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.


From accumulation to understatement

Figures of speech can help listeners and readers understand what we say and write. But they also help make our language more colorful and make our stories more engaging (hey, wasn’t that an anaphora?) As I use them frequently in my presentations and my blog posts, here’s a (non-exhaustive) list with 10 of my favorite rhetorical figures…

Accumulation = gathering, repeating, and recapitulating previously stated arguments. It may be used to simply summarize your key points (as I’m often doing at the end of a presentation), but also to re-emphasize your message in a forceful way. Here’s an example of how I used accumulation to conclude my old-but-gold “Don’t feed the chameleons” article: “So next time you need to build a business presentation, start well in advance and take your time to tune each slide. Don’t take existing material for granted. Be creative. Be consistent. Be professional.”

Alliteration = the repetition of an initial consonant sound. This works extremely well to make your blog/presentation/slide headlines stand out. Just think of the post on this site that I titled: “Proudly promoting my president’s presentation pizzazz.”

Anaphora = a technique where several phrases begin with the same word or words. I often use it in combination with a rule of three, like the “Be creative. Be consistent. Be professional.” in the accumulation example above.

Antithesis = the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas in balanced phrases. Take, for example, “women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth” in Oprah Winfrey’s 2018 Golden Globes speech or “for those who still can’t comprehend, because they refuse to” in Emma González’ March For Our Lives address.

Chiasmus = a verbal pattern in which the second half of an expression or a sentence is balanced against the first but with the parts reversed. John F. Kennedy’s “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate” is a famous example of a chiasmus.

Hyperbole = using an extravagant statement or exaggeration to emphasize a point or to evoke strong feelings. When I wrote that Fidel Castro’s listenership may have called itself lucky after a 7 hours and 10 minutes speech, and that it may have taken the late Cuban leader almost 54 working days to prepare his address, I might have used a couple of hyperboles.

Metaphor = an implied comparison between seemingly unrelated objects and/or concepts offers a creative means to convey much more content compared to only talking about the naked topic of your presentation. Over the past years I have written several blog posts about the metaphors that I have used in my presentations. Do you remember what a highway junction, a cherry pie, or a volcano stand for? If not, you may revisit these respective posts: “Highway 61 revisited”, “Easy as cherry pie”, and “Making the volcano”.

Paradox = a statement that sounds like it contradicts itself, but which often contains some kernel of truth or reason. A few years ago, I closed my presentation at an Internet of Things conference with a “the best things in life aren’t things” slide. Although I presented a clear contradiction in terms, no single person in the audience questioned the truth of my statement.

Personification = giving human qualities to non-living things or ideas. When, in one of my articles about the Internet of Things, I suggested that enterprises should step through the mirror – like Alice [in Wonderland] stepped through the looking glass – I was perfectly aware that a company is not a human being.

Understatement = when a writer or speaker deliberately uses words that lessen or minimize the importance of an issue or a situation. The presentation that I mentioned above in my paradox bullet, was titled “The unbearable lightness or IoT forecasting”. I chose this title to make a polite statement about the fact that industry analysts often cite widely diverging figures about the same topic.

Not every picture tells the story

Just before the weekend there was a @WEF tweet that pointed to a post on the World Economic Forum blog. The article, which is quite interesting (at least for a tech guy like me,) explores how the internet looked like in 1973. In these early days, the entire net consisted of just 45 computers and could be mapped out on the back of a napkin.

But what struck me most when I saw this tweet passing by, was the contradicting information in the twitter message and the image attached to it. The picture shows a Macintosh, a Macintosh Plus, and a Macintosh SE. As I was working with Apple Computer during the second half of the eighties, I know for sure that the latter was only launched in 1987, and so there’s a fourteen year lag between the hardware shown and the 1973 internet of the WEF post…

Whether used in a tweet, an article, or a PowerPoint presentation, such a discrepancy between the text and the image creates a conflicting situation in the reader’s or listener’s brain. This doesn’t mean that one should systematically duplicate the content in the visual and textual or auditory messages he’s delivering. As I wrote in one of my older posts, “What you say and what you show,” an image can help you present your message simple and sweet, and make what you show complementary to what you say.

And, while writing the above, I started thinking of what alternative image I would have used instead of the Macs. Mmmmm, forty-five years ago, the internet was probably not that very visually exciting. Therefore, I was thinking of showing a more compelling picture (or even a piece of video.) And, well, a quick Google search taught me that the UK singles top-50 of 8 December 1973 was topped by Slade with “Merry Xmas Everybody.”

If that isn’t a nostalgic piece of seventies eye – and even ear – candy! And it gives a good message for this time of year too. Happy holiday season, dear readers.

Marketing, promises, and real products

How creative can (or may) a company get with making marketing promises?

You may have read this article about how a small Chinese smartphone vendor failed in delivering on its marketing promises. The world’s smallest 4G Android smartphone was announced to have a battery life of three days, and to weigh as little as 60 grams. Unfortunately, some of the promising specs turned out to be no more than marketing talk. In a BBC interview, the company’s CEO admitted that the handset’s performance might “fall short of expectations in certain circumstances” and that “heavy use” could reduce the 950mAh (!) battery’s life to three or four hours instead of days. To be noted that the exec’s definition of heavy use includes keeping Wi-Fi and Bluetooth switched on all the time. Say no more. Who of us still bothers about turning off these functions when not in use? The phone’s declared weight was about right – the only detail that the marketing department forgot to mention is that that’s without the battery…

Of course, as I wrote in one of my older posts, there’s no single truth. When it comes to product specifications and performance numbers, however, the variation and interpretation margins are extremely small. The primary aim of any marketing professional is to make a product look attractive and useful, and persuade potential buyers. But persuasion is never about telling lies, cheating or fooling your customers!

Read the original article and the BBC interview:

Related posts:

The legacy of Steve Jobs

I just finished watching Apple’s “Let us loop you in” live stream.  A near-anticlimactic event without any spectacular new product announcements – but rather new features on, and different colors and sizes of the Cupertino company’s smartphones, tablets and watches (and wristbands.)

There were also no surprises in terms of the CEO’s presentation style. Tim Cook has never been able to reach the speaking heights of Steve Jobs, even though he keeps delivering a consistently good speaking job.


As Carmine Gallo observes in one of his Forbes articles, Cook has skillfully taken over the techniques of his famous predecessor to introduce new products. His presentations are also rich on photographs and images. And, even when Cook talks more statistics, his slides only have one number on it —the number he wants his audience to remember.

What is probably more remarkable than Tim Cook giving a Steve Jobs-like talk, is that nowadays almost any device manufacturer or software developer is trying to mimic Jobs’ presentation style and templates.

In some of my presentation skills workshops, I’m showing Bill Gates’ infamous slide that he used for  introducing Microsoft Silverlight. It’s a self-explanatory example on how overcrowded visuals may blur the message and overshadow the speaker.


But, in preparation of writing this blog post, I watched some recent product announcements by some of Apple’s direct competitors: Samsung, LG and Huawei. Look at the video captures below. Sometimes it’s even hard to identify their visuals as not being created by an Apple designer. All of them have rigorously adopted Steve Jobs’ principles: focus, design and simplicity.




The only advice they all might have missed is Jobs’ “Think different” – and in this case, probably, “Use different visuals” too…

More reading:

Quotes that aren’t quotes

Sometimes a well-chosen quote may help to catch the attention of (or provoke or challenge) the people listening to your presentation. As some readers may remember from my “wise men say” post, I have repeatedly used this technique to open or broaden a conversation with a professional audience.

Lately, I was preparing a slide deck about business transformation, and the first words that came to my mind were Charles Darwin’s:


At least, I assumed that they were coming from the 19th century naturalist. Because, to my surprise ― while Googling for the exact passage ― I came across several web sites (e.g. that claim there is no evidence that Mr. Darwin actually said or wrote such statement.

Incidentally, this was not the first time that I (almost) fell into the traps of fake quotes, misquotes, or misleading attributions. In my blog post about “the incredible lightness of numbers” I referred to a quote attributed to Winston Churchill, saying that:


Also here, it turned out that Sir Winston never made such statement at all. The above sentence is a product of Nazi propaganda that managed to survive the fall of the Third Reich by more than seven decades.

If you are looking for an alternative citation about the (mis)use of statistical information, I also strongly advice you not to use Mark Twain’s one either.


These words are indeed often attributed to the man who created Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It’s a true fact that Twain popularized the saying, but in his autobiography he denies having invented it, and claims that British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli was the originator. But even this claim could be a misattribution too….

Let me finish today’s article with a positive and quotable note (or rather a notable quote). Instead of putting Charles’s Darwin’s (in)famous words on my business transformation slide, I Googled a Hindu proverb that says about the same about change, and I ended up my presentation in an even more memorable way…


I’m sure some of you will start including this wisdom in your future presentations too.

Sometimes graphs are not more than pretty lines

Two weeks ago I published a blog post, “Moore’s law… and beyond,” about a presentation in which I used Moore’s Law, Metcalfe’s Law and the Chasm Theory to characterize the transition from a technology driven business to a value driven business.

With a bit of creative chartsmithing, I combined the graphs of these 3 famous industry laws into one, and by visually cheating with axes, scales, and representations I came to the observation that the chasm is actually the point where the transition from a technology driven business to a value driven business needs to take place.

Besides some positive comments on LinkedIn and a bunch of likes on Facebook ― my post was even republished by the World Economic Forum ―  I also received these critical remarks:

“Combining these graphs is actually ridiculous and leads to invalid deductions. Your conclusions are unsupportable because there is no data being presented.”


“Graphs without meaningful units, operationalized axes, and statistical analyses are just pretty lines.”

Both commentators were of course absolutely right. But the presentation I reported on in my article had never been meant to introduce a new, mathematically correct forecasting model. Its only aim was to deliver a message about creating market growth through user orientation. The medium is the message. And this medium worked very well for me. Remember that the title on top of this blog page is “B2B storytelling”. And that’s exactly what I tried to do when I joined the three graphs into one…

One more excellent reaction to the allegations above came from another LinkedIn reader:

“Letters are also just pretty lines, but the order in which they are put gives them context and turns them into words with meaning. Quit being so literal and enjoy the graph within the context of an accompanying article and as a way to illustrate something interesting.”

The online conversation about my blog post probably reveals a more fundamental discussion: when we create and deliver a presentation, should we stick to the hard facts and figures, or is a presenter allowed to “filter”, “frame” or “massage” certain data?

Here’s my opinion. First of all, you should never, never lie to your audience or present them with facts and figures when you definitely know they are incorrect. There is nothing wrong, however, with omitting unnecessary details, or framing the content to better align with the message you’re trying to convey.

A good example of this is the use of (financial or industry) analyst data in your slides. Although most of these analyst guys are to be considered trustworthy sources, in my blog post about “the incredible lightness of numbers” I illustrated that the figures they give may sometimes vary by a large factor. Of course, as a presenter, you’re allowed to quote only the sources that ― depending on what you want to show or prove ― mention the smallest of the largest numbers.

As a presenter you can also influence the audience’s perception of objective data. The case (by Garr Reynolds) I have outlined in my post “the duck and the rabbit” shows how a table may be (mis)used as an alternative to a bar chart to display hard numbers in a less dramatic or emotional way.

And, finally, sometimes you may assume that a theory or statement is true, until somebody proves you it’s not. Take the anecdote of the 17th-century Dutch painting “View of Scheveningen Sands,” created by Hendrick van Anthonissen.


Until recently, the whole world assumed that the people on the painting were actually staring at a deserted seascape… until the restoration of the artwork revealed a beached whale on the beach!

Moore’s law… and beyond

Earlier this year, the world (or maybe rather a few tech-savvy geeks like me) celebrated the 50th birthday of Moore’s Law.

In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore predicted that transistor density (and thus the performance) of microprocessors would double each 2 years. Take for example today’s iPhone 6, which is 3.5 times faster than the iPhone 1 while its price is 30% less than the first generation 7 years ago. Moore’s Law has been used as a stable basis for forecasting technology evolution in the ICT industry for the past 5 decades.

Reading a few articles about this special anniversary reminded me of a conference presentation I gave (also) many years ago, in which I explored the thin line between “nice to have” and “need to have” technology.

Starting with a picture of Moore’s Law, and with the help of two other famous industry laws, a bit of visual thinking, a healthy dose of abstraction and some creative chartsmithing, I developed the following storyline…


Note that, although “doubling each 2 years” suggests a parabola-shaped curve, Moore’s growth function is almost always represented a straight line ― complemented by an exponential scale on the Y-axis.

Several years after Gordon Moore’s famous observation, another ICT pioneer, 3Com co-founder Bob Metcalfe, stated that the value of a network grows as the square of the number of network nodes (or devices, or applications, or users, …) while the costs follow a more or less linear function. Take for example a wireless network: if you have only 2 subscribers with a mobile phone, they’re only able to make calls to each other. If you have millions of subscribers however…


Metcalfe’s Law is about network growth, customer acquisition, and value creation, rather than about technology evolution. The combination of Moore’s and Metcalfe’s laws explains the rise of information technology and the growth of the Internet as we know it today.

As the next step in my presentation flow, I introduced my audience to the technology adoption lifecycle, and more specifically to the “chasm theory” that was developed by another Mr Moore. In his book “Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers,” management consultant Geoffrey A. Moore talks about the gap between the take up of new technology by early enthusiasts and the mainstream market.


And finally, in an unprecedented apotheosis, by combining the three preceding charts and by ― I have to admit ― visually cheating with axes, scales, and representations I came to the observation that the chasm is actually the point where the transition from a technology driven business to a value driven business needs to take place ― and if this doesn’t happen, that any new product or technology introduction is doomed to fail.


That’s a nice conclusion, which ― just like Moore’s Law ― still holds today, isn’t it?

You may view my original presentation on SlideShare. Please note that the deck dates from 2002, and that the market, my company, and the technology and product related content obviously have evolved since then.

Mastering the mean telephone machine

In last week’s guest post, my son Robin let us discover the art of abstraction. Using the microwave oven and the smartphone as examples, he wrote about the benefits of making a clear separation between the internal mechanics and the external interface of an apparatus.

But even when appropriate abstraction is made to hide implementations detail from end-users, understanding and utilizing new machinery may be a challenging experience for many people. Technology marketers shouldn’t underestimate the intellectual capabilities of their customers, but they shouldn’t overestimate them either. While engineers and experts may consider a concept or a product simple, the average Jane or Joe may find it hard to understand or to handle. Even the fact that most of today’s articles are shipped with a (often too comprehensive) user guide, does not mean that consumers will actually read the handbook, follow the instructions, and remember them for future occasions.

Recently I stumbled upon a beginner’s guide to telephone use, dated 1917. Of course, for a 21st century digital native it’s child’s play to use a mobile phone (though I wonder if some of today’s kids would still know how to use a plain old wired black telephone set with a rotary dial…) but put yourself in the shoes of an early twentieth century low educated US citizen. Maybe for him or for her that new telephony service wasn’t that straightforward at all. I’m sure he or she has appreciated the sweet and simple stories shown on the images below.


So, long live abstraction! Long live simplicity! And long live user-focused products, with easy understandable user manuals.

Related posts:

The knight on the plane

Last week I was flying with Air Malta, the airline operator of the Mediterranean islands with the same name.


Malta has a rich and colorful history. From 1530 to 1798, for almost three centuries, the islands were ruled by the Knights Hospitaller of St. John, a.k.a the Knights of Malta, who transformed it into a center of art and culture.

In today’s post, I want to share Air Malta’s inflight safety movie with you. The message it gives, and even the spoken narrative, is the same one that I have heard hundreds of times before. On other flights. To other destinations. With other airlines. But the way the safety instructions were presented caught my attention.

Such a great example of brand storytelling, capitalizing on the beautiful Maltese Islands’ rich history and their famous Knights!