A reader recently called my attention to an analysis of a PowerPoint slide that played a key role in the decision that resulted resulted in the 2003 destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the death of seven astronauts. 

According to Edward Tufte, professor emeritus in political science, computer science at Yale University, the danger of the allowing Columbia to attempt reentry rested on a particular slide inside a PowerPoint presentation that NASA engineers gave to NASA managers.

A re-creation of the fatal slide is shown below. Don't bother reading it; instead, reflect on all the times you've seen similarly complex slides in your own meetings.

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What happened, according to the blog post: "NASA managers listened to the engineers and their PowerPoint. The engineers felt they had communicated the potential risks. NASA felt the engineers didn't know what would happen but that all data pointed to there not being enough damage to put the lives of the crew in danger. They rejected the other options and pushed ahead with Columbia re-entering Earth's atmosphere as normal."

Yale's Tufte explains why the slide failed to communicate the imminent danger: It had too much text, multiple bullet points, different size fonts, vague wording, and too much jargon.

In short, a typical PowerPoint slide.

When I've criticized PowerPoint in the past, I tend to get a lot of "blame the worker and not the tool" complaints, most of which seem to come from people who get paid to give courses on effective PowerPoint usage.

What those self-interested "experts" miss is that PowerPoint is specifically designed to create this kind of detailed but incomprehensible slide.

For example, when I went to re-create the slide, all I had to do was type the words and hit the "indent" button a few times. PowerPoint defaults to bullet points where each level has diminished readability.

Yes, one can (and should) override PowerPoint's default formatting, but most people don't bother. When a tool defaults to doing something stupid, it's perfectly appropriate to blame the tool and not the worker.

PowerPoint also defaults to creating outlines with the clear assumption that the presenter will "fill in the gaps" by talking while the slide is on the screen, under the belief that communicating both visually and audibly increases comprehension. This belief is false for three reasons:

  1. Outlines tend to represent incomplete thoughts. An outline provides your best guess at what a document will contain and how it will be structured. It's the crafting of the finished document that hones a message to the point where you can encapsulate it clearly. Thus the "visual" part of the presentation tends to be half-baked text.
  2. Presentation patter tends to be unrehearsed. Yes, best practices say you should rehearse your presentation like a speech. But that seldom happens. In this case, it's clear from the typos in the slide that the presentation was prepared in a slapdash manner, which makes it highly unlikely the presentation was rehearsed. Thus the "audible" part of the presentation also tends to be half-baked.
  3. People get confused when they try to read and listen simultaneously. It's like trying to memorize a phone number while the person next to you spouts random numbers. Rather than "filling the gaps" in the text displayed on the screen, the speaking part of presentation creates dissonance. This is especially true when the text and the spoken words are similar because that makes it harder to block either one out.

The problem with PowerPoint (and other presentation programs, too) is that half-baked text plus half-baked talk never results in completely baked communication. Instead, the combination, when delivered simultaneously, makes both even less effective.

In the case of the Columbia disaster, that toxic combination apparently helped result in the death of seven astronauts. That's an extreme case, but I have no doubt whatsoever that the same toxic combination has led to untold millions of horribly-stupid business decisions.

The solution is simple: Neither create nor accept outline-style PowerPoint presentations. Instead, follow the lead of Jeff Bezos and Jack Dorsey and demand that meetings begin with a group reading of a fully-thought-out, finished document.