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

How PowerPoint Is Ruining Teaching: Learning Bad Habits Young

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Think bad slides are only a problem at the office? Or in the military? Here’s a piece by Rebecca Shuman from Slate that describes the use of PowerPoint in the classroom as the “scourge” of higher education–written entirely in the form of a slide deck. But the problems she points out aren’t unique to schools; all of them would be painfully familiar to anyone who sits through business presentations.

Unfortunately, the cycle of bad slides and worse presentation habits has become self-reinforcing. People in the workplace rely too much on PowerPoint instead of creating truly engaging presentations. Teachers and students adopt the technology and all of the bad habits they see modeled in business. Newly minted graduates find jobs and bring their presentation “skills” with them, perpetuating the Circle of Lifeless Presentations.

Luckily for Schuman, she has one advantage most people don’t; she can ban PowerPoint from her classroom. Few of us hold that kind of sway over our conference rooms. So what can you do? Try to show your students, employees, and co-workers that there’s a better, less bullet-riddled way to conduct presentations. Start a more virtuous cycle.

Slate: How PowerPoint is Ruining Higher Ed

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: Plan Before You Start Writing

Having a strategy for your email doesn’t mean that you’re trying to pull something sneaky–though sometimes that’s exactly what you want to do.

Sure, there are times when you want to wait to send an important message until the end of the day on Friday so you don’t have to deal with a whole bunch of annoying responses. It’s Friday and you’re ready for happy hour–bring on the nachos! But most of the time having a strategy for what you’re writing just means spending a couple of seconds to think about what you’re doing. Taking the time to ask yourself a few questions can make the difference between a good email and an embarrassing one:

  • What is it that I’m trying to say?
  • Who needs to know about this?
  • How are they likely to react?
  • Have I taken the time to proofread and run spellcheck on my message?

Really, slowing down and putting some thought into what you’re doing instead of just reacting is the key to successfully communicating at work. So the first and single-most important step in the SEAR program is:

Plan Before You Start Writing

Let’s say that you are an HR administrator at a large company and you need to communicate an important change in benefits to all of your employees. I know that sounds scary, but it’s all hypothetical at this point. Unless you really are an HR administrator. Sorry about that.

Anyway, you have to tell your employees about these changes and there are lots of things to think about before you actually send them an email. The first question I’d suggest you ask yourself is whether email is even the appropriate format for conveying something so important–there are few things that people take as seriously as their compensation. If it’s good news that you have to share with them–maybe everyone is going to get an extra week of paid vacation during the holidays–it’s easier. But if it’s bad news–maybe you’re doing away with their pensions–you have to be considerably more careful.

In a case like that an email is most likely going to come across as a heartless and impersonal way of communicating information that will have a major impact on people’s lives. If it’s at all possible, I strongly suggest that this is a case where personal contact is much better and less likely to alienate your employees. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s generally a bad idea to convey bad news in email since having someone there in person and being able to ask questions can often go a long way toward cushioning such a blow.

Heck, why stop there? The personal touch is usually best for all kinds of emotional issues.  Why waste the good news about that extra week of vacation in an email? Why not have a party to announce it and bask in the love and gratitude?

Whether email is even the right format for your communication is just one of the things you should think about before you write or send that message. Admittedly, not every email you write is going to require a lot of thought. If your best friend sends you a note asking if you want to have lunch, just say “YES!” (here the caps are perfectly appropriate in the sense of GET ME OUT OF HERE!) and don’t worry about going through a checklist of rules to consider.

But for anything more formal you should at least consider whether your message requires a little more thought and planning. For guidelines on what you should be thinking about as you plan those important emails, follow this blog.

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.