Did PowerPoint Crash the Space Shuttle?

NASASeth Godin’s ebook Really Bad PowerPoint is now 6 years old. Unfortunately, the lessons it teaches are still lost on most presenters: Cut down on your words. Sell, don’t tell. Use pictures to invoke emotion. Slides back up your voiceover, they don’t replicate it. Today, PowerPoint has replaced the Company Memo as the communications tool of choice, with poor results. As product managers, we must be excellent communicators. Since the first step of fixing a problem is recognition, this topic deserves a deep dive.

PowerPoint is a tool. Tools have to be used correctly or they can cause damage (ever tried opening a paint can with a screw driver?), so recognize where PP succeeds, which is voiceover reinforcement and selling a point-of-view. PP fails as a tool for informing and “off-line” learning. Worse, PP’s product shortcomings make it easy to mislead your audience unintentionally.

A perfect example of disastrous consequences from unintentionally vague PP is the 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. Edward Tuffte, Professer Emeritus at Yale and an expert in information structure and presentation, analyzed the PowerPoint presentations given by Boeing’s engineering team to NASA during the assessment of Columbia’s damage from falling foam insulation during its launch in January 2003, when NASA was determining the best course of action for the shuttle while it orbited in space.

To help NASA officials assess the threat, Boeing Corporation engineers quickly prepared 3 reports, a total of 28 PowerPoint slides, dealing with the debris impact. These reports provided mixed readings of the threat to the Columbia; the lower-level bullets often mentioned doubts and uncertainties, but the highlighted executive summaries and big-bullet conclusions were quite optimistic. Convinced that the reports indicated no problem rather than uncertain knowledge, high-level NASA officials decided that the Columbia was safe and, furthermore, that no additional investigations were necessary…

…Imaging that you are a high-level NASA decision-maker receiving a pitch about threats to the Columbia. You must learn 2 things: Exactly what is the presenter’s story? And, can you believe the presenter’s story? … this reading reveals some shortcomings of PowerPoint for technical work, a point made by several investigations of shuttle engineering practices.

PP is commonly used as a memo tool. Emails are tapped out, no one reads long rants, and spreadsheets require thought to decipher. I’ve seen meeting minutes, decision points, even product requirements communicated this way. We’ve got to break this cycle.

PP is bad for conveying information. How many times have you left a soul crushing 3+ hour meeting where you were shown 175 PP slides full of information? You’ll be lucky to retain 10%, just like the NASA managers above who read the slide titles and glossed over the rest. PP is great, however, at being a voiceover reinforcement tool that you use to convey emotion. Yuck – emotion! No one likes that word because we like to pretend that we’re all data driven decision making machines devoid of emotion. Pictures are probably the best way to evoke an emotional response because they are so immediate and don’t require reading and processing, we just react.

The best example I’ve ever seen of using this technique is Dick Hardt of Sxip Identity presenting at OSCON 2005. I’ve used this style with a lot of success, but you have to pick and choose your spots, this style is great for large groups and traditional presentations. For small teams and interactive discussions this style would feel forced.

A potential product manager candidate told me in an interview that they used PowerPoint at another job to communicate requirements to the development team. Want to be taken seriously by programmers? Don’t do that. There is a reason why we write structured requirements, use cases, and personas. Even if you are bringing product management into a greenfield environment like a startup, a real MRD/PRD with real requirements will lead to a real discussion. Having a “requirements” discussion with development and leaving them with a PP deck as their direction will lead to too much ambiguity and wiggle room for the programmer to do whatever the hell they want.

PowerPoint itself may be misused, but it also contributes to the problem. In 7+ years, I haven’t seen much innovation from Microsoft with PP. Apple’s Keynote is much slicker, and gives you more animation ability, and the ability to see something different on your laptop’s screen (speaker notes) than you project onto the presentation screen. Now Google is getting into the presentation game as well with their Google office suite. It’s not there yet, but knowing Google they will rapidly improve that application.

We’re trying to force a square peg into a round hole. That usually means that there is an unfulfilled need in the market. Someone needs to study the communications habits of businesses and invent a better tool for portably conveying quick information in a clear, concise way. Who is ready to start a new company?

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  • Reply Sharyn November 6, 2007 at 5:12 am

    Interesting – totally agree that powerpoints are wildly overused and most have absolutely no impact.

    However, just as a note, PPT does provide the facility to show your speaker notes when you present. It’s called presenter view and works on any computer capable of dual display.

  • Reply correlation does not mean causation, mr « my own confusion, a blog October 3, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    […] to this article Did PowerPoint Crash the Space Shuttle? PowerPoint uses the whole “sell, don’t tell” way of doing things. Whch is true […]

  • Reply roger October 29, 2011 at 5:43 am

    That this article recieved just one comment indicates it’s irrelevance. Power Point crashed the shuttle? Ridiculous. The ineptitude and unaccountability of Boeing and NASA engineers and managers crashed the shuttle. How many were fired or are serving time for that disaster?

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