Category Archives: PowerPoint

The PowerPoint slide that brought down a Space Shuttle


This is a story about the evils of PowerPoint. It was first told by Edward Tufte, the most brilliant mind alive on information design, whom a friend of mine once described as “the voice of God criticizing mankind.” Tufte wrote the book on graphics theory, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information — and in one of his most intriguing side riffs has lambasted PowerPoint for being a boil on human communication.

Tufte has explained how one horrible PowerPoint slide led to the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia explosion — or more accurately, the horrible bullet structure PowerPoint gives us caused the disaster. The problem is PowerPoint encourages writers to use clipped jargon that is hard to understand — and if the point fails, bad decisions get made. As you likely recall, Columbia did blow up on re-entry, after a large piece of foam broke off during launch and damaged the edge of a wing. Before the Columbia accident, foam had crumbled off of many other shuttles during launches, so an internal report was crucial in determining how much risk the foam presented. Would it be a lot of foam? And could it hit the shuttle elsewhere with a lot of force?

Alas, the internal NASA report was presented in PowerPoint.

The NASA slide below has a series of nested bullet points that start out with a blase headline about “conservatism” — sounds OK, right? — overuses the word “significantly” until it doesn’t mean much, and then at the very bottom buries the main point that foam debris that falls off and could hit the shuttle on launch is, ahem, 640 times larger than previously estimated. If the truncated phrase “Volume of ramp” had been expanded to read “estimated volume of foam debris that hit wing,” and the headline made punchier saying “risk is 640 times greater than predicted in prior safety estimates!”, executives in the room might have sat up and gone, holy shit, this entire shuttle could blow if we don’t fix this.

They didn’t, because the risk was a fourth-level sub-bullet in PowerPoint.

Tufte’s point is that PowerPoint mimics the hierarchical structure of big business organizations, which is a bad way to communicate. Information is sliced into logical bits and truncated to the point of unclarity; as the information is passed up through an org structure, slides are deleted until only a brief summary remains. Context is lost; key points disappear; the narrative is destroyed. Or in this case, the astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia died.

What does Tufte recommend? Give people in meetings a short written report, that they digest as the meeting begins. Then talk, talk, about the real issues.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Originally posted on Google+.

Bill Green’s mid-day brand gap


So ad strategist Bill Green has recorded every brand he noticed for an entire day, then put it into a really cool table. His brand diary inspires a few observations:

1. Some brands have enduring touchpoints, but still fall below the radar. Bill was exposed to Cotton all day (hmm…) yet we wonder if he thought much about it. For some types of brands — insurance, underwear, mattresses, your washing machine — the challenge is to rise to the forefront when consumers who don’t usually pay attention suddenly need to make another purchase.

2. Other brands have staccato touchpoints that require maintenance.
Several brands along Bill’s journey pop up, like old friends, throughout the day — and usually he had to make a conscious choice to see them. The radio station in the morning, or the Apple iTunes cranked later, or his morning stop for beverage. But these repeat decisions create another type of brand challenge; a slight shift in a consumer’s routine, and the brand has lost all the future sales. For these types of brands, multiple points of access, loyalty programs, and entangling/switching costs are good strategies. A Starbucks on every street corner with reward points that remembers how you like your coffee, for example.

3. And smack in the middle of each day is a big “brand void.” The most illuminating part of this exercise is how Bill, like most professional workers, enters a brand void around 10 a.m. While mornings and evenings are chock-full of brand interceptions, mid-day work seems to close off brand exposure — a valley in which few brands are noticed. (Or Bill, were you napping?)

This mid-day valley could be an opening for marketers. Business professionals make major decisions about investing and purchases from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Why can’t advertisers figure out how to reach people then? Think of the potential. Excedrin ads on the borders of PowerPoint presentations. Voicemail recordings sponsored by Starbucks.

We jest, but only partly. There’s an entire world of spending happening inside corporate and blue-collar America, and most brands have not yet found their way in.

(Photo: Jeff Wheeler. Hat tip to Jane Sample for a similar timeline.)

If communication is a revolution, why are we still typing?


Isn’t technology great? We can all now type memos at each other, using QWERTY keyboards invented back in 1874 by Sholes & Glidden, and attach photos, invented in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, or even email presentations with drawings, invented in caves in the Upper Paleolithic era in 40,000 B.C. … um, a pattern is forming.

Why is introverted communication — in which we compose thoughts in silence on email or blogs or Twitter or PowerPoint, and then fire away to recipients when ready — now so popular? Maybe Carl Jung had it right. He suggested that the spectrum of introversion and extroversion is the core dimension of human personality. Studies have found that introverts tend to do better in academics and have more blood flow in the frontal lobes of their brains, the areas for planning and processing (take that, high school football team!). However, studies also show the extroverts are happier, seeming to have more blood flow in the groovier parts of the brain — anterior cingulate gyrus, temporal lobes, and posterior thalamus, yeah baby — that are involved in emotional and sensory delights. Such as putting lampshades on your head at parties.

Here’s what we think. (A) Introverts spend time alone, are drawn to studying and technology, so are likely early adopters of technology toys, but (B) extroversion fills the human need to connect, and we all long to move a little further down the cool-kid-with-keg-in-high-school party train. Typing fills the void, and it’s chased by colorful gadgets. Humans loved memos, then faxes, then email, then blogging, and now Twitter and Facebook, because we can be private and social at the same time. We protect our inner introversion and indulge in extroverted exultation.

All of which explains why your new smartphone has a QWERTY keypad.

PowerPoint is finished when there is nothing left to remove


Inspiration for your 2008 board presentations: The Minard Map shows the attack of Napoleon’s army, from 1812-1813, as the defending Russians scorched the earth and anything else that might feed or shelter the French. Edward Tufte lionized this graphic for its use of six different dimensions: the width of the line shows the number of French remaining as they march into and out of Russia; color of line shows direction in and out; the line itself shows the course of the march; the underlying map shows geography; and the scale at bottom shows both the frigid winter temperatures and time of the return trip.

Here’s a New Year’s challenge: Make at least one 30-minute PowerPoint presentation with only 1 slide, make the slide this beautiful, and see how it improves your story.

The strange case of Jacob Freeze (or why most PowerPoint sucks)


How can any of us be brilliant at everything? The revolution of computer technology is that now all of us can dabble in art, communication, arithmetic and business planning. Most of us aren’t very good in our best category and we usually stink in our worst. This is why most PowerPoint is so awful, because the format encourages business authors to try to postulate, evince, sketch, write, lay out, calculate, organize and conclude at the same moment of creation. Edward Tufte, the noted visual-display-of-information author, goes so far as to blame the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster on one poorly conceived PowerPoint slide.

Which brings us to the brilliant exception of Jacob Freeze. Freeze is an intense author/artist/analyst whose most recent post on Daily Kos dissects how Atlanta and its conservative politics are shriveling as the result of drought.

Considering the fantastic cloud of ambiguity that the petroleum industry and its friends throw over every environmental issue, it’s probably a good idea to be explicit about the sort of thing that you would normally expect any idiot to understand. So… when Atlanta runs out of water, Atlanta will die.

Whatever your politics, you have to admire the attack, a verbal equivalent of a boxer in a bad street fight. Which brings us to our next investigation of Jacob Freeze. He’s actually an artist producing work such as this:


And this:


While writing this:

The United States is happy to reserve the privilege of ‘humanitarian war’ for itself and Israel, preserving ‘universal human rights’ against the threat of terrorism, but now that Turkey is claiming the same privilege to defend itself against Kurdish terrorists, ‘the community of civilized nations’ has undergone a strange contraction.

A few years ago, souls like Jacob Freeze would have been confined to a news room, or an art gallery, or a photo studio shooting newlyweds — but only one of them. Now, thanks to connections and computers, he can move from media to media.

Professor Tufte missed the point. Sure, PowerPoint may have messed the shuttle planning logic. But the problem wasn’t software; it’s just we all can’t communicate on every level as well as Jacob Freeze.