When I relocated from Walldorf in Germany to Palo Alto in California more than 5 years ago, I basically also moved from an SAP information hub and generator to a valley of ignorants. Suddenly, my information lines felt like being cut off. I realized that much information exchange in an organization happens in inofficial meetings, like the coffee corners (or water spender), at lunch or just by popping into one’s office or cubicle.
While this is nothing bad, it is significant, when one location is dominant (in this case the SAP headquarter). Then the information flow might be filtered and becomes incomplete. Not because people in such a “dominant location” are mean or evil, but because people are simply not aware of the need to better include other locations in their inofficial information and communication flow. Add different time zones plus the requirement to communicate in a foreign language and you have the best ingredients for misunderstanding and loss of efficiency.
That’s why it becomes even more important to make information available in other forms. And that’s where even more trouble lies ahead. Most of the information, status updates, technical description or project plans come as PowerPoint slidedeck, popping into your mailbox.
Have you ever tried to fully understand a slidedeck without having the creator of the presentation explaining it to you? It’s already difficult enough to follow a slidedeck with a live speaker in front of you, but without one makes it nearly impossible for you to properly understand the information contained.
At first I though this is me, that I suddenly have lost my ability to grab the content, that my relocation to the USA has rid me of my intellectual capacity, but then I stumbled over an article from Edward Tufte “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” and I had this rare moment of EUREKA!
A Sad Example
Tufte, who is very well known for his expertise and stance in the area of visualization of information (we can call him the guru of visualization), is an evangelist in what it needs to properly design and display information, be it structured data or unstructured data like text. In his 28 page article he gives one impressing (and sad) example: a presentation that was given to the NASA Mission Management Team evaluating the risk of the reentry into the orbit of the space shuttle Columbia, after a piece of insulation foam had hit the wing during liftoff. The way the crucial information (is the shuttle’s shell damaged or not?) was presented (in an incomplete sentence with abbreviations and as the smallest bullet point at the bottom of one slide embedded into information noise), lead the team to the conclusion that there was no risk for the shuttle and its crew.
The result is known: the Columbia disintegrated during reentry and all 7 crew members died.
While for many of us the use of a slidedeck – luckily – will not have such a dramatic and sad outcome, the constant use of them can pile up to a significant amount of information distortion – and eventually to loss of millions of dollars, customers and perhaps your own job. But why is this the case?
The Problem With Slidedecks
Tufte points out multiple reasons for the short comings of sldie decks: They are presenter oriented as opposed to content oriented, they have a low resolution of information and a lot of non-data ink (see all the graphics to “lighten” up a slide), split related information across multiple slides and make it impossible to keep the context, use abbreviations without explanations and encourage the use of incomplete sentences and many more.
While originally slidedecks were seen only as a visual help for a presenterm, and always a more extensive document (whitepaper, book, ) was available, slidedecks have shifted to be *the only* tool available for sharing information.
Tufte’s conclusion is that any text-document is far better than a slide deck. He also calls for refusing slidedecks, as thin visual content prompts (and often confirms) suspicion of “What are they leaving out? Is that all they know” “Does the speaker think we’re stupid?” “What are they hiding?”
Try to avoid slidedecks whereever possible. Make a difference and show how information is transported in a more efficient way.
Smarter Information Transfer
This blog is a teaser for a new WIKI area with the name of Smarter Information Transfer. Under this umbrella I plan covering many aspects – and definitely the good, the bad and the ugly – of gathering, preparing, analysing and transporting information. Related to this blog is the Presentation-section with some examples and more details about the short comings of slide decks. You are welcome to share your experience and knowledge in that area.