3 Lies SourPointers Tell You About PowerPoint and the Columbia Disaster

It’s easy to spot a SourPointer – someone with an irrational hatred for PowerPoint. They will begin their rant by accusing PowerPoint of helping cause the Columbia disaster.

Now, let me make this very clear: PowerPoint had absolutely nothing to do with the Columbia disaster. Let me repeat that so there’s no confusion: NOTHING.

The CAIB Report is 248 pages long and mentions PowerPoint on one page (pg 191), as an interesting sidebar only. If you read the entire report, you will learn three important things:

1. Experts disagreed. There were experts who disagreed that a 2-pound piece of foam could cause severe damage to Columbia’s wing even if it struck at 500 mph. Foam strikes were common and had never caused serious damage to any past shuttles. NASA managers had no conclusive evidence the wing was damaged and conflicting recommendations from different camps.

2. The slides succeeded! The Boeing engineers could not prove the wing was damaged and requested the Department of Defense aim its high-powered cameras into space to take pictures of the damaged wing. That was what they used their PowerPoint slides to support and they succeeded! After several tries, the engineers’ requests for in-flight photos of the wing were granted, because of (or in spite of) their PowerPoint slides.

3. The decision was political. But, the manager in charge Linda Ham CANCELLED the request. Why? Because she was scheduled to be Manager of Launch Integration on the next shuttle launch and classifying the foam strike as a critical issue would delay that launch. Her decision to cancel the engineers’ request was purely political. It had nothing to do with an unclear PowerPoint slide.

Nothing could persuade Ham to cancel the fateful re-entry without conclusive evidence there was danger to Columbia. There was no evidence and she blocked access to the in-flight photos that might provide that evidence.

In fact, the CAIB Report states NASA should have asked for evidence it was SAFE to re-enter, not for evidence it was NOT SAFE. that would have lead to a search for the truth. Nothing could save the seven astronauts from their fate, including a well-written text document.

Any accusation that PowerPoint contributed to the Columbia disaster is, at least, lazy fact-checking and, at worst, malicious disregard for the truth in order to advance your own message.

So let’s not tolerate these kinds of lies from SourPointers like Edward Tufte, Jim Edwards and Ruth Marcus. Now you know the truth. Tell others.

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.

Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint (Chris Witt) Book Review

Even though I wrote a book on how to use PowerPoint more effectively in business, the truth is there are different kinds of presentations. PowerPoint is great for informing and driving decisions, especially when the content is complex.

But there are other presentations that are better when you put the slides away and just talk. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream Speech” would not be improved with PowerPoint slides.

Chris Witt’s Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint, covers these kinds of presentations. More than just a how-to book for speakers, it’s an earnest manifesto for leaders to come out from behind their slides and do what only they can uniquely do – build an organization’s confidence, rally their emotions and galvanize them for action.

And that’s best done without PowerPoint slides.

Witt’s principles are a modern-day telling of the four principles of Demosthenes, the father of Greek oratory, and so Witt’s book is divided into four sections.

Part 1: A Great Person. The way you are perceived is a critical element of your message. A real leader is authentic and doesn’t try to act like leaders are “supposed” to act. Leaders take a stand on issues. Leaders have a clear identity. The best way to be mediocre – and so ignored – is to imitate others, avoid saying anything controversial and hide the things about you that make you unique.

Part 2: A Noteworthy Event. Be picky about which events you will speak at. Choose the events where you can do the most good and avoid events that cheapen your image.

Part 3: A Compelling Message. The leader’s most important job is to motivate and inspire an audience toward a grand mission or vision, not to transfer facts and data. This important responsibility involves best practices like focusing on one big idea, opening and closing strong, using storytelling, using plain language and repeating key points.

Part 4: A Masterful Delivery. The most important idea in this section is to let your passion shine through. Timid speakers need not apply. The rest of this section covers familiar territory like how to prepare a speech, how to address questions and how to connect with an audience.

The book succeeds as a manifesto in part because of Witt’s brisk but friendly writing style. You feel like you’re being coached through the materials, not lectured.

Although the book’s title seems like an anti-PowerPoint rant, you will find no cheap shots at PowerPoint in this fine book. Chris Witt’s goal is simply to prepare you to be better leader. And in the most critical speeches, that requires a passionate speaker who can connect with an audience emotionally, not PowerPoint slides. In this video, Chris describes the book in his own words. You can really see his passion and authentic personality on display!

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.

The Secrets of Storytelling in the Boardroom, Part 7 – Using Stories to Bring Your Slides to Life

We’ve now covered three ways to use storytelling in a boardroom presentation: to introduce the presentation, to increase interest and to structure the entire presentation. We now cover how to use storytelling throughout your presentation, to bring a list of dry facts to life.

1. Turn a fact into a quote

Let’s say you want to make a point on your slide that customer loyalty is low and there are a lot of customers thinking about switching to the competitor. Rather than make that a bullet point, put a picture or silhouette of your prototypical customer with a speech balloon that says “I like your company, but the other company is offering me a discount to give them a try. I’m probably going to call them next time I have a problem.”

I’ve seen this technique used very effectively. In one example, a presenter was showing us the three benefits of cloud computing. But rather than just listing the benefits as text, she showed three photographs of customers with each talking about the benefit. I use this technique all the time.


2. Statistics

Most business slides are filled with charts and graphs. But data lacks the ability to create mental images, which is critical for the storytelling effect. People can relate to things if they can imagine what they look like.

For instance, in Made to Stick, the authors talk about scientists who had computed some mathematical formula so accurately, it was as accurate as “throwing a rock from the sun to the earth and getting within one-third mile of the target every time”. Does this statistic stick? Can you realistically visualize throwing a rock from the sun to the earth? Can you visualize how close one-third mile is? Are you able to get impressed by this level of accuracy?

But how about something more concrete: It’s as accurate as hitting a golf ball the length of a football field and getting a hole-in-one every time.

Both of these statistics state the same level of accuracy. But you can visualize one while you cannot visualize the other. It’s the same thing with your statistics. If you say “25% of our customers are dissatisfied” that’s just a statistic. It’s hard to visualize all of your customers and then divide them into two faceless groups. But it’s more compelling to explain your graph using language that’s easy to visualize, like “The average sales rep has 20 customers. This graph indicates that five of those customers can’t wait to do business with another company.”

3. Customer anecdotes and quotes

I conduct market research for a living and talk to customers about what they like, what they don’t like and how they make decisions. So I’m full of customers quotes and stories when I finish a project and sit down to write the final report.

Consider using customer quotes and anecdotes to make your points come to life. You can argue with a fact but you can’t argue when you hear it in the customer’s own voice.

4. Add people pictures

We relate to people. Some brain scientists argue that there are actually three parts of the brain: the part that recognizes text, the part that recognizes pictures and the part that recognizes people. Eye-tracking studies show that when we look at a picture, we are drawn to pictures of faces. In fact, our gaze is momentarily frozen on the eyes of people in pictures.

That’s why, whenever your slides talk about people, think about adding pictures of those people to the slide. I like to add silhouettes to represent the heroes in my presentations, rather than photographs. It’s easy to find photographs on the internet but they are often protected by copyright. But you can easily make silhouettes by finding a photograph online and then tracing it with PowerPoint’s drawing tool. Then you can add interesting gradient fills, drop shadows and other finishing touches. You can re-use this image on other slides to remind the audience you’re talking about the hero, not something abstract.

 5. Bleed immersive images off the slide edge

When you use pictures, try to find pictures that put your audience right inside the action. For instance, if you’re showing a picture of a business meeting, show it from the point of view of one of the participants, rather than someone watching from the back of the room. Help your audience see the world through the hero’s eyes.

There are many places online where you can find free high-quality images to use in your slides.

6. Real examples

One of the best presentations I ever saw involved someone who evaluated our product website by showing actual screenshots and demonstrating what the customer experience was like. It wasn’t pretty. They started by saying “Okay, I’m looking for an answer to a licensing question”. Then they showed us how they selected links to click on, which lead to another page loaded with links. After five or six clicks, they were back at the page they started. The message was clear: our website was a disaster.

Rather than simply summarizing the main points, consider having the audience experience a situation with you and then sum up the points. For instance, if you want to illustrate how slick a competitor’s mobile phone is, or how terrible your customer service is, don’t just list the details in bullet points but show a picture or play the customer service recording.

7. Video and audio

Some of the most memorable presentations I’ve seen have included video, especially of customers speaking. Executives love to hear things directly in the customer’s own words. Now that mobile phone have built-in cameras, and camcorders are affordable, you should think about capturing more video for your presentations.

For instance, if you’re going to a trade show, bring a camcorder to capture the competitor’s booth. Going on a customer visit? Ask if you can interview the customer on film. Record customers shopping in your store to illustrate how them make decisions.

I conduct market research for a living and try to capture customer comments on video. You can also capture their thoughts as audio and insert it into your presentation. The one tip to keep in mind when you play audio or video: tell the audience what to pay attention to. For instance, point to the person at the end of the table and say “notice how this man keeps interrupting to disagree when the speaker complains about our product.”

Closing thoughts

I’m not a believer in giving “formulas” for writing presentations as stories. The last thing we want is to attend presentations that are predictable and look like carbon copies of each other.

Still, stories are powerful and you will want to develop your own style. I personally find that business presentations do not bend easily to fit a storytelling structure. This series of blog posts is an attempt to provide some practical applications you can experiment with.

There have been several books written on storytelling and I encourage you to sample them all. There is no single book which really captures storytelling for business presentations. However, each book on its own is a great starting place for helping you develop your own unique style. 

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.

3 Tricks When the Picture Won’t Fit

Sometimes your picture fits awkwardly on the slide, leaving an unfinished-looking section of slide. What do you do? Here’s my three favorite tricks.

1. Use a background color from the picture. Find a color that matches the picture using Color Cop, and use that color to fill the side box. Now this slide looks like it was “designed” rather than thrown together.

 2. Make the picture smaller. Crop and resize the picture, and then put a wide border around it and tilt it to look like a Polaroid photograph (video demonstration). Add a drop shadow behind it. Use Color Cop to find a background color that matches the photo.

3. Make the picture bigger. Increase the picture size and crop it so it fills the entire PowerPoint slide. Make sure the text fits the contours of the picture. In this example, the text curves around the eagle’s head (left). Text that is justified left creates an invisible border that cuts this picture in half (right).

Good: text sweeps around the image
Poor: text cuts image in half

Amateurish slides dent your credibility. Spend the extra time with your pictures so they look designed into the slide, and not just slapped awkwardly into place.

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.

The True ROI of Pfizer’s PowerPoint Experiment

And from the “If-it-aint-true-just-make-it-up” department, comes this lazy article from SourPointer Jim Edwards.

His article claims Pfizer employees wasted 30% of their time on PowerPoint until they outsourced their slide-building tasks, and saw their profitability pop 15%.

Oh really?

Well, since I train business professionals how to use PowerPoint more effectively, I was intrigued with some of these ROI numbers. But just a little casual digging reveals the article is a sad case of lazy math and non-existent fact-checking.

Pfizer employees don’t spend 30% of their time in PowerPoint. An informal study of a mere 12 employees found they spend “up to” 30% of their time doing “routine tasks”, which included basic web research, crunching data in Excel and making PowerPoint slides. Pfizer makes no claims about the average time spent nor on PowerPoint’s share of that routine work.

And Edwards insinuates this helped increase Pfizer’s profitability 15% based on sales-to-sales cost (That’s how many sales dollars were generated for every dollar spent on selling). But Pfizer’s sales-to-sales costs have grown an average 6% per year for the past 14 years – the same as the 2004-2010 period.

The 2008-2010 increase was driven during a time of favorable exchange rates, a company-wide cost-cutting initiative and the Wyeth acquisition. You think that might help explain most (or all) of it?

In fact, Edwards’s graph doesn’t even have a zero baseline, which fluffs up the perceived growth rate, something honest communicators are warned to never do in How to Lie with Statistics. Why not just show the data honestly?

Pfizer estimates outsourcing routine tasks saved them about 66,000 man hours per year – or about 30 minutes per employee.

You really want to save time building PowerPoint slides? One word: training. If Pfizer employees are spending even 100 hours per year building PowerPoint slides, training will cut that time in half. Now there’s some honest ROI.

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.