Presentation Skills

Death by PowerPoint: the slide that killed seven people

The space shuttle Columbia disintegrating in the atmosphere (Creative Commons)

We’ve all sat in those presentations. A speaker with a stream of slides full of text, monotonously reading them off as we read along. We’re so used to it we expect it. We accept it. We even consider it ‘learning’. As an educator I push against ‘death by PowerPoint’ and I'm fascinated with how we can improve the way we present and teach. The fact is we know that PowerPoint kills. Most often the only victims are our audience’s inspiration and interest. This, however, is the story of a PowerPoint slide that actually helped kill seven people.

January 16th 2003. NASA Mission STS-107 is underway. The Space Shuttle Columbia launches carrying its crew of seven to low orbit. Their objective was to study the effects of microgravity on the human body and on ants and spiders they had with them. Columbia had been the first Space Shuttle, first launched in 1981 and had been on 27 missions prior to this one. Whereas other shuttle crews had focused on work to the Hubble Space Telescope or to the International Space Station this mission was one of pure scientific research.

The launch proceeded as normal. The crew settled into their mission. They would spend 16 days in orbit, completing 80 experiments. One day into their mission it was clear to those back on Earth that something had gone wrong.

As a matter of protocol NASA staff reviewed footage from an external camera mounted to the fuel tank. At eighty-two seconds into the launch a piece of spray on foam insulation (SOFI) fell from one of the ramps that attached the shuttle to its external fuel tank. As the crew rose at 28,968 kilometres per hour the piece of foam collided with one of the tiles on the outer edge of the shuttle’s left wing.

Frame of NASA launch footage showing the moment the foam struck the shuttle’s left wing (Creative Commons)

It was impossible to tell from Earth how much damage this foam, falling nine times faster than a fired bullet, would have caused when it collided with the wing. Foam falling during launch was nothing new. It had happened on four previous missions and was one of the reasons why the camera was there in the first place. But the tile the foam had struck was on the edge of the wing designed to protect the shuttle from the heat of Earth’s atmosphere during launch and re-entry. In space the shuttle was safe but NASA didn’t know how it would respond to re-entry. There were a number of options. The astronauts could perform a spacewalk and visually inspect the hull. NASA could launch another Space Shuttle to pick the crew up. Or they could risk re-entry.

NASA officials sat down with Boeing Corporation engineers who took them through three reports; a total of 28 slides. The salient point was whilst there was data showing that the tiles on the shuttle wing could tolerate being hit by the foam this was based on test conditions using foam more than 600 times smaller than that that had struck Columbia. This is the slide the engineers chose to illustrate this point:

NASA managers listened to the engineers and their PowerPoint. The engineers felt they had communicated the potential risks. NASA felt the engineers didn’t know what would happen but that all data pointed to there not being enough damage to put the lives of the crew in danger. They rejected the other options and pushed ahead with Columbia re-entering Earth’s atmosphere as normal. Columbia was scheduled to land at 0916 (EST) on February 1st 2003. Just before 0900, 61,170 metres above Dallas at 18 times the speed of sound, temperature readings on the shuttle’s left wing were abnormally high and then were lost. Tyre pressures on the left side were soon lost as was communication with the crew. At 0912, as Columbia should have been approaching the runway, ground control heard reports from residents near Dallas that the shuttle had been seen disintegrating. Columbia was lost and with it her crew of seven. The oldest crew member was 48.

The shuttle programme was on lock down, grounded for two years as the investigation began. The cause of the accident became clear: a hole in a tile on the left wing caused by the foam let the wing dangerously overheat until the shuttle disintegrated.

The questions to answer included a very simple one: Why, given that the foam strike had occurred at a force massively out of test conditions had NASA proceeded with re-entry?

Edward Tufte, a Professor at Yale University and expert in communication reviewed the slideshow the Boeing engineers had given NASA, in particular the above slide. His findings were tragically profound.

Firstly, the slide had a misleadingly reassuring title claiming that test data pointed to the tile being able to withstand the foam strike. This was not the case but the presence of the title, centred in the largest font makes this seem the salient, summary point of this slide. This helped Boeing’s message be lost almost immediately.

Secondly, the slide contains four different bullet points with no explanation of what they mean. This means that interpretation is left up to the reader. Is number 1 the main bullet point? Do the bullet points become less important or more? It’s not helped that there’s a change in font sizes as well. In all with bullet points and indents six levels of hierarchy were created. This allowed NASA managers to imply a hierarchy of importance in their head: the writing lower down and in smaller font was ignored. Actually, this had been where the contradictory (and most important) information was placed.

Thirdly, there is a huge amount of text, more than 100 words or figures on one screen. Two words, ‘SOFI’ and ‘ramp’ both mean the same thing: the foam. Vague terms are used. Sufficient is used once, significant or significantly, five times with little or no quantifiable data. As a result this left a lot open to audience interpretation. How much is significant? Is it statistical significance you mean or something else?

Finally the single most important fact, that the foam strike had occurred at forces massively out of test conditions, is hidden at the very bottom. Twelve little words which the audience would have had to wade through more than 100 to get to. If they even managed to keep reading to that point. In the middle it does say that it is possible for the foam to damage the tile. This is in the smallest font, lost.

NASA’s subsequent report criticised technical aspects along with human factors. Their report mentioned an over-reliance on PowerPoint:

“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.”

Edward Tufte’s full report makes for fascinating reading. Since being released in 1987 PowerPoint has grown exponentially to the point where it is now estimated than thirty million PowerPoint presentations are made every day. Yet, PowerPoint is blamed by academics for killing critical thought. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos has banned it from meetings. Typing text on a screen and reading it out loud does not count as teaching. An audience reading text off the screen does not count as learning. Imagine if the engineers had put up a slide with just: “foam strike more than 600 times bigger than test data.” Maybe NASA would have listened. Maybe they wouldn’t have attempted re-entry. Next time you’re asked to give a talk remember Columbia. Don’t just jump to your laptop and write out slides of text. Think about your message. Don’t let that message be lost amongst text. Death by PowerPoint is a real thing. Sometimes literally.

Thanks for reading

- Jamie

Columbia’s final crew (from https://www.space.com/19436-columbia-disaster.html)


Pitch Perfect: Delivering a Short Talk

Earlier this year I submitted an abstract to the Association for Simulated Practice in Healthcare (ASPiH) conference about my work on the application for medical students in the Emergency Department.

On 3rd August I received an email back informing me I’d been accepted for a poster presentation. Joy was then met with not a small amount of trepidation as I read further “You should plan to speak for 3 minutes with an additional 2 minutes for questions.”

3 minutes?

180 tiny seconds of time to talk about my project, my baby?

I’d presented for 10 minutes before but this was something else in terms of brevity. So I tried to have a process. This is my process, I’m not saying it’s perfect and there’s still things I’d want to change but it’s an example of how to approach the problem of getting your message across in a short period of time.

The idea of any talk is to engage, inspire and inform, That ratio can be changed around; the longer your talk you more you can inform about at the risk of losing engagement and inspiration. Obviously with only 3 minutes I was going to have to cut on the informing and focus on engagement and inspiring. I needed another way of informing the audience.

So, I wrote a blog. This step helped me know the subject and clarify the key points along the way. What’s the killer and what’s filler? What is nice to know but what is absolutely essential about your message? By doing this I realised I had three (always a good number) key points I wanted to highlight: the app was easy to make, it flipped the classroom and blended learning and that students value opportunities to practice digital literacy in simulation.

My talk would therefore be used to get those three points across and hopefully inspire my audience to look for the blog to read more.

Once the blog was written (and that took a long time) and I’d realised what the purpose of my talk would be I decided to see this as an ‘elevator pitch’ similar to those used in business as a format of engaging potential employers/investors in your project. Essentially you imagine you’re in the lift with the person you want to impress and you’ve got the time it takes to go from the ground floor to the top to sell yourself or your product.

With that in my mind I did a few Google searches to find what advice is our there to create an elevator pitch. Unsurprisingly, they’ve made an industry out of this so there’s a lot of information but very little I found useful without needing to pay money. However, I found this blog very useful by Alyssa Gregory. She breaks the process down into stages:

  1. Define who you are are

  2. Describe what you do

  3. Identify ideal audience

  4. Explain what’s unique and different about you

  5. State what you want to happen next

  6. Create an attention-grabbing hook

  7. Put it all together (start with 6)

So I did this. I wrote it out.

And I read it out loud. Slowly and clearly. It came in at 2 minutes 45 seconds. Great! But on reading it out loud it felt flat. And weird. I realised while it was a useful tactic to plan a bit like an elevator pitch the key difference was I wasn’t selling anything. So I did the next step. I practised. With an audience.

This seems perfunctory but it’s key. Only on performing in front of colleagues who I knew would be productive in their criticism did I start to get a sense of what it was like to hear about the application. They could tell me about the ebb and flow and how easy it was to follow my three key messages. There was a rewrite. And another.

Finally, I was lucky in that my poster was on the third day of ASPiH so on the second I was able to watch a poster session and get a feel for the room and see what works and what doesn’t. Clear, slow speech was vital. A bit of humour if possible. Don’t distract with your body language. Look at the audience and not your poster.

There was another slight rewrite and then a lot more practising.

This is what I came up with.

As I said before it’s not perfect but I was happy with it and it seemed to be well received.

I hope this is useful to you and helps if you’ve got a very short presentation to make. Any of your own tips? Anything you don’t agree with? Let me know!