Excessive Indentations, Bullet Points, and Font Sizes
March 10, 2022 7:08 PM   Subscribe

Finally the single most important fact... is hidden at the very bottom. Twelve little words which the audience would have had to wade through more than 100 to get to. If they even managed to keep reading to that point. Death by PowerPoint: the slide that killed seven people posted by meowzilla (76 comments total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is compelling reading. Perfectly timed to share with my students too. Thanks for sharing.
posted by Zumbador at 7:24 PM on March 10


Thank you for posting this. This is such a great (but tragic) example of the sort of thing I’m trying to teach as well.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:56 PM on March 10


Wow, thanks for this. I'm trying to wean my organization off Powerpoint and this article will help me.
posted by rpfields at 9:16 PM on March 10 [2 favorites]


I agree with Zumbador: this is, indeed, compelling reading. Technically, NASA was warned about the problem, just not in a way that would cause an immediate loss of faith in Boeing. I would not be surprised to learn that the slide had been carefully composed to minimize the salient point.

As long as we're discussing accuracy: the last sentence on the slide is thirteen words, not twelve as the author says. A number and an abbreviation shoved together doesn't become a word. I realize this is painfully pedantic, but because "twelve" was mentioned in the article (and quite reasonably picked up by the OP), I got hung up on counting every word.
posted by bryon at 9:17 PM on March 10 [5 favorites]


. I would not be surprised to learn that the slide had been carefully composed to minimize the salient point.

I would argue that that's really far from what happend. Nobody would benefit from hiding that
posted by Dr. Twist at 9:30 PM on March 10 [18 favorites]


This is an interesting and important case study, but I think the focus on slide presentation and calling it "Death by PowerPoint" is a bit missing the real issue. The problem was not that the engineers used PowerPoint to communicate, the problem was that the communicated incompetently. Had this information been communicated in a memo, or in speech, the exact same problem could have occurred, with the engineers failing to understand that their job with this presentation was to identify the key facts, findings, and opinions, and center those in the discussion, providing other details only as supporting information. Conversely, the article itself points out how restructuring the information on the slide could have helped communicate the danger of shuttle re-entry more effectively. The problem wasn't with the medium, it was with the messengers. The lesson learned should be about the importance of good communication skills, whatever medium you're using, not that there's some problem with communicating information with slide decks.

If you're reading text off a slide, you're doing it wrong. Slide text is there to give the audience a visual map for the major point(s) they are to take away from this particular moment in the presentation, while your voice gives them the more complete picture. The "title" of a slide should generally be the conclusion or takeaway, not the topic. Text should be kept to a minimum, and if bullets are required, they shouldn't nest more than 1 level deep. These are basic rules for giving a good slide presentation. Different presentation formats have different rules and strategies for effective communication, but at the end of the day, if the person giving the presentation can't get into the mind of their audience, understand what the audience wants or needs from the presentation, and meet their audience where they're coming from rather than just giving a data dump while assuming perfect attention, patience, and engagement from the audience, that person isn't going to be able to give a good presentation, and the audience isn't going to learn what they were supposed to learn. At the very least, with slide presentations, the format is sufficiently restricted that there are some basic rules that can be taught as an aid to help the presenter communicate effectively.

I don't love slides more than any other communication approach, and I enjoy experimenting with other ways of communicating information. (Though since an awful lot of what I need to communicate is contained in scientific figures, slides are usually the best format.) If people want to get rid of slides in their organization, that's fine, but if the problem of poor communication skills isn't also addressed directly, changing to some other presentation format isn't going to help anything.
posted by biogeo at 9:33 PM on March 10 [99 favorites]


I’m skeptical that they couldn’t have communicated the issue with PowerPoint. Folks with 30 minutes and a screen have to communicate a point somehow. Rather than just criticize the medium, how about we see an example of how the same data could have been presented with the right emphasis and impact?
posted by rh at 11:22 PM on March 10 [12 favorites]


1983, Space Camp, shuttle mission. I'm the pilot, there is possible tile damage. There is no staying in orbit and waiting. There is no replacement/fix-in-place. There is no second launch that could arrive. Burn up on re-entry. Seems like ground control would have pushed the "go out and inspect that thing and maybe a bit of duct tape or something" because it was the opportunity for some other kid to go out on the floaty space-walk simulator thingy. Lame assed ground control. In the end, it's unlikely anything could have been done, such are the hazards of spaceflight. Ground control to major Tom. And just another CPTSD thing.
posted by zengargoyle at 11:24 PM on March 10 [6 favorites]


I would argue that that's really far from what happend. Nobody would benefit from hiding that

Companies and especially senior management gamble all the time that the worst case scenario won't happen. Sometimes rationally so, sometimes very riskily. I don't necessarily agree that in this case it was intentional but the Challenger explosion was in part caused by senior management overriding the engineers' safety recommendation.
Morton Thiokol employees Robert Lund, the Vice President of Engineering, and Joe Kilminster, the Vice President of the Space Booster Programs, recommended against launching until the temperature was above 53 °F (12 °C). ... Morton Thiokol leadership had changed their opinion and stated that the evidence presented on the failure of the O-rings was inconclusive and that there was a substantial margin of error in the event of a failure or erosion. They stated that their decision was to proceed with the launch.


Slide text is there to give the audience a visual map for the major point(s) they are to take away from this particular moment in the presentation

They're also a prompt to guide the spreaker about what to talk about and when. The vast majority of presentations aren't perfectly memorized TED Talks (and staring down reading the speaker notes generally is awful) so by necessity they generally have to be a little more detailed than the ultra minimal Steve Jobs format.
posted by Candleman at 12:10 AM on March 11 [6 favorites]


There's a lot of context missing from the presentation of the slide. What's in small print at the bottom can be easily called out verbally in a meeting, especially if you're in CYA mode: "HEY! we need to acknowledge clearly that the volume/force of the foam in actually was massively greater than the test parameters and that the test DOES NOT provide a reliable guide to the likely outcome here. Do we agree?" I know I've been in that position before and specifically done exactly that, just to get everyone to say out loud "I agree, X does not Y because Z."

Assuming that font size correlates well with bureaucratic attention puts you far into Dilbertesque "of course, people are idiots and so are idiotic in predictable ways" territory.
posted by fatbird at 12:13 AM on March 11 [5 favorites]


Look at the group photo. This was the 'diversity in space' mission, just like the Challenger disaster was the 'teacher in space' mission, which was one of Ronald Reagan's campaign promises, and was scheduled to coincide with one of his State of the Union addresses.

The slide is execrably prepared and has 4 bad typos within two crucial sentences: "Vaires" for 'Varies'; an extraneous question mark in the middle of 'e.g.'; "3cu. Ln" when they meant '3 cu. in.'; and "hanrd" when they meant 'hard'. I haven’t seen an AskMe with that many errors in a long time.

If you were watching that presentation, how seriously could you take the information on that slide?
posted by jamjam at 12:23 AM on March 11 [17 favorites]


Really poor communication - but in a case like this the audience also has a duty to make sure they have understood fully and properly, actively interrogating on the key points. Is it too much to expect that someone would have asked: ‘so in your view, is this safe, or not?’
posted by Phanx at 2:22 AM on March 11 [6 favorites]


This is a very bad slide, but I agree it’s better evidence for the academic death by PowerPoint than actual death by PowerPoint. Per the article, this slide was presented in an actual meeting/discussion. Yes, this slide could and should have been a better communication tool in approximately one million ways, but seeing the slide gives us minimal insight into the actual conversation.
posted by obfuscation at 5:04 AM on March 11 [11 favorites]


I bet most of the people in that presentation read the title and stopped paying attention. What does "conservatism" mean here anyway? The shuttle program had a history of assuming out-of-bounds conditions that didn't result in disaster as being acceptable, it's reasonable to believe that they actually thought of going ahead with reentry was "conservative".
posted by tommasz at 5:08 AM on March 11


To expand on biogeo and rh's point - I feel like "powerpoint considered harmful" is just a meme, and a poorly phrased one. "Bad communication considered harmful" just doesn't have the same ring to it, but it actually gets to the point. There have been people who are bad at communicating since forever, and taking away their powerpoints isn't going to change that.

The best argument I can think of is that powerpoint doesn't do anything to discourage you from making bad presentations... So where are all the articles about how word processors don't discourage us from making bad memos, or spreadsheets not discouraging us from making incorrect or misleading tables?

A poor craftsperson blames their tools. We as a society need to recognize that too many people have had little to no education on effective communication skills, and work on changing that.
posted by Nutri-Matic Drinks Synthesizer at 5:12 AM on March 11 [11 favorites]


The thing is: we craft the tools. And the tools craft us.

I think there is a similar issue with spreadsheets in the management world: numbers and formulae look more objective than they really are. And word processors: so many supposed technical specialists spending time messing about with formatting because putting the content and the formatting in one tool ends up with it being done by the same person, who is rarely good at both.

Perhaps that is the real issue, making the contents experts handle the presentation layer in this case resulted in a terrible outcome which could have been overcome by having a professional design the presentation (even in MS Powerpoint!) in cooperation with the engineers who knew the facts and could provide material.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 5:25 AM on March 11 [9 favorites]


So as I mentioned last time I'm coming at this from a defense background, but I believe NASA has largely the same problems. Here are some things to think about:

1. Powerpoint is the primary method of communicating within Defense. I'll get to why I think this is the case in a bit, but at my last job information basically didn't exist if it was not captured on a slide somewhere. Things are somewhat better at my current position.

2. Engineering/science types are, by and large, not taught how to communicate. When I was in college, we were required to take exactly one "writing" course freshman year - which I tested out of. So, I have not had any sort of instruction on "how to get your point across" since high school at the latest.

3. Points 1 and 2 lead to the mess that's shown in the article. In my experience, slides are not reviewed to the same level of rigor as more formal documentation because "they're just slides" despite the fact that this is how all information is shared.

I think we can tie the over-reliance on slides to a couple of things. First is the contracting vehicle - a document (memo, white paper, whatever) becomes a "work product" that needs to be paid for. Slides are "informal" and can be thrown together cheaply (i.e. no one's really on the hook to pay for it). Second is the amount of buy-in so many decisions require, and the fact that asking anyone to actually read anything goes nowhere. So, you need the program manager's approval, and their boss, and the division chief, but no one's available at the same time to actually sit down and come to a conclusion together, so you make the same pitch four or five times to four or five people whenever they can squeeze you in between other meetings.

HOWEVER, everyone also wants to keep the Powerpoint files as "work artifacts" AND they want them early to "read ahead" before your meeting. Hence the slides full of dense text, because what you're really doing is writing a memo but putting it in slide format. And then no one listens in the meeting because the engineer doesn't know how to actually present, so they're reading aloud all the words that everyone else is staring at.

Another problem - and this is a very valid one that I don't know how to get around - is that we (and NASA too, undoubtedly) have a huge problem trying to find tools that we can use to collaborate, because there is a big concern about cybersecurity. Well, and cost and the fact that it takes the government forever to make these kinds of purchasing decisions. But things like Word documents and Powerpoint slides are easy to share - they can be emailed over secure networks, antivirus software is capable of handling them, the are predictable. Modern collaboration tools are basically out; anything that lives in the cloud or is administered by a third party is a complete no-go most of the time. So you're stuck doing your issue tracking in Excel spreadsheets and project planning in Powerpoint.

Oh yeah, and quad charts. If I ever have to do another one of those I will go mad.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:26 AM on March 11 [60 favorites]


I'm a bit taken aback by all the #notallpowerpoints comments.
posted by Zumbador at 5:47 AM on March 11 [8 favorites]


I’m skeptical that they couldn’t have communicated the issue with PowerPoint. Folks with 30 minutes and a screen have to communicate a point somehow. Rather than just criticize the medium, how about we see an example of how the same data could have been presented with the right emphasis and impact?

PowerPoint encourages specific modes of presentation, just as Word encourages a specific way of writing and Excel a specific way of calculation. You can do something else with your Office package, but there is a strong push towards the template. And the alternatives are not easy to source. Does anyone remember Word Perfect, the far superior word processing software? For PowerPoint there are still alternative options, but most of them require some skills beyond playing around on your computer on a Sunday.

At my workplace we have templates designed by professionals, but most colleagues mess them up completely. I did too, until I saw one of my "big boss"s presentations. Obviously, he was at the original introduction by the designers for section leaders, which us underlings never saw. It's a very neat design, that helps you use ppt correctly, but it's hidden away somewhere in the deep links of our organisation.

Another of my colleagues has literally put the entire text of his lectures into his ppts. And his lectures are insanely long, three hours is the norm. His point is that even if the students fall asleep during the lectures, he can still always just say "I told you so" if they make a mistake in their projects. It's a solution that technically redeems him from culpability, but as a pedagogical tool it's insane, the learning content of his lectures is close to nil.
posted by mumimor at 6:10 AM on March 11 [13 favorites]


Can I put in a plug here for 3:2 Engineering and the liberal arts?

If you are a college-bound student who is interested in engineering, consider a liberal arts college that has a 3:2 program, where students spend 3 years learning math, science, and all that a liberal arts curriculum has to offer, then transfer to an engineering school for 2 years of intensive engineering classes.

Students in the liberal arts context build strong skills in written and oral communication, group collaboration, and cultural competency. And turn out to have pretty strong technical skills as well, when all's said and done.

Feel free to memail me if you want to know more.
posted by BrashTech at 6:19 AM on March 11 [7 favorites]


Edward Tufte -- the communication expert quoted in the article -- wrote "The Visual Display Of Quantitative Information." A wonderful book about this subject. In it he presents both theory and examples of how to effectively communicate data on a written page.

Example of the best: E.J. Marcey's "le Method Graphique" (Paris, 1858) which displays the interaction of multiple variables on a single graph to explain the terrible fate of Napoleon's army in Russia.

Example of the worst: charts from Morton Thiokol engineers faxed to NASA to convince government officals not to launch the space shuttle Challenger. These failed to effectively communicate the danger because they did not properly display the relationship of temperature to degradation in o-ring performance.

Tufte's take on Power Point (if I may paraphrase): "low bandwidth, shity method for communication."
posted by Dean358 at 6:23 AM on March 11 [8 favorites]


What an awful slide. It looks as if "Conservatism for Tile Penetration" was meant to suggest "we should conservatively assume that the tile was penetrated", but it's so easily misconstrued. Then the second bullet point gets lost in what follows, even though it's saying that a key test overpredicted tile penetration.

It could have been:

Tests Strongly Predict Tile Damage

Test data show that:

- Foam can penetrate tiles if it has enough mass and velocity

- Once this happens, it can cause significant damage

- The foam in this case was 640 times larger than the test cases


...with all of the details about Crater and 1920 vs 3 cubic inches in the verbal explanation of the slide, which nobody would hear because they'd be focused on the headline strongly predicting tile damage.
posted by rory at 6:27 AM on March 11 [18 favorites]


A poor craftsperson blames their tools. We as a society need to recognize that too many people have had little to no education on effective communication skills, and work on changing that.

Or, simply have someone on-staff who understands graphic communication who is tasked with organizing the data for effective presentation. Like a well-trained graphic designer.

In this particular case, the problem isn’t with PP, per se, but with the people putting the slide together. My last job as the staff graphic artist was for a small tech startup. The company was chock-full of extremely intelligent people, who were outstanding in their various fields. Unfortunately, they were also quite ignorant, even dismissive, of things like clear visual communication of data. They seemed to believe that, as long as the data was on the page or slide, it would be fully understood (Insert aside on the “smartest guys in the room” syndrome here)

Occasionally, though, one of them would come to me to “make their slides pretty” because they were going to have to make a presentation to upper management, many of whom weren’t engineers/devs/etc. and would need to be entertained. The slides were, invariably, exactly like those slides in the story...lines of text with no obvious indication proper hierarchy or importance. Font weights and sizes were chosen not to highlight important data points, but to “break things up” to make it look better (in their eyes). *sigh*

What followed would be a steady back-and-forth between myself and the technician over what the data meant, what were to actual important points, what was dross, etc. Often, slides would contain unrelated datasets that were, nonetheless, smashed together on one slide. Charts in the wrong formats (i.e. pie charts when bar charts were better, etc.) In the end, I was always able to show them how proper visual organization and presentation of data wasn’t merely making it pretty, but making it cohesive and intelligible, which would help them greatly in making their presentation. It was a concept, I think, they knew, but (pick one) just assumed they knew innately how to do, or outright rejected because it was artsy-fartsy nonsense that had no place in their logical universes.

In either case, I always enjoyed doing the work. I love dealing with expanses of text, and am absolutely a big believer in Tufte’s ideas. And, it was always a nice feelz when a tech would come to me after a presentation and thank me for my work.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:36 AM on March 11 [23 favorites]


Text should be kept to a minimum

Back in the day, when I did alot of user-groups, seminars, conferences, training and the general tech public-speaking circuit - I built alot of slide-decks.

My process was to first enter ALL of the info I wanted to convey into the slide, with many bullets and sub-levels. This info would include references and hyperlinks.

But - the next thing I did - which was critical, was to copy ALL of that info into the slide "Notes" - and then trim it down to having NO sub-bullets within the display portion of the slide. Reduce, refine and streamline the displayed text accordingly.

Then - the next step would be to determine if I could replace the text with a visual diagram/construct/etc.

So - now, when I presented the session - or print the slide for handout purposes (training typically), I have detailed notes to hand-out to the attendees.
posted by rozcakj at 6:38 AM on March 11 [6 favorites]


Maybe someone can explain to me why the much-vaunted infographic of Napoleon's army can't be put on a slide.
posted by hypnogogue at 6:42 AM on March 11 [3 favorites]


I'm surprised nobody's linked to Tufte's essay The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.
posted by madcaptenor at 6:54 AM on March 11 [12 favorites]


Maybe someone can explain to me why the much-vaunted infographic of Napoleon's army can't be put on a slide.
Two issues: First, it can be, but until recently projectors/monitors weren't high-res enough to display it as intended. Comparing print to screen is one of Tufte's favorite dead horses to flog. From the perspective of someone who's worked in display tech and in scientific visualization, he's not wrong. Paper has historically had higher resolution, though display PPI is getting up there.

Second, that's an infographic, not a slide. Different contexts, in terms of reception. You look at an infographic up close, and can spend as long as you want on it. You glance at a slide while the presenter is talking to it. One can talk through the infographic as part of a presentation, but once you're using temporal media there are probably better ways of crafting the message than throwing that infographic up there and asking people to digest it. Then again, if you're making a deck you probably don't have time or background to do it right (I think this is at least part of the powerpoint issue, ref: Thorzdad's point above). Didn't Al Gore famously pay a ton of money to a design firm for the "Inconvenient Truth" deck?
posted by Alterscape at 7:07 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


Maybe someone can explain to me why the much-vaunted infographic of Napoleon's army can't be put on a slide.

1. Minard's visualization is read in different directions, depending on what information you want to get out of it.

2. The data dimensionality and density of that visualization are incredibly high, even by the standards of typical 2D visualizations.

3. Powerpoint slides are read (typically) from left to right, top to bottom. If they are read, at all: most are scanned for keywords.

4. Powerpoint slides have very low data density. A slide trying to present more than one or two ideas is a poorly-designed slide, because most of the audience will not have the required focus.

I guess you could verbally summarize all the cogent points of Minard's graph in some kind of TED talk format, zooming into the relevant bits as you go, but the work itself does the job.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 7:27 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


You both missed my point. Put up a photo or graphic and say what you want to say about it without reading it to people. That's all.
posted by hypnogogue at 7:30 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


I'm a bit taken aback by all the #notallpowerpoints comments.

This would not be my takeaway from the comments people are making about clear communication skills being more important than the medium used for communicating.
posted by biogeo at 7:36 AM on March 11 [8 favorites]


It's not a good slide. But there were, according to TFA, 28 slides. One would have to assume a lot of points that were made. I'm extremely skeptical of assertions that before the disaster the engineers considered this the most important "salient" point and were just bad at communicating it.

This reads to me like a classic CYA bullet point, where someone on the presenting team has raised an issue and the team as a whole (maybe even the person who raised it!) doesn't think it's important enough to drive the conclusion, but everyone agrees you can't prove it's unimportant. So it goes in.

Of course, after the accident we know what caused the accident and what the right decision was. But those are the hard questions! Once you know the answer the design approach becomes easy.

In fact, focusing on this one bullet point justifies the CYA nature of the exercise: While the engineers clearly were not hammering the table saying not to proceed, the post mortems is that the engineers "knew" the risks and now management is to blame as well.
posted by mark k at 7:51 AM on March 11 [3 favorites]


I will definitely show the Minard graphic as part of a ppt presentation later this semester. It all depends on the context.
posted by mumimor at 7:52 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]


The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.”

this is fascinating, thank you. I just came across this paper from the NASA Chief Engineer's office, coathored along with the Chief Knowledge Officer, that was written as one of the responses to the 2003 tragedy. Here's the salient para on page 2 where the initial solutions offered reflect the same mindset as those prone to powerpointing things to death - "build a humongous database" - "centralize" whereas the authors' propose a far more nuanced and insightful approach that is worth reading.
Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) Report Aug. 2003
Initial responses to the CAIB report statements tended to focus on building systems to support collaboration tools, collections of lessons learned in databases and policies directing people to use these systems. Like many other organizations, NASA pursued ways to capture knowledge into systems assuming knowledge can be managed best when it’s captured in a system for later retrieval. This response is not without precedence as many organizations in the 80s and 90s faced increased global competition based on knowledge resources. The answer seemed to be knowledge management systems that could track and manage knowledge much like enterprise data systems enabled Wal-Mart to track inventory and supply giving it a competitive advantage through efficient information management. Many millions of dollars were spent on such systems by big firms with dismal results. What worked for WalMart may not be the answer for knowledge management at organizations like NASA. The main lesson1 to learn from these early attempts at managing knowledge seems to be that knowledge systems are necessary only as much as they enable people to share their knowledge more effectively or more efficiently with others rather than sharing with (contributing to) the system itself.
posted by infini at 7:55 AM on March 11 [5 favorites]


I agree with bioego.
We saw it throughout COVID without any powerpoints (at least none that I saw), but via speeches.

Engineers are engineers, doctors are doctors. Professional communicators have to act as liaisons for these groups because it is not their job nor within their job scope or brainspace (on average - not all engineers yo!) to communicate the most salient information clearly. It's their job not to be 100% sure - but communicating with people other than their own cohort has to be clear and actionable.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:25 AM on March 11 [3 favorites]


I love how Tufte always comes up in these conversations. Unfortunately, I had the chance to see him speak in person in Chicago once. Super interesting up until the point where he made the classic blowhard move of showing too much of his hobby, in his case slides and slides of his unimpressive artwork, at such point, most of my respect went out the window. I still have the books and think sparklines are useful though.

(Apologies for the slight detail. I guess I’ve been waiting to snark about Tufte’s bad art for years, even though I agree that having better PPT design and better communication skills is important.)
posted by ec2y at 8:33 AM on March 11 [12 favorites]


I also went to one of Tufte's talks. ec2y is right on the money. WAAAAAAAYYYYYY too much time showing us his artwork. Like, that's nice but that is definitely not why I am here.

But it's cool. My company paid for me to go and I got four pretty great books out of it, so I'm still happy.
posted by nushustu at 8:45 AM on March 11 [5 favorites]


I love how Tufte always comes up in these conversations. Unfortunately, I had the chance to see him speak in person in Chicago once. Super interesting up until the point where he made the classic blowhard move of showing too much of his hobby

ec2y, I had the same reaction to one of his talks. But I still totally appreciate and enjoy his books.

And as (another) aside: apologies if my post above reads as if folks on the Blue didn't already know about Tufte. The breath and depth of knowledge of this board never ceases to amaze -- number one reason for being here. Didn't mean to make a "have you heard about music from this guy called Brian Eno?" kinda post.
posted by Dean358 at 8:55 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


So, as it happens, I spent about three hours on Wednesday talking about the Columbia disaster for a seminar. These communication issues came up (although not this article, thanks for posting!). In essence, Boeing was trying to communicate two things: (1) All the tests we have run suggest that a foam strike does not present danger for reentry, and (2) This particular foam strike fell way outside our test parameters, and so we can't predict the effect without further tests. The people attending the meeting came away understanding the first point but not the second point.

I also make a lot of slide decks for my job (and I've led trainings on effective communication) and one of the things I do a lot is either executive summaries or major takeaways. Either at the beginning or end, there needs to be an opportunity to state conclusions in clear, plain English. All the support is important, but the people you're presenting to want to know the bottom line. I'm sure this was especially true at NASA, where everyone was doing a million things at once.

Simplify, simplify, simplify. All of Morton Thiokol's charts before the Challenger disaster couldn't really convey the effect of low temperatures on O-rings. But in a committee hearing during the investigation, Richard Feynman famously put a piece of O-ring into a glass of ice water and showed how it became brittle and lost its resistance. The ability to communicate something simply and clearly is vital, which is why it will always be important to include English majors in STEM fields.

Now, this presentation is only one of a bunch of things that went wrong in 2003. No one could say for certain how much damage was caused by the foam strike, so no one was willing to stick their neck out and sound the alarm. There was a 30-day window in which they could mount a rescue mission, but the costs could be enormous, and if anything went wrong, they could lose two shuttles rather than one. Because of levels of bureaucracy between NASA and DoD, the engineer who identified the problem couldn't convince DoD to realign a spy satellite in order to get a better image of the damage to Columbia's wing. The funding for the shuttle program was tied to the image of the shuttle as a safe, reliable space bus service to deliver satellites for major corporations, and no one wanted to sound hysterical. The mission leader at JSC was a woman, who I'm sure had to fight her way up in a male-dominated profession, and would have been especially sensitive to seeming alarmist or looking like she was wasting money unnecessarily. And the head of NASA at the time was a political appointee and self-proclaimed "bean counter" who had come over from OMB to cut expenses. A perfect shitstorm.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 9:05 AM on March 11 [16 favorites]


In defense of Tufte, his actual article that this is excerpted from has way more detail on how PowerPoint did / did not contribute to the issue, going into how the slides were conveyed (via email, no in-person presentation) and why the format chosen is inherently more difficult to parse than a simple memo.
posted by q*ben at 9:05 AM on March 11 [4 favorites]


I am sitting not 10 feet from a framed copy of the Minard chart. I have used the chart in a slide deck. I used it to teach college students what is possible with a chart, not to convey to students of history a summary of the French invasion of Russia in 1812. First the chart data is not in English, which would pose a significant barrier. And second, it's in metric, another issue for your average American. Highly dense infographics are a poor choice for a slide deck because a big part of presenting is guiding the focus of the group.

It would take a significant chunk of time explaining each of the 4 axis (temp, geography, time, and # of French forces) of Minard, which is one more than most people expect. And then the geography of Russia would need to brought into context as the chart purposefully minimizes that on the assumption the audience would have intimate knowledge of this essential part of the argument Minard is making. Viewing the chart as a whole would invite the audience to wander, or just tune out. A better presentation would build up to the final chart, if that was the goal, or simply desegregate the data as we can afford to show this information in 4 pieces just as easily as one. The parsimony of Minard's chart is simply no longer necessary in most scenarios. It does make for a lovely poster.

As noted above this whole 'death by powerpoint' is a question ultimately of how organizations fail to make good decisions, fail to clearly communicate, and waste time on the performance of doing these critical tasks. Many orgs that make life and death decisions regularly do so using officially nothing more than a slide deck, a presentation and a quick decision. Only when that results in total failure does this process get closely scrutinized, and focusing on the font size simply short hand for how flawed this process is. If one of my slides is ever part of a book, or on tv, in a magazine, I have very likely made a terrible mistake, even if the font and grammar are all correct. I seriously can't think of a single counter example, a single slide pulled from it's presentation is how the org sinks you.

My default measure of a presentation is mostly based on the ratio of slides (visual content) to time. 28 of these Challenger slides in a short timeframe simply tells me that this information should have been conveyed in a different method. Depending on the org culture that tells me that everyone was expected to properly prep and be prepared (unlikely) or that the decision makers have already decided and it's just a formality. Powerpoint presentations are almost always in the service of simply accepting what already is, and I think part of the attraction of alternatives like Ted style talks.
posted by zenon at 9:07 AM on March 11 [5 favorites]


My general criticism is just this… The illusion of computers… Because of computers and their software, everyone is now an expert graphic designer, photographer, video maker, author, communicator, etc. Having worked at Apple, who was one of the proponents of this attitude, and then working at a dental school helping faculty prepare good course material, I saw this attitude in action. “I am in expert in my field, I know how to present my material,” And then, up pops slides covered in text, vacation pictures, 12 tiny photos bunched together, and worse. And, for the most part, the faculty was not interested in learning how to do it better. They were experts. Despite the fact that their job was to teach the students how to properly use the tools of dentistry, they were impervious to learning how to use these tools properly. PowerPoint is seen as being a magical tool that just does everything right. If it’s on a slide that’s enough. If no one can see it? Then it’s their fault.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:12 AM on March 11 [8 favorites]


njohnson23: and god forbid anybody want to learn about slide themes and templates, and how to use them, and how to edit them, so that when two people combine their separate decks together, I don't have to go back in and try to make them look cohesive one. slide. at. a. time.

I think Tufte's right: for any meeting, write up your presentation in WORDS on a 2-sided piece of A4 (letter) paper. Two columns of text on each side. A couple of images are fine. Make all attendees spend the first ten minutes of any meeting reading the paper. Now everybody understands, and you have Q&A for the rest of the meeting. People learn things, vague ideas are clarified, people get on the same page, value is added. Everybody wins.
posted by nushustu at 9:26 AM on March 11 [4 favorites]


Funnily enough, my perspective is related to njohnson's (which popped up as I was contemplating what I'd write), but sort of the opposite. There are lots of people who are experts at their job but know damn little about communicating, and don't want to be bothered. They learn just enough about this application or that one to get their point across…somehow. They don't consider themselves experts and don't want to learn more than absolutely necessary (don't get me started on people who think Excel is page-layout software).

Most of the problem with the slide we're focusing on is absolutely because the author is bad at communicating, regardless of the tool. But some of it is imposed by the tool itself. Powerpoint nudges you to write in bullet points (I believe this is a key point in Tufte's Cognitive Style of Powerpoint), even though some slide masters aren't set up for bullets, and of course there are other tools. But you'd need to know enough about Powerpoint (or other tools) to know that.

We're probably at a point where a GPT-3-based descendent of Clippy could watch you write and say "It looks like you're using a lot of vague bullshitty language except way down here where you finally use some hard numbers! Do you want me to make that more prominent?"
posted by adamrice at 9:37 AM on March 11 [4 favorites]


and why the format chosen is inherently more difficult to parse than a simple memo

Nobody reads my email with enough attention that I could paste that slide as flat text and have people read it through and draw appropriate conclusions. The format does the text no favors, but the text has already failed. By saying too much.

"PowerPoint is low-bandwidth" because people are low-bandwidth. The tool can't accommodate a dense narrative that needs to be an essay that takes three hours to absorb. When you try, whacking it into thirty slides of five bullet points each, that's an abuse of the tool. Or a temptation created by the tool's availability? Yes but that and the fact that you won't get the three hours of people's time to read the dense essay.

This was a low-bandwidth situation. A presentation was an appropriate format. The place for technical monographs was within the engineering group developing a deep understanding of the state of knowledge and uncertainty. The presentation should only try to communicate the conclusions and their grounding, nothing else.

tl,dr the problem with PowerPoint is that it lets users think it's high-bandwidth, that and the easiest path is stuffing bulleted text in. Hard floor on font size and ceiling on text per slide! Obnoxious CAPTCHA grinding to get each bullet point!
posted by away for regrooving at 9:53 AM on March 11 [8 favorites]


We're probably at a point where a GPT-3-based descendent of Clippy could watch you write and say "It looks like you're using a lot of vague bullshitty language except way down here where you finally use some hard numbers! Do you want me to make that more prominent?"

Related to the higher order issues embedded in the topic of this thread is the over-arching importance of context, context, context... this was one of the reasons I ended up stumbling across that NASA paper I linked to earlier - the authors highlight the importance of context of the knowledge and/or the data as one of the keys to its subsequent re-use.

I am not convinced of GPT-3's capacity for parsing context in the holistic interdisciplinary way of invention/innovation/skunk work type of places, such as NASA (another point made about its need for learning circulation being different from other places such as Walmart, for eg), nor for a powerpoint because the PPT is just the tool, its it's context of use that will drive the decisionmaking that you're hoping Clippy's descendent can take over. How? Without input from the real world? There's more of a rant here but I'll wait till have the language to argumentate it properly without frothing at the mouth incoherently.
posted by infini at 10:00 AM on March 11


infini: "There's more of a rant here but I'll wait till have the language to argumentate it properly without frothing at the mouth incoherently."

I think you're taking my dumb idea a little too seriously.
posted by adamrice at 10:09 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


No, its not you. This sort of thing is overly promoted and aspired towards in some of my circles
posted by infini at 10:33 AM on March 11


TIL Metafilter thinks it's better at the visual display of quantitative information than the guy who literally wrote the book.

Noted in case I ever seek advice here.
posted by Ardnamurchan at 11:39 AM on March 11


There are people who are very very good at analysis and there are people who are very very good at making something on a page look really polished. These two groups may overlap but are not superimposed.
posted by infini at 11:48 AM on March 11 [8 favorites]


I once attended a conference and gave my presentation with no slides. No PowerPoint or anything else. Just speaking with occasional reference to note cards. Both the conference organizers and the audience acted like I hadn't prepared anything - the PowerPoint slide WAS the presentation to them. Which I don't understand, since most of the other presentations I saw were an impenetrable mess, with no engagement or logical organization. Just droning speech over dense, text-filled slides. You can see how little information gets absorbed during those talks by the glazed expressions on the attendee's faces. But people are so used to this as the default mode of attending a presentation that they don't even realize that they're not getting anything out of it.

The conference talks were based on papers and abstracts that we'd previously submitted. It is, as away for regrooving notes above, hopeless to try to cram a complex paper into a 15 minute presentation. It can't happen. The place for that reading is before the presentation begins, and perhaps with an entirely different group of people whose conclusions will then inform the presentation's contents and structure.

PowerPoint doesn't make you a better presenter. It doesn't make you any kind of presenter at all. If you can't give a good talk without PowerPoint then you won't be able to give a good talk with it. PowerPoint is only effective when it's used to support an already effective presentation. It's a supplement, nothing more. If your talk doesn't make sense without your slides, then I promise you it won't be any better with them, UNLESS there are photos or videos or other visual media that you need for illustration purposes.
posted by 1adam12 at 12:25 PM on March 11 [7 favorites]


And a third set, people who are good at knowing which content will be relevant to the audience and effective within the organizational structure, having only partial overlap with the experts in either subject matter or visual presentation.
posted by away for regrooving at 12:31 PM on March 11 [5 favorites]


As I'm now 20 years into my career in software engineering, I'm realizing that being able to present complex topics correctly shaped and abstracted for my target audience has been one of my greatest areas of growth, and I really wish I'd known how to do it sooner.

It's now my fantasy that every technical field would have a 400- level course or seminar which basically consists of taking the same detailed content, and presenting it differently each time to a particular type of audience: hostile/ friendly/ technical/ non-technical/ familiar/ unfamiliar.
posted by microscone at 12:38 PM on March 11 [15 favorites]


TIL Metafilter thinks it's better at the visual display of quantitative information than the guy who literally wrote the book.

It's a poor craftsman that blames a tool... I fail to see how this horrible slide would have been less horrible if it had been a printed handout - or a transparency from a previous generation.

Tuft is excellent, but I was unaware that there is only one valid perspective, or method of presenting information - and consuming it.

Noted in case I ever seek advice here.

Ahahaha, sniff - thank-you, I needed a good laugh - AskMeFi is actually one of the few places on the internet that has fairly non-toxic, useful advise.

Might not be up to academic standards - but it works in the real-world - not all of us have to give life & death informational advise to NASA/FBI/CIA/Pentagon/bridge-building-engineers...
posted by rozcakj at 12:39 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]


The fact that these slides were sent as purely email communication, rather than used as part of a presentation, wasn't clear to me from the blog post, and is pretty damning as well. That's another example of using the wrong tool for the job, for sure. A slide deck isn't necessarily an inappropriate format in all cases for a document, but usually a more conventional document format is going to be better.

TIL Metafilter thinks it's better at the visual display of quantitative information than the guy who literally wrote the book.

What a strange takeaway. I don't think I've seen anyone here disagree with Tufte's analysis of what's wrong with the way that information was presented in the Columbia incident, just with the blog author's suggestion that the problem is with PowerPoint per se, rather than a poor approach to presentation and communication. And as rozcakj says, Tufte is just one voice. I know several Ivy League academics who've written books, and believe me, they're not infallible. If I recall correctly (and am not confusing him with someone else), Tufte's recommendations for minimalism in graphic presentation of data can be kind of extreme sometimes, recommending eliminating sources of information like axes that, while technically redundant, provide a valuable reinforcement and anchoring for the viewer in many cases. Tufte is a valuable authority in communication and the visual design of graphical information, and that authority should be taken seriously but not followed mindlessly.

If the choice is between engineers refusing to think critically about their communication techniques at all versus adopting wholesale the recommendations of an expert like Tufte, then Tufte is obviously the far better choice. But better still is for engineers and other technical experts to take the problem of communication seriously. The fact that so many people in technical fields are awarded degrees without any meaningful training in communication, and that there's often a culture of active disdain for communication as a valuable skill within technical fields, is the real problem, not PowerPoint. I expect Tufte would agree with that.
posted by biogeo at 1:32 PM on March 11 [8 favorites]


Yeah, the blog post literally says “NASA officials sat down with Boeing Corporation engineers who took them through three reports; a total of 28 slides.” Sure sounds like an actual meeting to me.

If that’s not the case, well… oh look, another example of terrible communication!
posted by obfuscation at 2:28 PM on March 11 [5 favorites]


The fact that so many people in technical fields are awarded degrees without any meaningful training in communication, and that there's often a culture of active disdain for communication as a valuable skill within technical fields, is the real problem, not PowerPoint.

And those would be the same kind of people who built PowerPoint in the first place, no? It doesn't seem unreasonable to think some of those attitudes may have found their way in to the product. Blaming PowerPoint for Columbia is silly, yes, but maybe it's still worth thinking at least a little about how a communication tool, designed by people that don't really value communication, is affecting the people that use it for that stated purpose.
posted by wordless reply at 2:38 PM on March 11 [4 favorites]


Oh, I agree with that completely! I think a discussion of the rhetoric of PowerPoint as a software system would be really interesting. Even choices like calling the most highly visible default text field a "title" biases people to use the software poorly. If the text prompt that appeared there was not "Title" but "Major point" or "Main idea," people would almost automatically be encouraged to make better slides. (Encouraged, but not obligated -- most people would still make crappy slides, but hopefully slightly less crappy.) There are all kinds of poor design choices in Microsoft's Office suite, and its many competitors and descendants, that are interesting to analyze from a rhetorical perspective. I don't even blame the author for taking an extreme position of suggesting that PowerPoint is responsible for poor communication, I just think that they're incorrect. Exploring how PowerPoint can enable or encourage poor communication practices requires a bit more subtlety than just pointing to one slide that is very obviously bad by any standard.
posted by biogeo at 3:11 PM on March 11 [4 favorites]


Also, since I'm being kind of argumentative with the linked blog, I feel I should also note explicitly that I enjoyed reading it, and I think this is a really good FPP. Very thought-provoking.
posted by biogeo at 3:16 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]


As I understand him (from a review by Phillip Morrison rather than Tufte himself), Tufte's insistence that graphics of any kind be thoroughly integrated with text, to the point that even captions are superfluous and undesirable, seems completely wrongheaded.

I very much prefer illustrations which can be understood as they stand, and at best may collectively constitute an independent narration.

When I can get them. That’s too much to ask of primary sources like Science and Nature except possibly in review articles, but for understanding things I’m not completely familiar with, I think it’s the gold standard.
posted by jamjam at 4:17 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


I came.across an interesting example of institutional standards and how they interact with ppt this week. I have a military student who is all over their topic. They do a jam packed ppt at our meetings, lots of info, covering the whole of each slide. They then talk over it at speed. Apparently the standard in the UK military is no more than 6 slides, no more than 2 minutes per slide. This seems to create a situation where if you give them 30 minutes they deliver incredibly dense ppts and talk super fast for the whole period. It is not, in my opinion, a good way to present an argument that your audience can follow.
posted by biffa at 4:35 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]


There are lots of people who are experts at their job but know damn little about communicating, and don't want to be bothered. They learn just enough about this application or that one to get their point across…somehow. They don't consider themselves experts and don't want to learn more than absolutely necessary (

If I learn how to communicate better I'll have to rewrite all my slides.

As an academic, comms feels like it is a long way from being the most important thing I haven't been trained in but am expected to do.
posted by biffa at 4:45 PM on March 11


Obligatory, classic: The Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation
posted by lathrop at 5:05 PM on March 11 [11 favorites]


Metafilter: There is only one valid perspective.
posted by spudsilo at 7:15 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


Related 'We have met the enemy and he is PowerPoint' from 2010 - "Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters."

And the 2009 article mentioned in the NYT piece Essay: Dumb-dumb bullets - "One excuse given for using PowerPoint is that senior leaders don’t have time to be pre-briefed on all the decisions they make. If that is the case, they are involved in too many decisions. When the default position is that you are too busy to prepare properly to make a decision, it means you are making bad decisions."
posted by phigmov at 8:02 PM on March 11 [4 favorites]


... that the problem is with PowerPoint per se, rather than a poor approach to presentation and communication

I didn't get that from the linked article at all. Apart from the rather click baity title, the article points out, in detail, how poor communication is the problem. The analysis of the slides in the article is all about the size of the text, the positioning of the bullet points, the way the heading was stated and so on... all things that are going to be problems in any visual medium that uses text.(word documents, printed posters, emails, etc)
The writer doesn't make the argument that PowerPoint creates these problems. They leave the cause unstated but the implication is (the way I read it) obviously "people who are bad at communication are using this tool wrongly"
There are people in this thread who have made the argument that PowerPoint inherently makes it more likely for people to make these kinds of mistakes, and it takes effort to avoid those errors that better software could solve. I agree with that.
But that was not the argument made in the article.
posted by Zumbador at 8:24 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


You know what, you're right. I was misled by the clickbaity title, a little bit of slightly generalized language in the final paragraph, and mostly by my own preconceptions. Clickbaity "death by PowerPoint" phrase aside, the article is indeed criticizing the specific slide from the case study, and not making a general argument about PowerPoint slide decks.

Good communication requires two parties, and in reading this article I failed on my end as an audience. Thanks, Zumbador, for helping me realize it. I stand by my general points about good communication, but my argumentative stance was unwarranted.
posted by biogeo at 10:38 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


Sorry if this is addressed but why did they rely on a PowerPoint to communicate this? Was there really not another written document? Were the Boeing engineers so incompetent at verbal communication that they didn't just say "we don't know but only because these circumstances so exceed our tests that we can't reliably extrapolate. but it looks very very bad"? Did one group make the PowerPoint and another present it?
posted by DeepSeaHaggis at 1:57 AM on March 12 [2 favorites]


Thanks Biogeo for the upthread clarification that this was an emailed presentation. Wtf? Also, the slide creators seem unclear on the distinction between a tree and a list. As if they've never watched themselves think.
posted by DeepSeaHaggis at 2:01 AM on March 12 [2 favorites]


I too remain unconvinced that the mistake here is specific to powerpoint. I am not a rocket scientist, but the wording rory proposed seems to me pretty successful at getting the point across. There's no reason why someone couldn't have have put that on a power-point slide, and the the power-point slide would have done its job.

Point is, you could use Powerpoint to highlight relevant info. This is clearly not what usually happens (based on most of the powerpoints most of us are regularly forced to sit through), and is definitely not what happend in this particular case. But the possible reasons for this are various, and seem to me mostly unrelated to the use of Powerpoint.

So, various reasons why people might fail to highlight relevant info:

1) Not knowing that you're supposed to highlight relevant info for your target audience

It's hard for me to imagine that anyone nowadys finishes any sort of schooling without repeatedly getting told that you're supposed to do this - I certainly was, in every subject where I was ever required to hold a presentation, which were in fact most subjects. It's possible that the message doesn't stick for the average enigneer who thinks that communication is a soft skill for suckers who are too stupid to study something hard like engineering.

A more charitable view of engineers leads me to speculate that most engineers are very detail oriented people who will usually get the relevant info even if it's not particularly highlighted, so they're uniquely ill-positioned to grasp the importance of highlighting relevant info to the non-engineer types. Which however, still suggests a certain lamentable mental inflexibility, an inability to consider a non-engineer-perspective. Which brings up another potential reason:

2) Not knowing what the relevant info for target audience actually is

For that, you have to know stuff about your target audience and be able to consider their subjective perspective - you have to think about people. Again, often not a priority for enigneer types, apparently.

3) Not knowing how to highlight the relevant info for your target audience

To be bit fairer to engineers, when I wrote earlier that most people usually get told to highlight relevant info at some point in school, that of course doesn't mean that they actually get taught how to hightligh relevant info. Highlighting relevant info requires writing skills, which require a fair bit of practice. It's probably tempting to skip that, when you find it a difficult skill to acquire and can get more money and validation for maxing more profitable skills. Engineers who spend time on polishing their writing without seeing quick success might think it not worth the opportunity costs.

4) Not wanting to highlight relevant info for your target audience

Sometimes you just might not want to draw attention to a problem that would be expensive to fix, when you feel reasonably confident you might get away with not fixing it and no one will ever notice.

When reading the article I was reminded of the HBO series about Chernobyl. It seems like there might have been a similiar dynamic at play. The Chernobyl tragedy was caused by design flaw of the emergency-shut-down-system of the nuclear power plant. The people who sold the equippment knew about it, but hid it, because it would have been costly to fix. They thought it would never be relevant, because surely, the people operating the system wouldn't be reckless enough to take the system to its limits, risking an emergency shut-down. But the people operating the system did take it to its limits, thinking they could always resort to an emergency shut down in the worst-case-scenario, relying on the people selling the equippment not being reckless enough to hide a crucial design flaw.

That's just a general problem with risk management. Often you can get away with taking quite a lot of risk, as long as the people around you don't. Their conscientiousness compensates for your recklessness. And you start to feel very smart and bold and look down on the risk averse cowards and make them feel like suckers. But when everyone starts to behave recklessly, relying on others to be conscientious, boom, tragedy.

Again, I'm no rocket science, so I'm just blindly speculating and don't know if this Chernobyl analogy holds any merit. But I do strongly suspect, that the main issue here was indeed a failure of risk managment, not necessarily communcition. They didn't communciate clearly, because they didn't want to, because they underestimated the cost of lies.

I think it's very naive to think that problems like that could be solved by teaching better communication skills, and when it comes to that particular historic event, the whole debate we're having here is a bit of red herring.

But, back to communication skills - one thing they also teach you, if you bother to learn, is that successful communciation always requires efforts by both parties - the sender, and the recipient. The fact that the power point slides were a shit summary of the relevant facts is one side; the fact that such an important decision was apparently made without anyone ever reading the actual report is another.

Here, I might see the strongest argument for blaming Powerpoint specifically. If there hadn't been a summary, people might have had no choice but to study the full document. I'm not at all sure however if that would have made them more likely to devote sufficient time and attention to the material. Their schedule wouldn't have been any less busy, and they wouldn't have been any less tempted to just skip and skim and they might have missed the relevant details just as likely.
posted by sohalt at 3:31 AM on March 12 [4 favorites]


I think the numerous, obvious typos in the slide point to it being very rushed and not reviewed or edited in any meaningful way. Anyone in the audience with the slightest interest in getting meaningful information (rather than checking off their CYA box) should have pressed hard on lots of points, and probably questioned Boeing’s diligence in general.

That said, I strongly agree with biogeo‘s suggesting that PowerPoint’s framing is really lousy. (I will swap “Main Point” for “Title” in my head from now on.)

Also, the visual mess of this slide is so typical, because PP makes it really easy to make formatting more complicated, but really hard to make it simpler. (And of course invites people to waste tons of time on irrelevant visual minutiae.)

I once ran across a tool to author slides in Markdown, which of course fails once you have to share them with anyone, but I thought it was much better for actually concentrating on the content.
posted by bjrubble at 7:26 AM on March 12


And a third set, people who are good at knowing which content will be relevant to the audience and effective within the organizational structure, having only partial overlap with the experts in either subject matter or visual presentation.

Do you see the three circles of the Venn Diagram with the Unicorn wielding a mouse in one hand whilst typing with the other?

I think I'm going make this as a quick sketch in Powerpoint (natch, I use Libre Office Suite because I hated having Lotus Presentation Graphics grabbed from my youthful hands by the M$ empire)
posted by infini at 8:53 AM on March 12


I realize this is painfully pedantic, but because "twelve" was mentioned in the article (and quite reasonably picked up by the OP), I got hung up on counting every word.

death by metafilter
posted by solotoro at 9:44 AM on March 12 [2 favorites]


If you're reading text off a slide, you're doing it wrong.

Tell that to any number of upper-echelon mgmt types giving presentations which I've been forced to endure.

My hostility to Powerpoint is based on its early history, when Defense (and other government customers) received presentations from potential vendors, where the flashiest presentation (instead of the actual best product) got the contract. Nothing woke up the top brass like a new animated transition. Tell me this is no longer true...?

why did they rely on a PowerPoint to communicate this?

Because by the time of the Columbia disaster, NASA had finally been weened off the overhead projector. Its culture of transparencies hastily assembled and viewed in the darkened meeting room continued, however, and if you'd like to see non-flashy Powerpoint slides, NASA was the place to go.
posted by Rash at 12:10 PM on March 12


Powerpoint is the primary method of communicating within Defense...Engineering/science types are, by and large, not taught how to communicate.

Long ago I managed a small editorial/art department for some Beltway bandits that did satellite communications (SATCOM) consulting for the Navy. (Of course the staff was made up of former Navy SATCOM engineers that used to work for the department the company sold their services to.) They believed that slides should contain as much information as possible, usually in incredibly complex technical diagrams that were impossible to read on letter-sized paper. You could only read them projected.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:53 PM on March 14


I'm all about the critique of PowerPoint, but I only got into the first section of the principal link before noting two egregious errors:

As the crew rose at 28,968 kilometres per hour the piece of foam collided with one of the tiles on the outer edge of the shuttle’s left wing.

At this point in its flight, the shuttle was moving "only" about 2,500 km/h - less than a tenth of what the author says.

It was impossible to tell from Earth how much damage this foam, falling nine times faster than a fired bullet, would have caused when it collided with the wing.

The shuttle itself was moving at the speed of an average bullet. The foam, relative to the shuttle, was "only" moving at about 850 km/h at impact: much slower (less than half as fast) than almost any bullet.

Anyway I am going to keep reading but it's ironic, in the context of a piece on communication, to kick off with these wildly inaccurate numbers (neither figure is even close to a "ballpark" error). Maybe I'm pedantic but, if the NASA Powerpoint had been formatted perfectly yet but contained these errors, then I wouldn't see that as an improvement.
posted by Rumple at 5:09 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


There was a lot more going on besides a poorly written slide, including pressure to launch on schedule because of a visiting political dignitary.

How to make slides in plain text (not for the squeamish)
posted by mecran01 at 11:47 AM on March 17


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