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Introduction

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.

Slidedecks

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.

Conclusion

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.

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16 Comments

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  1. Hi Mario,

    that’s what is also called “management by powerpoint” 🙂

    Nice article!

    Michael

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      1. Oliver Nuernberg
        Hi there…. actually, we had a running gag here in Wallyville a couple of years back after receiving one of these “I-paint-some-great-pictures-and-you-configure-ERP-based-on-that-Specs”. So we started discussing to develop PAPI’s (Powerpoint-API’s) which would take the content of the PPT and configure ERP accordingly. …….didn’t work out that well though.

        Oliver

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  2. Oliver Nuernberg
    Hi Mario,

    I guess one of the big issues is that the need for information by far outruns the ability of people to satisfy this need.

    Typically people are creating a (great or not so great) PPT and present this one and reach their initial goal, which is to get information to a certain group of people. Then somebody else asks for the same thing …. and off goes the PPT as an eMail attachment. This is what turns a great PPT into a useless jumble of pictures and text because there is no explanaition.

    I see three ways to solve this:
    1. Create a ZIP that allows to send the speaker with the PPT … use cases for this would be endless but …..(BeamZip?)
    2. Create speaker notes for each and every slide ….again, it’s the effort that prevents people from doing so and as you pointed out, would take us back to the time where the presentation was accompanied by a more in-depth document.
    3. make it easy to record the presentation with the speakers comments. A lot of tools do this but I rarely see people using them. This would at least allow people to get the speakers comments.

    …or do you have other things in mind already?

    Oliver

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    1. Mario Herger Post author
      While 1) is a good idea (but 500 years too early), I do not agree with 2) and 3). Even if you have notes, the cognitive style of PPTs spreads related information over multiple pages and makes it difficult to bring that together again for the user. This is not a problem in a text document. And 3) still does not mean that the presnetor doesn’t use the slidedeck just as a mean to hide that he/she didn’t really think about the stuff AND just reads from the slides (which brings another problem: when people notice that he is just reading from the slides, they also start reading and they do that faster than he speaks and this way get disconnected)

      So whatever you plan to do with slide decks, invest the time better to put your thoughts into a text document (word, WIKI, email etc.)

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  3. Bryan Koetting
    I definitely think SAP is more guilty of this than others.  When I started with SAP back in ’98, I was surprised that the standard training classes were presented by Powerpoint, because training classes of SAP’s competitors that I had attended earlier were still conducted traditionlly, with an instructor, a blackboard, and a supplemental guidebook. 

    90% of visual content I see in ppts is meaningless to me.  I can relate to bullet points and summarizations, but 3D diagrams and graphic objects do nothing to enhance my conceptual understanding.

    I submit as an example the standard BW Architecture 3D diagram that you see in every BW presentation.  My SAP colleagues used to refer to this graphic as “the bathroom” because it resembles a 3D blueprint of bathroom fixtures.  I understand thoroughly the data flow architecture of BW, but I certainly don’t think of it in 3D.  Data flows are 2 dimensional to me, like driving a car on a highway.  And I still relate to concepts, not flowing arrows, circles, and boxes.

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    1. Mario Herger Post author
      Bryan, that’s a good point. I felt and feel the same.
      But let’s get constructive and propose better ways to present information. You mentioned the “traditional” approach with an instructor, a blackboard and a guidebook.
      Perhaps we can carve out what types of “presentations” there are and what tools work best for which approach?
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  4. Anton Wenzelhuemer
    … the only good use of powerpoints is to enable those great POWERPOINT KARAOKE events in Berlin, Germany.

    Read here (german only, sorry):
    http://www.zentrale-intelligenz-agentur.de/powerpointkaraoke.html
    or search Flickr for the pix.

    anton

    okay, okay, I’ll explain the game for a home session. meet with your friends for the regular Activity or Trivial Pursuit session. but this time bring along a beamer and a laptop or two. make teams. team a google for arbitrary powerpoints. give one of your choice to team b. one member of team b now has to do a presentation on the slides presented. make sure the presenter can only see one slide at once. makes it funnier. mix presentations. makes it even funnier and more interactive.

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  5. Marvin Jones
    Its time Powerpoints really proved a point. Some times misleading, and most times self-defeating. An alternative needs to be used and will be surely adopted by the wise in the future.
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