Communication
May 20, 2015

Is it time to ditch the “deck”?

In the course of presenting to audiences on effective ways to represent and communicate data, I have often heard the following: “That’s really interesting, but we have to use decks.” Unfortunately, it seems that the key method of briefing senior managers in the government of Canada is known to be just about the most ineffective method possible.

A briefing deck is a series of PowerPoint slides printed on paper and presented in a stack. A deck may have more than 50 pages, each page containing several main “bullet” points and many subordinate bullets. Decks are required by senior management for briefings on policy issues, research and program evaluations.

As I have alleged, the printed slide deck is highly ineffective as a means of supporting informed decisions. The implication of this is that the quality of public policy decision-making is certainly affected. Do we have evidence?

In 2003, the space shuttle Columbia was damaged during launch when foam insulation impacted one of its wings. Over the next two weeks NASA investigated the risk that this posed, concluding that the danger was not significant. As a result, no attempts were made to effect any remedy, with tragic results. How could this have happened? It seems PowerPoint decks played their part.

Edward R. Tufte, a leader in methods for communicating data and ideas, participated in the investigation, and later used Columbia as a central example in The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, quoting evidence from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) and the subsequent Return to Flight Task Group. His conclusions were taken up by the CAIB, who said:

“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 are filtered out. In this context, it is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide (referring to a key briefing slide assessing the risk to Columbia) and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation.”

Moreover:

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

Given this, I am inclined to believe that decks pose a problem for other briefing tasks too.

Tufte’s analysis centred on how PowerPoint, in the preparation of decks, forces information into “bites” to fit the format, rather than the information. This disrupts the audience’s ability to see facts in context. This also creates a hierarchical structure of titles, main bullets and subordinate bullets, indented farther and with decreasing font sizes. Audiences are led to discount the subordinate bullets and their message, and presenters to filter out more subordinate points as they go farther up the chain of command.

As Tufte puts it: “In their report, the CAIB found that the distinctive cognitive style of PowerPoint interacted with the biases and hierarchical filtering of the bureaucracy during the crucial period when the spacecraft was damaged but still functioning.”

Regarding Boeing’s reports during this period, the CAIB said: “The choice of headings, arrangements of information and size of bullets on the key chart served to highlight what management already believed. The uncertainties and assumptions that signalled danger dropped out of the information chain when the Mission Evaluation Room manager condensed the Debris Assessment Team’s formal presentation to an informal verbal brief at the Mission Management Team Meeting.”

Does any of that sound familiar? Of course it does. Are there alternatives?

Experts such as Tufte, Nancy Duarte and Stephen Few have contributed a great deal of practical research and knowledge to the practice of presentation of factual and empirical information. All of this information is easily accessed and understood, and there would seem to be opportunities to explore alternatives, given the amount of briefing activity that takes place daily on non-critical matters.

So, why do government departments and agencies insist on using decks?

That is a good question. Is it because upper management demands the deck format, believing it to be an effective way to be briefed in little time? Are the writers of the decks complicit, writing what they know to be ineffective briefings, or are they too under the impression that this works?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that when people tell me that they write slide briefing decks, they are not bragging. I think it is time to try to do better.

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