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Radhika Panjwani is a former journalist from Toronto and a blogger.
Some years ago, Eric Bergman, a Greater Toronto Area-based author and presentation skills consultant, watched a portfolio manager deliver a sales spiel to a room full of prospective clients.
A few minutes into the talk, Mr. Bergman noticed the audience growing restless. Some began to tackle their e-mail inboxes, others planned vacations, and a significant number of them surfed their phones.
The manager’s dense PowerPoint slide deck with bulleted lists, numbers and graphs, coupled with the non-stop cadence of his voice, failed to deliver any value whatsoever to either him or his audience.
“If you want your employees to be engaged and productive, stop torturing them by making them sit in front of PowerPoint presentations,” says Mr. Bergman, author of Five Steps to Conquer Death by PowerPoint, and One Bucket at a Time. “There’s a simple path forward. Separate the written word from the spoken word to communicate most effectively. Anything that gets in the way of the listening process should be eliminated.”
Need proof that it’s important? Mangled communication via PowerPoint may have resulted in the death of seven astronauts in 2003.
Edward R. Tufte, professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale, analyzed several pieces of communications by NASA to study how PowerPoint’s cognitive style can affect engineering analysis with an in-depth look at the 2003 destruction of space shuttle Columbia and the death of the astronauts aboard.
Some 82 seconds after liftoff, a piece of insulation weighing 757 grams detached from the liquid fluid tank and hit the shuttle’s left wing. The insulation broke through the wing’s thermal protection.
During re-entry, Columbia burned up because the compromised thermal protection could not withstand the high temperature. The only evidence of a possible problem was a video sequence showing “something hit the wing somewhere,” noted Prof. Tufte.
To help NASA assess the threat of the initial wing damage, Boeing officials created three reports, totalling 28 PowerPoint slides. The reports presented “mixed” readings of the threat because the words were wrapped in some sort of bullet hierarchy. In this case, lower-level bullets mentioned doubts and uncertainties, but the highlighted big-bulleted executive summaries painted an optimistic picture. Based on the reports, NASA remained convinced Columbia was safe to return.
When Prof. Tufte examined a key slide, he noticed it had too much text, multiple bullets and different font sizes, and it was laced with heavy jargon.
He concluded that Boeing’s muddied messages on PowerPoint played a critical part in the mission’s failure.
Besides, Prof. Tufte said, there’s a growing cadre of outspoken critics from army generals and physicists to professors and corporate leaders who are equally disdainful of the ubiquitous PowerPoint.
Apparently, there’s cognitive science behind the ineffectual process of the “next slide, please” phenomenon.
When we move information from working memory to long-term memory, unless there’s something in our cognitive framework to relate to it, absorbing copious amount of material is impossible, says Mr. Bergman, the author.
Even 11 words on a slide can overload working memory. Imagine what 30 or 60 minutes of non-stop information does, he says.
Companies such as Amazon, Acceleration Partners, LinkedIn and several others have banned PowerPoint. Employees communicate, discuss, engage and strategize without using the loathed decks.
Here’s how Amazon does it. The individual that has requested the meeting sends out written information in a “narrative structure” in advance. So, instead of reading every bulleted point on multiple slides (groan), everyone at the meeting has 30 minutes to read a “six-page memo.” Afterward, they discuss the topic. In Acceleration Partners, the meeting invitees are expected to read the memo in advance to save time and streamline productivity.
Some others like InVision, a software company, killed the PowerPoint and replaced in with doodling. Presenters sketch their ideas in front of the group. InVision chief executive officer Clark Valberg says drawing helps the hosts narrow their thinking and take the audience through their actual thought process.
Rather than handing over all the power to the presenter in a one-way communication, InVision arms them with a Sharpie and a whiteboard and leaves room – and opportunity – for the audience to chime in.
“Instead of presenters always holding the ball in their hand, we want them to throw the ball into the audience and create more of a game,” said Mr. Valberg in an interview with Inc.
For business leaders chasing excellence and productivity, employee engagement is a key driver to that equation. One way of getting undivided attention from your staff may be to kill slideware and spare them the boredom.
What I’m reading around the web
- An article in Neiman Journalism Lab is singing praise about The Globe and Mail’s deep learning technology, Sophi, which promises to automate and optimize dozens of publishing decisions flawlessly. Built in-house, Sophi decides what stories feature on the newspaper’s website homepage and which ones make it to Facebook.
- Artificial intelligence has permeated into so many areas of our life. According to Analytics Insights, social media platforms are using AI to leverage individual beliefs and interests, with pretty impressive accuracy. What does this mean? This means Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are able to personalize your experience and serve you content you want.
- Skeptics of hydrogen-fuel technology will be impressed by this news from Britain. Twenty of London’s iconic double-decker buses will be powered by hydrogen-fuel cells. Going green means the buses will produce zero exhaust and will be part of some 3,800 hybrid buses that are already running. This article in Quartz details how the green fleet will help the city’s ambitious goal to have 80 per cent of all trips be either through foot, cycle or public transport by 2041.
- Microsoft’s just-released Windows 11 includes features like desktop widgets where users can organize work by snapping into defined regions on the screen. But, there’s a cost to the new interface, according to Wayne Rash, a technology and science writer. He explains in a column in Forbes some existing computers may not work with it. The new OS will only work on 64-bit computers. In addition, it must be capable of supporting UEFI (unified extensible firmware interface) and more.
More opinion from Globe Careers
Five best practices for teams to recover after a crisis As pandemic restrictions are lifted in Canada, what types of activities should teams engage in to simultaneously recover from an unprecedented disruption to their work and prepare for future stressors that come their way? asks Navio Kwok in the Globe’s Leadership Lab.
Seven ways to be a better conversationalist at work Listen more and talk less is the first one, writes columnist Merge Gupta-Sunderji.
More from the section
I was terminated without cause and refused to sign a release. What am I entitled to? In this week’s Nine to Five advice column, a reader asks for her options after she was denied severance.
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