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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Jacqueline Bisset’s Golden Globes Speech: Always Have Something Prepared

http://youtu.be/_6D_QqzDME4?tA&start=77

There are certain events for which you should always have a few prepared comments at hand. They’re the kinds of situations where there’s a good chance that you’ll be asked to say a couple of words and where there are often powerful emotions involved that make impromptu thinking difficult. If you’re the guest of honor at a party (think birthdays, anniversaries and retirements) you need to be prepared to thank everyone. If you’re at a wedding where you’re close to at least one of the people getting married you should have something nice to say about the couple. And if you’re nominated for an award you have to have some kind of acceptance speech ready to go, no matter how unlikely you think it is you’ll win. Because you don’t want to sound like Jacqueline Bisset at the Golden Globes on Sunday.

That doesn’t mean you need a long script. In fact, trying to read or recite a long speech is often a total disaster. A couple of heartfelt or funny sentences are usually all it takes to make a great impression. If Ms. Bisset had simply said, “Thank you so much. I guess that Most Promising Newcomer nomination 47 years ago finally makes sense now!” she would have earned a big laugh. Instead, she said this:

(Sigh) God. (Lip smack.) (Laugh.) Um, I think it was 47 years ago that the Hollywood Foreign Press gave me, promising, a nomination for the Holl-uh, Promising Newcomer!!! (Sigh) Thank you very much, Hollywood Foreign Press. I’m absolutely shaken. I can’t believe this. God knows you’ve nominated me about five times I think, anyway. (Sigh) (Lip smack) (Lip smack) (Sigh) OK! Scottish background to the front! OK! Um, I always wanted to do something for the BBC. And we did this. And this was great. Chiwetel, where are you? Can I see Chiwetel? I need him for inspiration. Where is he? OK. We had a good cast, didn’t we? It was great. Starz thank you for putting this on and, uh, (lip smack) thank you to my British agent, Steve Kenis, and my American agent, Harry Abrams. (Music begins) I…I’m sorry, I’m gonna get this together! I want to thank the people who’ve given me joy and there have been many! The people who’ve given me shit, I say, like my mother, what did she say? She used to say, “Go to hell and don’t come back.” However, however, however, my mother was not entirely me. I (laughs) believe if you wanna look good, you’ve got to forgive everybody. You have to forgive everybody. It’s the best beauty treatment. Forgiveness for yourself and for the others. (Blows a kiss) I love my friends, I love my family, and you’re so kind! Thank you so much! (Giggles) Thank you!

 

Jacqueline Bisset's Golden Globe Speech

Presentation Tips: Don’t Rely Solely On A Script

Samsung has been very successful at emulating Apple’s iPhones and iPads. What they haven’t been able to copy nearly as well are Apple’s slick and effective product presentations. In fact, Samsung’s efforts have frequently been seen as strange, awkward, even sexist. But they’ve seldom gone as spectacularly wrong as when Samsung included director Michael Bay in the rollout of new televisions at CES this week.

After getting confused about which part of the script he was reading from the teleprompter, Bay fumbled around and was unable to recover. Trying to help, his co-presenter gave him an opportunity to ad lib by asking, “Tell us what you think,” but Bay was so dependent on the prepared script that he was totally lost. “I’m sorry,” he said as he walked off stage.

Here’s how he later described what happened:

Wow! I just embarrassed myself at CES – I was about to speak for Samsung for this awesome Curved 105-inch UHD TV. I rarely lend my name to any products, but this one is just stellar. I got so excited to talk, that I skipped over the Exec VP’s intro line and then the teleprompter got lost. Then the prompter went up and down – then I walked off. I guess live shows aren’t my thing.

Unfortunately, the temptation to script live events ruins far too many presentations. Scripts get lost, notes get shuffled, unexpected events interrupt a speaker’s train of thought and they can’t get back on track. While I encourage everyone to write out their presentations as an exercise in working through their thoughts, it’s almost always a bad idea to depend on a script in order to deliver your talk. There are just too many things that can go wrong, and very few of us are good at memorizing or reading a speech in a way that will actually engage an audience.

If you’re giving a talk, it’s your job to know the material well enough that you can speak with a few notes or an outline to remind you where you’re going. And you need to be willing to improvise a little when things don’t go as planned. For example, if you’re the director of Transformers and you’re asked what you think of the giant TV you’re standing next to, say something like: “That TV is huge! Explosions, robots, and exploding robots will look great on that thing!”

Michael Bay at CES

Michael Bay Responds to his CES Meltdown

Presentation Tips: Don’t Use Your Gun As A Laser Pointer

If you’re giving a presentation and want to emphasize something on your slides, the laser sight on your handgun is not an appropriate substitute for a pointer. This is a tip that had never occurred to me before because, well, it just seems obvious. And you’d think it would be especially obvious to someone who is, say, in charge of homeland security for the state of New York. But an incident recently reported by the Albany Times Union shows that some people could use a little clarity about the different uses of guns and laser pointers:

Jerome M. Hauer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s director of homeland security, took out his handgun and used the laser sighting device attached to the barrel as a pointer in a presentation to a foreign delegation, according to public officials. It happened Oct. 24 in Albany at the highly secure state emergency operations center below State Police headquarters.

These officials, one of whom claimed to be an eyewitness, said that three Swedish emergency managers in the delegation were rattled when the gun’s laser tracked across one of their heads before Hauer found the map of New York, at which he wanted to point.

Reading this account, I can’t help but think of the Simpsons episode where Homer gets a gun and starts to use it for every task, including turning off the lights. But a gun should not be used like a Swiss Army knife with a laser attachment.

So just to be clear, unless you’re doing a presentation about guns, they are not an appropriate part of your talk.

Albany Times Union: Ready … aim … point … talk

Public Speaking Disasters: Miss Utah’s Second Chance

It’s always nice to see someone get a chance at redemption, and Marissa Powell got hers this morning on The Today Show. Asked the same question she famously flubbed over the weekend, she did much better when she just gave a straightforward answer (just as I had suggested). Once she can drop the trappings of the pageant she also seems much more natural and charming.

Think about how you can apply this lesson in your own presentations. Can you get rid of the formalities (slides, script, lectern) and just talk to people? Chances are your audience will like you better and you’ll be more effective.

Miss Utah Marissa Powell on the Today Show

Public Speaking Disasters: Just Answer The Question

I have to admit, I love a good beauty queen breakdown.

Luckily, there’s a steady stream of them and we seem to have a new candidate for “worst answer since Miss Teen South Carolina Caitlin Upton’s” after every pageant. This week it is Utah’s Marissa Powell being asked how to solve the problem of unequal pay for women and responding:

I think we can relate this back to education, and how we are … continuing to try to strive to [long pause] figure out how to create jobs right now. That is the biggest problem. And I think, especially the men are … um … seen as the leaders of this, and so we need to try to figure out how to create educate better so we can solve this problem. Thank you.

Honestly, I don’t think this answer comes close to taking the crown from Miss Teen South Carolina. How could it when Miss Utah doesn’t even manage to work “the Iraq” into her response? But it’s still pretty incoherent and a great opportunity for us to feel superior.

So what do we have to thank for these entertaining disasters that wind up being the most memorable events of these overblown pageants? The contestants are young and probably don’t have much experience speaking in front of an audience–anxiety is almost certainly an issue. But a big part of the problem is that they are over-prepared. Just like a political candidate, every pageant contestant has a platform. So, instead of just honestly answering the questions they are given, they do their best to work in their platform agenda while trying to sound smart and smile in a way which won’t make their lips stick to their teeth. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen. What do you want to bet that Powell’s platform had something to do with education (which, ironically, would have been the best angle for Caitlin Upton to have used)?

It may have been years since your last beauty pageant, but there’s still a lesson here for all of us. If you find yourself taking questions during a presentation, do your best to answer them in an honest and straightforward way. Audiences are quite adept at detecting bullshit and will quickly turn on a presenter who they see as dishonest or phony. Most of us just aren’t quick enough to speak and spin at the same time.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t prepare answers for questions you can anticipate, especially when you’re talking about emotionally fraught topics. Just deal with them honestly and don’t try to pigeonhole the answers to fit your own agenda. Always remember that if you want your presentations to be successful they need to meet the needs of your audience, not your own.

Miss Utah Marissa Powell

Miss South Carolina Caitlin Upton

Presentation Skills: Keep Moving Past Your Mistakes

Presenting in front of an audience makes almost everyone a little bit nervous. After more than 20 years of teaching and training I still feel anxious right before I’m supposed to start. Unfortunately, fear tends to fluster presenters and cause them to make the very mistakes they’re worried about making. They stammer, say the wrong word, skip an important idea, or forget how to use the remote control for their slides. Any of these things can feel like a disaster when people are watching you. But chances are these issues feel like a much bigger deal to you than they do to the audience. Honestly, they might not even notice.

If you’re already nervous, the worst thing you can do is draw attention to your mistakes. Take a lesson from the kid in the video above and keep moving past them instead of getting upset. Improvise a solution (like he does when his cymbal breaks just after the one minute mark in the video) or quickly correct yourself if you’ve said something factually incorrect. Salute if you think it will help! But don’t dwell on what’s gone wrong. What you want to do instead is get to the next part of your presentation that goes right. That’s what will make you look good and help accomplish your goals.

Cymbal dilemma