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.
Unfortunately, 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.
I was happy to see this blackboard welcoming guests to the wedding reception for my friends Sarah and Joey because it illustrates one of the most important rules for any meeting, presentation, or formal gathering. They all need to have an agenda. You don’t want to leave your guests in the dark about what your meeting is about, why they’ve been invited, or when the food trucks are going to start serving dinner. Otherwise people may feel anxious, annoyed, or cranky from their low blood sugar.
That doesn’t mean your agenda has to be a formal document that’s distributed in advance (though that’s often best). Agendas can take many forms, including a few bullet points in a calendar invitation, an overview of goals and topics to be discussed at the opening of a meeting, or a brief outline written on a whiteboard at the front of a conference room. An entirely appropriate agenda might just exist in the head of the meeting planner. But all meetings need to have an agenda in order to keep them on track and make sure they have a legitimate reason for happening. As a general rule, the more important the meeting, the more important it is to have a formal agenda and share it with attendees to make sure that everyone’s goals are being met.
Unfortunately, too many meetings don’t have an agenda at all. Some meeting organizers are just bad planners and think they’ll wing it, while others don’t like the structured formality of a written agenda. But the most frequent excuse I hear–by far–is that writing an agenda and distributing it in advance takes too much time. Of course this idea is terribly short-sighted. Creating a good agenda allows you to use the time you and your co-workers spend in meetings much more efficiently, and should even allow you to cancel the meetings that you really don’t need to have.
Agreeing that every meeting should have an agenda, that it’s shared in advance, and that it’s used to make sure the meeting stays on track is probably the single-most effective thing you can do to improve the productivity of your workplace. Have you ever sat through an entire meeting wondering why you’d been invited? Have you been to a weekly status meeting where no one had anything new to report? Chances are no one had taken the time to write agendas for those meetings. If you find that you or the people you work with are having a hard time coming up with agendas, it might be time to start thinking about whether you should be having those meetings at all. Cancel them instead and use the time you reclaim to actually get some work done.
What you might not always want to do is include an agenda slide in your presentations. An agenda slide can be a great tool to give attendees a quick idea of what they’re going to hear, but many presenters wind up spending so much time explaining their agenda slides that they effectively give their presentation twice, once when they talk about the agenda, then again as they read through their slides. Few things are more boring for an audience. If you can give your entire presentation just by discussing an agenda slide, consider doing it that way. Your audience will appreciate it.
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.
Are you a grammar stickler? Does it grate on your nerves every time you hear “nuclear” mispronounced in the style of George W. Bush? Does the abuse of “literally” make you figuratively want to rip someone’s tongue out? Do your eyes roll whenever you hear someone proclaim they “could care less“?
I’m one of those people. This morning I heard Matt Lauer talking about how topping-out the spire of One World Trade Center today was “an historic event.” It annoyed me so much that I briefly thought about writing him an email explaining that the only instance in which it is ever okay to say “an historical” is if you have a cockney accent and don’t pronounce the “h.” Go crazy saying “an ‘istorical” all you want. But never “an historical.” I actually do send messages like that from time to time. Sadly, I never get a televised correction. Or, actually, any response at all.
I’ve noticed my teacher friends passing around this video of common spelling and grammar mistakes over the last couple of days. We’re clearly enjoying it, but the problem is that we aren’t the people who need these tips. And the people who do either don’t know that they have a problem or they don’t care.
But if you’re not interested in spelling and grammar, you probably should be. Especially if you ever have to present to an audience. Here’s the thing. Even if you’re not a grammar stickler, chance are high that some of the people you’re speaking to are. And we’ll sit there judging you. Make enough mistakes–or just one really bad one–and we might decide you don’t have any credibility and stop paying attention to you. Spelling and grammar mistakes are especially bad if you use slides and project your errors for everyone to see, then distribute them as handouts. I’ve sat through some presentations that I only recall because of the typos, which is not how you want your talks to be remembered.
If you want to seem authoritative and maintain your credibility with an audience, take the time to get your words right. It’s a great idea to have someone else double-check your work, especially when the stakes are high. There’s no shame in asking for a little help. I taught writing for years and I still like to have another set of eyes look at my writing whenever I can. It can mean the difference between being taken seriously and being ignored, or worse.
(I sure hope there are no typos in this post. Those spelling and grammar people can be mean.)
I love Netflix’s posters for the resurrected series Arrested Development because they do a great job of showing how you can convey a complicated idea–or in this case a character–with a simple image. Fans of the series will immediately recognize the posters for each of their favorite characters.
You may not be able to find an appropriate way to work a pair of Daisy Dukes into your presentations, but anchoring your ideas with clever images is an incredibly effective strategy. For one thing, images are much more memorable than words themselves. Audience members will remember a picture you show them much longer than they’ll remember any of your bullet points.
But images also allow you to connect with an audience’s emotions in a way that’s difficult to do with words alone. Arrested Development fans are likely to react to these posters in several ways. First, they’ll laugh. They’ll remember how much they love the show. Then they’ll enjoy feeling clever for understanding the references in the pictures.
If you can accomplish any of these things in your own presentations you’re doing great. Of course your images need to be relevant (and appropriate!) to your message. And they need to look good, which can be a lot of work. But the payoff can be huge. People love to be entertained, and they love the accomplishment they feel when they have to make a little effort to figure something out. Human beings are born problem solvers, and who doesn’t like to feel smart? Even better, a live audience will transfer their good feelings to you as the speaker and be more likely to be persuaded by your ideas.
Instead of just loving your images, they may love you.
I’m not going to touch the politics of whether the looming sequestration is a good idea or who is responsible for it. But I am comfortable declaring that this slide used by House Speaker John Boehner to summarize the issue is a great example of what’s wrong with the way people use PowerPoint. There’s far too much information on this slide, and the widescreen format makes it really hard to scan the individual bullet points without losing your place. But the worst thing about this example is that it tries to condense an extremely complicated issue that will have a huge impact on the lives of millions of people into one easy-to-digest slide.
Robert Gaskins, one of the original developers of PowerPoint, has said that the biggest problem created by its overuse is that it has essentially made people lazy, that creating bullet points has led us to simplify things that we shouldn’t. People in business, he says:
have given up writing the documents. They just write the presentations, which are summaries without the detail, without the backup. A lot of people don’t like the intellectual rigor of actually doing the work.
Boehner’s slide is meant to distill the sequestration process into little bits that are easy for House members to process. But that’s the problem–each of the bullets on this slide represents a complicated idea that you’d hope the people voting on our laws would take the time to master. And the fact that the sequestration–designed to be so painful that it would never actually happen–now seems imminent shows that our representatives clearly didn’t see the implications of what they were considering. Edward Tufte has argued that reliance on PowerPoint slides hid the gravity of the threat to the space shuttle Columbia and ultimately helped lead to its demise. PowerPoint in the hands of politicians can be just as dangerous.