Power Point, Rocket Science and dangers of compelling stories

In American English, you can say that something is not too difficult by saying “it’s not rocket science.” We don’t have a good idiom for saying the opposite – that something is hard to understand, not bullet-pointable. Edward Tufte dislikes PowerPoint because it can be used in a way that obscures critical data under a pile of graphics and misleading bullet points.

My other models for NASA are Feynman’s lectures on physics, and the A3 page (or 11 by 17 in) folded in half. You can see where we’re at. If they would just write sentences, with subjects and predicates, rather than those damn bullet points.
At some of these organizations, a technical report is called a “pitch” and is presented in 10-15 minutes, or presented simply as a PP deck to look over, or shown as a one-slide executive summary, or circulated by email-attached PP slides for the cognoscenti. Some of that reporting is done in a crisis; the Boeing PP slides were prepared in 2 or 3 days when the Columbia was in trouble but still flying. ( cite)

Guy Kawasaki wants shorter, sharper, presentations:

a PowerPoint presentation should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points.

from Guy Kawasaki

I’m dubious that improving the technology or execution of presentations is a solution to anything. Certainly improving the technology of selling political candidates has not improved their quality. Kawasaki is asking for a short sweet pitch. He’s asking to be told a compelling story about how he can make lots of money fast. And the NASA bureaucrats wanted compelling stories about how they could complete the mission. Making the NASA presentations shorter and sharper would not have helped. Maybe the pitches tell Kawasaki what he needs to know – part of what he wants to know is whether the presenter is a good salesperson. Sales and sales pitches are part of how we communicate. But some things are rocket science or just as hard and for those things pitches are dangerous. For rocket science or the equivalent you need tough, demanding, focused presentations that painstakingly dig out the tradeoffs and uncertainties. These presentations don’t have to be dull, but they are too qualified and too complex to be good pitches. Compelling stories may not be true stories. Pitches that engage us emotionally may also lead us down the wrong path. Something may feel right but be wrong. I often ask for more detail, more caveats, more analysis both on engineering issues and business issues. In both places, short sweet and compelling can mean  too good to be true.

I’m biased of course, because many of our competitors* have much better pitches than ours. Fortunately for us, although not necessarily for everyone involved, physics trumps salesmanship in our field – eventually and sometimes spectacularly. (There’s a followup to this note here)

*[ this was back in the RTLinux days – VY]  (added this and removed broken link 10/3/2014)