves and make you feel more confident. Perhaps even more importantly, they’ll make you seem more confident to your audience.

What you don’t want to do is undermine yourself by seeming unsure, announcing the things you don’t know, or seeming noncommittal or disinterested in your topic. Remember that you’re there to persuade your audience and that, if you want them to believe in your ideas, you have to believe in them yourself.

Asking yourself whether you can serve as an expert on your topic is also a really great test of whether you should be presenting at all. If you find yourself in over your head, if you don’t have time to prepare, or if you’re just the wrong person for the subject matter, it’s a good idea to ask for help or just politely decline the assignment. I’m speaking from experience here–the worst talks I’ve given have all happened because I was the wrong presenter from the beginning. It’s not always possible to say no, but it can save both you and your audience a lot of pain and wasted time.

Latest Publishing Trend: Books That Teach Women to Be Overconfident Blowhards, Just Like Men

Writing That Works: “Rules” You Should Be Breaking

The rules of any language exist for one primary purpose: so we can make sense of what is being said. Despite how it might feel sometimes, they aren’t there just to confuse us. Rules also weren’t invented to give your English teacher or your co-workers an excuse to comb through your writing looking for humiliating mistakes. We have them because if readers and writers don’t agree on what our words and punctuation mean there’s no hope that we’ll be able to communicate clearly. The first priority for any writer (and we’re all writers these days, whether it’s in our job title or not) should be to make it as easy as possible for their readers to understand what they have to say. So it’s critical that we follow some shared guidelines.

But you might be surprised to learn that many of what we think of as the “rules” of written English aren’t real rules at all. And some of them actually get in the way of allowing us to say what we mean. These are the “rules” you should break whenever it helps your writing make sense.

Part of the reason that English can be such a bewildering language, even for native speakers, is that there’s no one authority on how it should be written. Unlike French, which has the Académie Française, there is no governing body to write the laws of English and police its usage. And the fact that English has been widely spoken around the world for hundreds of years means there are distinct versions in the UK, the US, Australia, and India. (Also, some would argue, Texas). Not having an “official” set of rules means that it’s often difficult to understand how the language should work.

There are plenty of places you can get advice about English, but the trick is trying to get these sources to agree. You can consult dictionaries, grammar guides, or journalists’ style books for help, but it’s still possible to come away confused by different opinions. For years The New York Times wrote the plurals of CD and DVD as CD’s and DVD’s, while The Wall Street Journal used CDs and DVDs. How are amateurs like us supposed to figure this out when the country’s two most important newspapers can’t agree? Personally, I prefer CDs because it looks less like a possessive, but I wouldn’t object to either version. (Still, there’s no excuse for CDies, as I’ve seen written in an airport shop).

The truth is, the “rules” most of us learned in school aren’t nearly as firm as we were told. Many of them are simply ideas transplanted from Latin and other languages by people who wanted to impose a little order on the chaos of English. Some, like not splitting an infinitive, should be treated as conventions rather than hard and fast rules. We only need to be bound by them as long as they help make our writing clearer.

As a former English teacher myself, I’d like to empower you to jettison any grammar and punctuation rules that actually get in the way of clear and efficient writing. You’ll find some of the most commonly abused rules below, and I’ll add more in future posts.

Never end a sentence with a preposition:

Whether or not Winston Churchill ever actually responded to an editor who had “corrected” his writing, “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put,” the line provides an excellent illustration of how ridiculous it can be to blindly follow the rules.

What would be the “correct” version of a question like “What did you sit on?” Don’t try to tell me that I should ask “On what did you sit?” because no human I’ve ever met would say that. The only reason I can imagine creating a sentence like that is if you are writing dialogue for a robot or the aristocrats on Downton Abbey.

Which leads us to my own first rule of grammar: if following the “rules” makes your words sound awkward or alien, please break the rules.

Don’t use “I”

At some point during our educations, many of us were told we should avoid using “I” and “me” in business and formal writing. I think the idea was supposed to be that referring to yourself is narcissistic and undermines a sense of objectivity. But what usually happens when you avoid mentioning yourself is that you wind up twisting sentences into unmanageable shapes to avoid pronouns. Besides, writing from your own perspective draws in readers by creating a more personal sense that you’re addressing them directly. So go ahead and use “I.” Just don’t make yourself the subject of every single sentence. It’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

Sentences must include a verb

Really? Why?

The vast majority of sentences should have a verb, but they don’t always need one. One-word questions, for example, are often useful for breaking up the rhythm of sentences or drawing attention to important ideas. As always, make sure that you have a good reason for breaking the rules. And that what you mean is clear from the context of your other sentences.

Never use passive voice

Some editors will unsheathe their red pens to mark up every single sentence that uses the passive voice. Which is a shame, because sometimes the passive is helpful or even necessary. Why would I tell you anything other than “My car was stolen,” if I didn’t know who took it? “Someone stole my car,” isn’t any better.

But the real power of the passive voice comes into play when you want to conceal who is responsible for an action. Try using this sentence structure if you find yourself in an awkward situation.

  • The baby’s haircut was mangled
  • The entire pie was eaten
  • Her collection of Justin Bieber CDs was destroyed

You can’t start a sentence with and, but, or because

And what will happen if I do? Because I do it all the time.

Stringing sentences together with one of these connecting words can be a very effective way to keep your ideas flowing smoothly and lend them immediacy. Just be careful that they make sense in context. If you use “but,” what you say next has to be opposed to what you said in the previous sentence in some way.

Spell out numbers less than 100

I’ve talked to several people who were indoctrinated in high school journalism classes to write out every number up to 100 instead of using numerals. This has never made sense to me, especially for newspapers, because it’s much easier for our eyes to look for numerals when scanning for important information than it is to read the names of numbers. Besides, using numerals helps you avoid all those messy hyphens in numbers like “thirty-four.”

You really only need to spell out single-digit numbers (one through nine). Even then, using numerals is hardly a major offense. I just feel as though a single number like “7” looks naked and lonely sitting by itself. “Seven” looks much happier.

However you deal with numbers, just make sure you’re consistent with your choices.

Always use “a” before a word that starts with a consonant and “an” before a word that begins with a vowel

I get annoyed every time I hear a TV news reader describe something as “an historic event” (especially when they’re talking about something ridiculous like a new record for the most Doritos Locos tacos consumed in one sitting). I always want to send them an email explaining that it’s the way you pronounce the word that matters, not the way it’s spelled. You only use “an” in front of a vowel sound. So here in San Francisco, which is often referred to as SF, we’d say “Dungeness crab is an SF (ess-eff) tradition for the holidays.”

The only instance in which it is ever okay to say “an historical” is if you don’t pronounce the “h.” So if you have a cockney accent, go crazy saying “an ‘istorical” all you want. But never “an historical.”

What other grammar rules seem made to be broken?

Clifford Chance’s Dubious Public Speaking Tips For Women

A leaked memo from the giant law firm Clifford Chance has been getting a lot of attention for offering its female lawyers (just the female lawyers) public speaking tips, including these bits of wisdom:

  • Wear a suit, not your party outfit
  • Don’t giggle
  • Avoid the urinal position
  • No one heard Hillary the day she showed cleavage
  • Project power by visualizing filling a fat arrow extending 10’ out
  • Don’t take your purse up to the podium
  • Practice hard words
  • Understated jewelry, nothing jingly or clanky
  • Move your mouth when you speak
  • Think Lauren Bacall, not Marilyn Monroe

I know it’s hard to believe, but those bullets are directly quoted from advice to highly accomplished lawyers at one of the world’s biggest law firms.

Some of the responses to the memo have come from sources that usually cover the legal industry, but the controversy has taken on a broader life in the general media, too. As I’m writing this, the story is currently the top item you get when you google “Clifford Chance” (which can’t be a happy result for the firm’s marketing department). But I’ve been waiting to write about it for a little while because there’s so much wrong with this document that I’ve been trying to figure out how to respond.

Is it sexist? Sure.

Is it surprising that the lawyers receiving the memo were insulted? Nope.

Do the condescending tone and sloppy writing detract from the writer’s message? They do!

Is it especially troubling that this was written by a female lawyer and distributed by the firm’s Women’s Committee? You bet!

But on top of everything else, what I find really shocking about the advice in this document is how shallow most of it is. Sure, there are many helpful tips included among the more mystifying suggestions (“Make nose contact”), things that would be helpful for speakers of any gender. Of course you shouldn’t read your slides to your audience. Yes, you need to make sure that people can hear your voice. But almost all of the tips in this list are about surface effects: how you look; how you sound; what you should wear. And very little of it is actually concerned with making sure you have something interesting, important, or useful to tell to your audience.

I’m not saying that the surface details don’t matter–they do. It’s hard to have credibility with an audience if you don’t look and sound the part. But the content of any presentation should be given much greater priority than it’s appearance should. One of the reasons that this document comes across as sexist is because it focuses so relentlessly on how female presenters should look without giving them much guidance on what they should say. After all, if you don’t have something important to say and a good reason to take up peoples’ time and gather them in a room, you really shouldn’t be giving a presentation in the first place.

During my presentation training I always ask the audience for examples of the best presentations they’ve seen and what made them so great. In every single case, the elements of great presentations that audiences bring up are things like expertise, sincerity, storytelling, humor, commitment, emotional content, and making a connection with the audience. No one has ever mentioned what a speaker looked like or how they sounded.

When you’re putting together any presentation, the strategies you will use to engage your audience are what you should plan first. Yes, it’s important to give a polished performance. But it’s much more important to figure out what you have to say and how you’re going to persuade your audience to see things the way you do. The only good reason to have a presentation in the first place is because you want to take advantage of having the live audience there to interact with them. So you have to give them a good reason to show up and listen to you. Once you’ve done that you can worry about the polish, the surface elements that the Clifford Chance document tried to address.

There’s nothing wrong with offering speakers tips about how they can improve their performance. Even experienced presenters need to be reminded of the basics sometimes so they don’t get sloppy. Because the way you present yourself does matter. You might have great material, but people won’t hear any of it if you mumble through your talk or if the audience is distracted by a big stain on the front of your shirt. But the content of your presentation has to come first.

If I were going to offer a quick list of tips for creating substantial, effective presentations, I’d suggest that any speaker start with these questions:

  • What do you want your talk to accomplish?
  • What is interesting about what you have to say?
  • Why should your audience care about this?
  • How are you going to engage your audience?
  • What do you want your audience to take away from your presentation?

Once you’ve answered those questions, you’re well on your way to knowing what your presentation is about. Then you can start to worry about how you’re going to say it.

If you’re interested in much more extensive advice on creating better presentations, some samples of the handouts I’ve created for law firm and legal department clients are here, and embedded below.

And here are the Cliffford Chance tips:

Bulletproof Presentations Handouts

https://bulletproofpresentations.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/bulletproof-presentations-handouts.pdf

Clifford Chance Presentation Tips for Women

Tips For Writing More Effective Email: SEAR

SEARThese days it seems that everything needs an acronym. But while acronyms and initialisms used to exist to make complex terms and phrases (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) into words that sound less terrifying and are easier to remember (SCUBA), sometimes it seems that they exist today just to bewilder and embarrass us. Maybe it’s because more and more technical terms are leaking into our everyday language. Maybe it’s because so many acronyms and initialisms (HTML, SQL, GIF) don’t look like words and give us no cues as to how to pronounce them. Or maybe it’s because our clever and secretive children seem to write in a new language that consists of little more than a series of unrelated letters strung together with smiley faces. IMHO, a combination of all these factors has done a lot of damage when it comes to making everyday writing easy to understand.

Just the same, I’m going to go out on a limb and introduce an acronym of my own in the hope of making it easier to remember the elements that I think are most important when it comes to writing clear and effective email. I hope that mine is more reminiscent of the days of helpful acronyms (CARE) than the muddled-sounding efforts (UNIFEM – which sounds like an evil supercomputer with a female voice but actually stands for United Nations Development Fund for Women) people are resorting to lately. I wanted to come up with a real acronym, something you could recognize as a word and didn’t have to struggle to pronounce. Above all, I wanted something that you could remember and would help you recall the four points I want to emphasize as key to successfully writing business email.

What I came up with is SEAR, which is, I think, pretty good. Not only is it a real word, but it’s a verb, an active, forceful word. It’s a command, for crying out loud! This is an acronym with a lot going for it! Creative writing teachers will always tell you that, in order for your language to be memorable, you should engage as many of your reader’s senses as possible. Marketers do the same thing: why do you think hotels have “signature scents” and Starbucks has an official soundtrack? They want to take advantage of all your senses to help make you remember their brands and keep you coming back for more.

SEAR is just the kind of suggestive word to do that. It evokes the bright heat of a flame; you can practically hear the sizzle of the fire in its long, sibilant “S.” To make it even more memorable, take the mental picture a step further and imagine that it’s a nice steak you’re searing. You can practically smell it, can’t you, your mouth watering as you almost taste that first bite?

“Alright, enough of the acronym!” you say. “We remember it already. You’re making us hungry! But what does it mean? How are those four letters going to help me with my writing, and why are they arranged in that order? Why is it SEAR and not EARS?”

So here we go. Here are the four things you need to think about when you sit down to write at work, in the order you should generally think about them:

Strategy–Basically the idea here is to do a little planning before you start to write. Take the time to think about whether email is really the right format for your message. Have you clearly worked out what it is that you have to say, or are you still struggling with it? Have you given yourself enough time to write and to write well? Is there something in your email that could get you in trouble down the road? Best to consider these ideas before you even start typing a new message.

Emotion plays a crucial role in the overall strategy of your writing, but it’s something that’s often ignored. Poorly-handled emotional content can probably cause you more severe problems than any of the other pitfalls of writing email. And most of the time emotions get stirred up unintentionally because we are simply better at communicating in person than we are in writing. Email is notorious for lacking the cues to tone and meaning that we share in our everyday person-to-person conversations. Because of this, it’s often hard to tell if someone is kidding or if they’re really angry with us. Are they just being brief, or are they upset? And the truth is that we don’t always take the time to be good readers, either, which makes it even harder to communicate clearly.

But we all need to take a little more responsibility for our writing to make sure that it isn’t going to stir up emotions unnecessarily. Is the message you need to convey something that’s loaded with emotional content? If so, maybe you would be better off considering another, more personal, format. Do you have a history of conflict with the person you intend to write? Are they likely to react badly to this particular topic? If so, you might want to reconsider using email and pick up the phone instead. Better yet, walk down the hall and see them in person if you can. I know, many of us would rather avoid conflict at all cost. But sending an email that upsets someone isn’t going to help.

Audience–This idea really builds on the topic of emotion. It’s critical that you always think about who you are writing to. How are they going to react to your message? Do they even know who you are? If not, you’ll need to introduce yourself. How are you going to get their attention when they get hundreds of emails every day? What are they interested in and what information do you have that they are going to care about? It’s important to make sure that your message is modulated for this particular audience. Are you using the right tone? If you’re writing to the president of your company in the same tone that you write to your best friend, you should probably reconsider unless you’re also a VIP. Is the person you’re writing to a stickler for spelling and grammar? If so, you’d better run that spellcheck and proofread one more time.

Rules have to be followed to make sure that all of your other hard work isn’t wasted. So far I’ve played down the importance of correct grammar and punctuation, which is why I’ve made this the last of my four topics. But the fact is that you can do everything else well and still lose all your credibility if your readers are put off by typos and missing punctuation. There are still lots of people out there who will judge your intelligence and ability based on the mechanics of your writing–whether or not that is fair. Know who those sticklers are and do your best to weed out the mistakes in your messages to them.

But really, why not do your best in all the emails you send? The rules of grammar and punctuation only exist to make language clear and easy to read. When you write poorly you increase the chances that your message will be misunderstood or not read in the first place. After all, if you can’t take the time to write clearly, why should your reader struggle to make sense out of what you have to say?

Those are the headlines, the big ideas from what follows. Follow this blog for more specifics.

More Productive Meetings: Jeff Bezos Bans Slides At Amazon

Yesterday I saw Washington Post chairman and CEO Donald Graham talking about the decision to sell his newspaper to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. What really caught my attention was his explanation that he felt good about the sale partly because Bezos believes in writing:

He’s a reader and he’s a writer. Unusually, out at Amazon, meetings don’t start with slide presentations or PowerPoints. At Jeff’s request, they start with whoever convenes the meeting writing an essay. The first 10 minutes, everybody sits down and reads what the person convening the meeting wrote.

Why? Because he thinks writing requires thought. So that is a little tribute to the power of the written word.

I have no way of knowing if it’s true that PowerPoint is banned from the beginning of all meetings at Amazon, but I love the idea. Requiring people to write out their ideas in sentences and paragraphs complete with context, transitions, and conclusions would help overcome some of the sloppy and incomplete thinking that slides and bullet points lend to so many meetings.

Even better, the idea of having to write an essay might convince people to cancel many of the meetings that only waste everyone’s time.

Donald Graham on PBS Newshour

The Other Prism Scandal: Ugly Slides

prism-slide-1

The scandal surrounding the NSA’s surveillance program broke while I was on vacation last week, and it’s pretty shocking. I mean, have you seen these slides? The colors used by their designer(s) are awful, the way they’ve placed objects on the background makes them look confused and cluttered, and they’ve made some really bad choices with fonts and typography. Worst of all, some of their illustrations just don’t make sense.

When I first saw these slides they reminded me of the exercises I used to lead students through when I started teaching PowerPoint in 1997. In order to train people on all of PowerPoint’s features we’d have them draw random shapes, fill them with colors and text, create charts and animation. We’d use every tool in the toolkit whether we needed it or not. Looking at the images of these NSA slides, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they had been created so that each element flew in accompanied by a zooming car sound.

But we probably shouldn’t be surprised by the quality of these slides. Most of the millions of PowerPoint presentations cranked out every day are ugly and poorly planned. I think the difference is that we assume that the government, and especially our spy agencies, have the resources they need to do a better job. If they can squeeze all those cool gadgets into James Bond’s Aston Martin, can’t they hire a designer who knows they should never use yellow and green as a color scheme?

The great thing about other peoples’ mistakes is that we can learn from them. Understandably, most presenters don’t want to share examples of their bad presentations, so it can be difficult to find useful examples to critique. But now that we have these wonderful, ugly, formerly top secret slides available, let’s see what they can teach us. (For bigger versions, click on each slide).

Why not start with the title slide? White can be a fine background choice (it’s certainly better than bright colors or distracting textures), but you have to limit the other colors you use on a white background. Light colors are very hard to read when you project slides against white, so the yellow, light blue, and even the red “Top Secret” stamp will likely wash out. So the slides’ overall design is questionable from the very beginning. The audience might not even be able to see some of the most important information.

Then there are the company logos splashed across the top. Why do they need to be included on every slide? Why not just give them their own slide listing the participants? Flinging them across the screen like this looks messy and makes everything hard to read–especially since the logos themselves are in so many different colors and fonts. The effect is a kind of logo soup. Bad design choices aside, I’m curious if they even have permission to use the logos of these companies. I highly doubt it, but someone must have figured that it didn’t matter if all of this was top secret.

And a couple of other things from this one slide:

  • More logos: The “Special Source Operations” logo is unattractive enough, but the “PRISM” logo is ridiculous. Why does every program and initiative need a logo these days? And couldn’t they find one that doesn’t look like a misshapen reject for a Batman (the 60’s TV version) villain?
  • Why does this presentation need two different titles (indicated by the “or”)?
  • Why is the second title (“The SIGAD Used Most in NSA Reporting”) in italics? Why does it sound vaguely like an advertisement for sugar-free gum?

Spionage PrismHere’s our second slide, and it’s as bad as the first one. The first thing I’d like to point out is that it really should be two slides–one about when each company joined the program, and another about its costs. There’s just no imaginable reason to include both here. Every slide in your presentations should represent just one main idea. Your goal should be to make your ideas as clear as possible, not to cram information on the screen. PowerPoint slides are pretty much a limitless resource, so go ahead and create as many as you need.

Other things to notice:

  • The effect of having all those logos and a title at the top of the screen is really noticeable here. Combined, they take up a third of the slide and leave little room for what really matters.
  • The colors. There used to be a house in my neighborhood that was painted these colors, and everyone called it the lemon-lime house. It’s a tasteless color combo anywhere, but it’s also bound to be very difficult to read whether this slide is projected or printed. And that pinkish “Program Cost” bubble? Ugh.
  • The chart. What’s called for here is a timeline. So why do the yellow bubbles and green background rise as time goes on? What does that have to do with time? And why are there two separate green objects behind the yellow bubbles? Did they need to bend the line so it wouldn’t crash into the ugly PRISM logo (which it almost does anyway)?

3.1Our third slide has more pink, but less yellow! Again, this should probably be two different slides, one with the text in the box and another with the diagram explaining network traffic. Putting them both on the same slide makes them hard to read. My image here isn’t the best quality, but I think the diagram would be hard to read on all but the biggest projector screens. Maybe I’m just getting old… Also:

  • It looks like “U.S. as World’s Telecommunications Backbone” is italicized here, except for the initial “U”. That’s just sloppy, and the italics don’t really make sense anyway.
  • “Cheapest” and “not the most physically direct” are both bolded and underlined, which is completely unnecessary and just makes it harder to read. If your computer lets you bold your text there’s rarely a reason to also underline it. (Indicating a hyperlink is one).

4.1The fourth slide suffers from problems that should be familiar at this point. Notice again how everything has to be crammed onto the slide. There’s not nearly enough white space and the green arrow intrudes on both text boxes. The easy solution would be to get rid of the list of providers since we already know who they are. Why repeat them here? Also:

  • There’s a note above the purple box that indicates that the information collected “varies by provider”. That makes me wonder how accurate any of this information is anyway, and why they’d wanted to list all of the providers here. Why not just say, “these are the things we typically collect”?
  • This slide has text boxes in entirely different colors than we’ve seen before. Is the designer trying to make each slide novel? Only 5 of the 41 slides in this presentation have been published, but I’m starting to wonder if each one has its own color scheme.

See how much fun we can have analyzing other peoples’ presentations? Just imagine if we had all the rest of the slides from this deck! I thought about taking the next logical step and redesigning the slides myself, but after finding that others had already beat me to it I decided that the world didn’t need my own version of the NSA’s work. But it’s an exercise I wholeheartedly recommend if you’re interested in learning how to improve bad presentations.

Redesigned slides