This week marks 20 years since the space shuttle Columbia burned up during its re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board.
The accident happened because several of the shuttle’s heat-resistant tiles were damaged by a piece of foam during take-off.
NASA’s mission team had noticed the foam hitting the tiles. So they called in specialist engineers from Boeing to help them assess the potential risk.
The slide above is taken from Boeing’s presentation. It’s their analysis of a test carried out to simulate a tile being struck by foam.
You’ll notice a few things about this slide.
First, just how many words there are on it. Powerpoint is presentation software: it’s great for making a single, compelling point (ideally with a big picture), but terrible for conducting a balanced pro/con analysis.
Second, you’ll notice the headline seems positive: ‘Review of test data indicates conservatism for tile penetration’ sounds like engineer-speak for ‘you don’t really need to worry about this.’
Yet, when you look into the detail in the bottom half of the slide, the story is quite different. Suddenly we’re talking about ‘significant tile damage’ – and we learn that the size of the sample tested was 640 times smaller than the size of the chunk that actually hit the shuttle. In other words, the test results have almost no relevance to the real situation, so the headline is misleading.
The problem is that both these facts are buried right down at the bottom, in low hierarchy bullet points, in amongst many other, equally-dense slides. So it would be very easy for someone in the audience to miss them and to focus, instead, on the more positive conclusion in the headline.
The NASA team had options: they could have deployed a military satellite to take a closer look at the damage; they could have attempted a repair in space. Both these options were expensive and difficult: in the event, they decided the risk was low enough not to warrant either, so they did nothing.
And seven people died.
Every day, in companies all over the world, similarly unclear presentations lead to similarly bad decisions (hopefully, without similarly tragic consequences).
So this anniversary is a timely reminder that the way we communicate inside a business matters: not just the big townhall presentations, but the everyday project pitches, briefings, updates, reports.
If your people don’t know how to use Powerpoint to tell their story clearly, then don’t let them use it at all. Make them present without slides.
Trust me: when they don’t have an electronic crutch to lean on, they’ll quickly learn the value of keeping their message simple.