Death by PowerPoint – yes, seriously

A few weeks ago, I gave a speaker training with the suggestive title “Death by PowerPoint”. Some of you may know the famous Dilbert comic with the same title that was published more than 20 years ago (please follow this link if you want to see it, as I don’t want to infringe copyright.) And, although my presentation’s headline sounded like a quip, it was also reporting on a dead serious incident. Pun intended.

On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia exploded when re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere during its descent from space. All seven astronauts aboard were killed. The accident was caused by a large piece of foam that broke away from the shuttle’s external tank and punched a hole in the spacecraft’s wing. After the event, Space Shuttle flight operations were suspended for more than two years.

Photo: Space shuttle Columbia memorial in Arlington National Cemetery by Alexmar983 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A tragic (and less known) detail is that this disaster most probably could have been prevented if some Boeing engineers had created better PowerPoint slides for NASA. In their report, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) wrote:

“The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.”

Here’s a slide that was identified as particularly problematic (markups in red are mine):

Well, the least one could say that this is an overloaded, unstructured and inefficient visual with major design and content flaws:

  • The most important issue certainly lies with the title of the slide. It (kind of) conveys a positive result of the tests and doesn’t give a warning about the fact that some of the measurement data were not relevant at all. The title of a –extremely wordy– slide that is centered in a large font on top of the page is assumed to summarize the key message.
  • Only the last bullet at the bottom of the page (assuming that everybody reads a slide to the bottom) tells that the actual flight conditions were significantly outside of the test database: the debris that hit the spaceship were 640 times larger than the data used for the test model.
  • Other messages communicated on this slide were also vague or ambiguous. How would a manager interpret something being “possible” at “sufficient” mass and velocity without a reference to the real probability or the critical mass?
  • Also, the word “significant(ly)”, that appears five times on this page, can be loosely interpreted and it’s never combined with a qualifying term like “statistically” –which could have alerted the audience.
  • Other important warnings appear to be hidden deep in the bullets list (some even at the third level), which –in combination with too many words to digest– could be overlooked by the reader (note that this slide was presented to a live audience, but also distributed as an email attachment to people who would get their information only from what’s written on the page).

Hence, the CAIB concluded:

“As information gets passed up an organization hierarchy, from people who do analysis to mid-level managers to high-level leadership, key explanations and supporting information is filtered out.
In this context, 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 engineers felt they had communicated the potential risks but didn’t succeed. NASA managers listened to the engineers and read their PowerPoint but didn’t understand… 

In an article about bulleted lists in my look’n’feel matter series, I wrote that bullets can make your sheets dull, boring and ineffective. As your brain interprets every letter as a picture, wordy lists literally choke it. As a consequence, people tend to forget what you have spelled out. And in another post on this page, I pleaded for slide titles with long and descriptive assertions that orient the audience to the upcoming content, while giving them a clear takeaway message.

QED. Lamentably for the Columbia crew and their families.

About preachers, prosecutors and politicians

During the Xmas break I finished reading Adam Grant’s book “Think again”. Grant is a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania specializing in organizational psychology. One of the key propositions of this non-fiction bestseller is that we all have blind spots in our knowledge and opinions. They can leave us blind to our blindness, which gives us false confidence in our judgment and prevents us from rethinking.

In the first chapter (don’t worry, I’ve enjoyed reading the book till the end) the author introduces three thinking and influencing styles we use to approach problems (there’s actually a fourth one, on which I will come back later in this post): preachers, prosecutors and politicians.

  • We go into preacher mode when our sacred beliefs are in jeopardy: we deliver sermons to protect and promote our ideals.
  • We enter prosecutor mode when we recognize flaws in other people’s reasoning: we marshal arguments to prove them wrong and win our case.
  • We shift into politician mode when we’re seeking to win over an audience: we campaign and lobby for the approval of our constituents.

On this blog I already wrote an article about Robert Cialdini’s principles of persuasion – in an interview, Grant named Cialdini’s work as the origin of his interest in social science– and I listed some common presenter types like the Engineer, the Kindergarten Teacher, the Actor, the Philosopher, the Consultant, the Salesman and the Conversationalist. And, well, I think the Preacher, Prosecutor and Politician profiles would make great additions to this list. I even might have spotted some of them in the field.

  • A Preacher is convinced he’s always right. As such, his persona is close to the Salesman. His only priority is to persuade the audience about the superiority of the technologies, products, or services he’s selling.  As such, his slides are either very concise or heavily overdone, his messages persistent to aggressive (think of a Jehovah’s witness knocking on your door), and his tone not adapted to the audience (because he’s the only person in the room who owns the truth).
  • A Prosecutor simply wants to win his case. That’s why he’ll use any argument to prove that his value proposition is better than the competitor’s one. His presentation might have a negative tone. He’ll only present the facts and data points that are favorable to his case and emphasize the inferiority and failures of other companies rather than talking about his own merits and success stories.
  • A Politician typically flip-flops his message in function of the audience’s expectations. Expect him to pose as a thought leader, even if he’s actually more like an entertainer without true expertise. He’ll possibly present a long-term story with a –no doubt– happy ending to serve his short-term objectives. He promises a lot but be aware he may be selling slideware rather than concrete products or solutions.

As a corporate presenter or business storyteller you don’t want to trade places with any of the three persons above. In a constantly changing world –especially in the technology environment that I’m working in– you have to be able and willing to change your mind and update your narrative. Rather than keep preaching your standard gospel, prosecute your traditional competitors, or present only the good news your audience wants to hear.

At this point Adam Grant introduces the Scientist mode of thinking (the following quote comes from an interview in Greater Good Magazine):

“Thinking like a scientist does not mean you need to own a telescope or a microscope. It just means that you favor humility over pride and curiosity over conviction. You know what you don’t know, and you’re eager to discover new things. You don’t let your ideas become your identity. You look for reasons why you might be wrong, not just reasons why you must be right. You listen to ideas that make you think hard, not just the ones that make you feel good. And you surround yourself with people who can challenge your process, not just the ones who agree with your conclusion.”

Consequently, a Scientist storyteller not only needs to adopt a different attitude, being ‘actively open-minded’, but also add a set of (new) skills to his 3P arsenal:

  • Spend ample time on researching your environment, validating your assumptions, and adapting your beliefs. Put yourself into the shoes of your audience, try to understand their concrete problems.
  • Ask yourself questions and try to formulate answers using facts, data, and logic. Don’t be afraid of adapting your messages when new information comes in. Surround yourself with people willing to challenge your thinking.
  • Rethink your pitch, starting from your customers’ (future) needs rather than from your (current) portfolio of products and services.
  • Surprise and challenge your audience. Spend less time on delivering a monologue and invest in dialogue. Pick their minds by asking question and engaging into conversations.
  • Optimally use the art of visualization to present your data in the most appropriate way (as most members of your audience won’t have a data science background)

Other posts mentioned in or related to the content above:

Don’t follow books (a Christmas plea)

So, it’s holiday season again in my little corner of the world and I’ll enjoy the last days of 2021 with my family. Christmas is maybe also the time of the year to ponder about a maybe delicate topic: religion.

Comet Leonard C/2021 A1, aka the ‘Christmas Comet’ (CC BY-SA 2.0 by the University of Hertfordshire Observatory)

While I’m not a religious person and I’m not affiliated with any organized religion, life philosophy or sectarian ideology, I’m often impressed by how ancient stories (like the Chrismas tale) and religious books that were written centuries ago and cultures away still succeed in shaping the daily lives of billions of people. How they enable community building. How they give hope to the hopeless. How they inspire humanitarian volunteers and philanthropists. From the East to the West. From illiterate peasants to highly educated intellectuals. From voiceless followers to influencing leaders.

Unfortunately, the same stories and so called holy books have been misused through the ages and are still globally abused today. For political ends. For financial gain. To claim territory. To control masses. To oppress women. To recruit mentally unbalanced individuals for extremism and terrorism…

Here’s my Christmas plea: Always follow your heart. Give meaning to your life, with or without turning to religion. Be a good and kind person. Live up to making this planet a better place. Respect the diverse beliefs and non-beliefs of your fellow humans. But don’t take every word that has ever been written for granted — whether it has been engraved on a parchment scroll, printed in a book, published on a web site, or posted on social media. Scientific knowledge is universal, but stories are told and books are written by people, while opinions and beliefs are in the eye of the beholder. Also the views I expressed in this blog are my own.

Happy (holi)days from my little corner of the world!

Why 2021 wasn’t a good year for thought leadership

“Thought leaders are the informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise. They become the trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; turn ideas into reality and know and show how to replicate their success. Over time, they create a dedicated group of friends, fans and followers to help them replicate and scale their ideas into sustainable change not just in one company but in an industry, niche or across an entire ecosystem.” – definition by thoughtleadershiplab.com

In my previous post, “Are you ready for a post-pandemic narrative?“, I made a plea to stop whining about COVID-19 related challenges and start seizing new opportunities. Which is extremely relevant for corporate communicators, content marketers, and thought leaders.

In a September 2021 survey by Edelman and LinkedIn, 3600 global business decision makers and C-suite executives across a wide range of industries and company sizes were asked about the impact of thought leadership, how it influences their perception and buying behaviors, and what attributes B2B audiences want to see from companies.

Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen a global cancellation of corporate events and conferences. With the absence of physical meetings and face-to-face networking opportunities, many companies and individuals have turned to delivering their messages using digital means, such as webinars, downloadable white papers, email blasts, and LinkedIn posts.

Photo by Kotivalo (CC BY-SA 4.0)

As a result, the pandemic has resulted in an excessive quantity of (often) lower quality content and, more recently, also a growing fatigue for virtual events. According to the report, almost 4 in 10 decision makers said there is more thought leadership content than they can manage or that the market is oversaturated with such material. This flood of digital content has also diluted its perceived value: 71% of decision makers concluded that less than half of the thought leadership material they consume gives them valuable insights.

On the positive side, more than half of the executives said that they spent more time-consuming thought leadership than before the coronavirus started its global spread – more than an hour per week. They still value quality content because it allows them to understand the trends affecting their industries and helps them generate new ideas for their businesses.

You may remember an article I wrote a few years ago about the sometimes thin line between a thought leader and an entertainer, in which I listed a few dos and don’ts for aspiring thought leaders. Some of these were confirmed by the respondents of the Edelman survey. When asked about the predominant shortcomings of low-quality thought leadership,

  • 46% answered being “overly focused on selling or describing products rather than conveying valuable information”,
  • 40% of them get bummed by “unoriginal thinking, or a lack of new ideas”, and
  • 31% don’t want content “authored by people who are not true experts on the subject matter”.

Building upon the definition I quoted higher on this page, thought leadership will need to start serving as an engine for change again. That’s why I believe that the 2022 secret code for pundits will include words like purpose, meaning, and engagement. And that true opinion makers will have to demonstrate insight, authority, and trust for being credible to business decision makers.

You may download the report here:

Are you ready for a post-pandemic narrative?

During the corona crisis, companies had to change their way of working, cope with on-site staff shortages, and deal with supply chain disruptions. Marketers were forced to reinvent their messaging and engagement strategies.

The past 18 months, we changed the way we told stories as well as the stories we told. Virtual events and webinars became the rule rather than an exception. The majority of business articles and remote presentations  started with an obligatory statement about COVID-19 and the obvious need to ensure business continuity. 

Excuse me for being too optimistic but, with more people getting vaccinated, our (new-) normal life is slowly taking up again.

And so, it’s time now to stop whining about pandemic related challenges, and start seizing post-pandemic opportunities: better balancing work and life, bridging the digital divide, reinventing education, building an inclusive society, becoming carbon neutral, … 

Photo by vperemen.com (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Let’s start creating this post-pandemic narrative today.  Let’s change our tone from comforting people to inspiring masses. Let’s promote hope. Let’s advocate change. And let’s metamorphose from COVID-era storytellers into post-corona thought leaders and storymakers!

Related posts on this blog:

True colors

One of the important rules of corporate branding is always to stay loyal to your company’s visual identify. Of course – and probably on top of the list – you should keep the color palette you use consistent. I wrote a blog post about the importance of colors almost 8 years ago.

I’m currently at a public event (yesss! my first physical one after 18 months of online webinars and virtual conferences.) And one of the exhibitors is serving macarons at their booth. Mmm, yummy. My favorite trade show giveaways, only preceded by those unbeatable jelly beans and gummi bears… And, yes, the company also knows how to market its brand.

Can you guess which global telecoms player is serving the delicacies shown on the photo above?

Remember die Raute

Next week’s German federal elections will mark the end of the Angela Merkel era. Regarded by many as the most powerful woman in the world, the German chancellor guided her country through many crises and has dominated European politics for the last sixteen years.

But, Mutti has also become famous for her signature hand gesture, known as the Merkel Raute (a German word that translates as rhombus or diamond).

Photo by Armin Linnartz (CC BY-SA 3.0)

While communication specialists have explained the famous gesture as “a sign of stability and reliability”, “an intermediate sensation between proximity and distance”, or even as “a protective roof for defusing and avoiding emotional signals”, the German leader herself says the position of her hands simply shows “a certain love of symmetry”.

Nonverbal communication is more important than most people think. Only a small portion of our (public speaking) message is conveyed through words. It is complemented by vocal elements like volume and pitch. All the rest is communicated through your facial expressions, eye movements, hand gestures, body posture, etc. Even through your makeup or the clothes you wear.

By the way, Angela Merkel isn’t the only politician in history that became (in)famous through an iconic attribute or gesture. Think, for example, of Margaret Thatcher’s handbag, Winston Churchill’s cigar, Mobutu Sese Seko’s leopard skin hat, Napoleon Bonaparte’s hand-in-coat, or even Donald Trump’s L-shaped finger pinch.

Other articles I’ve written about communication skills of political leaders and their spokespeople:

After the gold rush

Would you rather read a SEO-optimized article or one with an intriguing title?

With the knowledge that I’m a (should-be digital) marketer, you’d probably expect me to defend the first option. But, if you’ve read last week’s blog, you also know that knowledge doesn’t always equal wisdom.  In my case, even seldom. As such, I’m frequently tempted to creating surprising, even nonsensical, blog headlines and presentation titles. Not the clickbait kind of stuff, but rather the ones that make my audience wonder what the rest of the content will be about.

Here are 10 more or less insane blog titles that I created during the past years. Can you imagine (or do you still remember) what these columns were talking about?

Even some of my favorite rock songs don’t have meaningful titles. Take, for example, Neil Young‘s “After the Gold Rush”. Nils Lofgren, who played piano and guitar on the same called album, once said in an interview: “Neil never told me what the song was about. I’d love to bend his ear about it.” While, when asked about the song’s meaning, Young admitted: “Hell, I don’t know. I just wrote it…”

Fragment from the original record cover by Joel Bernstein

Probably we’ve become just that tiny bit too rational when defining and communicating our message. We’re doing too much search engine thinking, ignoring Aristotle’s ars rhetorica, and abandoning the power of emotion.

If the godfather of grunge can be successful with a title that doesn’t teach you anything but with lyrics that sparkle emotion, why wouldn’t I do the same on my blog?

Knowledge, wisdom and trust

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.

The above quote is either attributed to Miles Kington, a British writer, or to Brian O’Driscoll, an Irish rugby player. I’m not sure who of the two was first, but it raises an interesting question: how would your company interpret this statement?

Image source: Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)

Some companies would certainly issue a standard operating procedure, create a work instruction template, or publish a corporate policy document on what to put into and not to put into a fruit cocktail. Never put tomatoes in a fruit salad. Full stop! Period!

While other organizations trust on the wisdom, common sense and competence of their people and assume that they will be perfectly capable of making a decent fruit salad. Creative staff members might even engage in product innovation by adding some exotic berries or nuts to the mix.

This observation leads me to another quote, by Simon Sinek:

When leaders are willing to prioritize trust over performance, performance almost always follows.

How about the company that you work for and the leaders that you work with?

Never regret saying ‘no’

On August 15, 2021 the world woke up with the news about the fall of Kabul.

Reading the headlines about the chaotic evacuation of Western citizens and their local allies from Afghanistan and watching the horrifying images of the suicide bombing at Kabul airport, it came to my mind that, about six months ago, I received a LinkedIn job proposal for a marketing position with a telecom company. The most surprising part of this lucrative offer definitely came at the end of the recruiter’s message: “Job location: Kabul, Afghanistan”.

While I’m, generally speaking, open to discussing a once in a lifetime opportunity, I decidedly said ‘no’ to this one. Adding tongue in cheek that Kabul is not the most inviting place to work. Today ― excuse my understatement ― I still don’t regret my decision. You may guess why.

Image: Kabul International Airport in 2008 by Carl Montgomery (CC BY 2.0)

One of my favorite columns by Seth Godin is titled Saying ‘no’. In this only 120 words long post, the American thought leader and author discusses the choice of making the people with the loudest requests temporarily happy vs. changing the world by saying ‘no’ often.

Every decision gives you an opportunity to take control of your own life. If being capable of saying ‘no’ is paramount, then not regretting your decision is possibly even more important. QED.