PowerPoint blows up Space Shuttle

Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off July 8 on the final flight of the shuttle program. A video of the launch here.

Seeing the Space Shuttle in the news reminds me of the TWO Shuttle explosions (Challenger and Columbia) and the conclusion that poor communication contributed to both disasters.

Some of the blame for the Columbia disaster rested on the passing around of unclear PowerPoint presentations – causing important messages to be lost.

Edward Tufte, professor emeritus of computer science and graphic design at Yale University, famously argued that PowerPoint elevates format over content and that its use diminishes the quality, reasoning and analysis of information. Tufte’s evidence was crucial to the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

A Washington Post article on August 30, 2005 stated:

“Exhibit A in Tufte’s analysis is a PowerPoint slide presented to NASA senior managers in January 2003, while the space shuttle Columbia was in the air and the agency was weighing the risk posed by tile damage on the shuttle wings. Key information was so buried and condensed in the rigid PowerPoint format as to be useless.”

“It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation,” the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded, citing Tufte’s work.


Clarity of Message is Key

Tufte also argued that if engineers had more clearly presented the data that they had about the Challenger accident, they might have succeeded in persuading NASA managers to cancel the launch.

Presentation software such as PowerPoint has some real strengths however it can be used as a crutch, allowing us to omit the thinking needed to formulate a clear message.


Don’t open PowerPoint until…

Don’t open PowerPoint until you’ve sorted your thoughts, clarified your key messages and have an idea of the structure you will use to convey them.

Then you will find that presentation software like PowerPoint can be a wonderful tool to speed up the development of your slides.

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