PowerPoint gets blamed for a lot of things these days… tedium, eye strain, mind-numbing boredom, maybe even a case of mild indigestion after lunch. But a recent review of GM’s internal communication processes by former US Attorney Anton Valuka, suggested that the use of PowerPoint may have been complicit in something far worse.
The report speculates that GM car owners may have actually died because important issues around ignition switch failures were often obscured in a sea of slides being used to brief management.
Did PowerPoint Ruin GM? – Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2014
Here were some of the report’s finding.
First, the use of PowerPoint in meetings and management briefings was pervasive at GM. Doing a presentation to management? Bring a laptop and a presentation deck. Updating an internal project team? Break out a parade of bullet slides.
Another issue was the heavy use of back-up slides. These are supplemental decks of slides that were kept handy just in case a manager needed to augment their content at the request of management in the room.
And finally, when those in responsibility looked back after a dozen customer deaths and a government probe, the blame game offered up universal disagreement by presentation attendees about what was actually presented and what was left in the back-up slide decks. No one could remember for sure.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. The vast majority of companies today embrace a very similar culture. PowerPoint is often the medium of choice for communicating internally and often is wedged between those with information and ideas and those needing to make important decisions based on them.
So are there any lessons we can glean from this tragic set of circumstances?
1) Any given presentation may make a hundred small points – what are your big ones?
The responsibility of forging understanding is not a PowerPoint responsibility. It falls squarely on the shoulders of every communicator to distill down all the things that could be said to the things that need to be said.
And too few presenters use the final moments of a presentation to serve up key summary statements in a clear, simple way. Not a 5-minute closing monologue, rather a select few things that are essential to group understanding – 1-minute tops.
2) Management often makes this problem worse.
Senior leaders themselves often reinforce a culture of using slides with indiscernible layers of content. So is it any wonder their direct reports do the same?
Or in meetings, a senior manager drives the direction of a presentation in a way the presenter had not prepared for. Whether this happens because they don’t trust the presenter’s unique perspective or simply trust their own more, the results are often the same. The things that need to get communicated – often are not.
Maybe the lesson here is that leaders at times must simply limit the scope of critical conversations and always create environments where presenters feel like they can be truth-tellers. (Ironically in the GM example, the fact that people had actually died was buried in a deck of back-up slides.)
3) When projectors turn on – brains turn off.
Something happens when a projector turns on in a meeting.
We often see attendees sit back in their chairs, check their smart phones and jump in and out of conversations. Perhaps throwing PowerPoint out, as some suggest, is a bit of an overreaction but there is a point to be made. Setting limits on the percentage of time that PowerPoint occupies in a meeting and how much time is spent in critical discussion might have real merit.
It’s hard to know the real role presentation visuals played in the deaths of 13 GM car owners but one thing is clear. The excessive use of PowerPoint (or any other presentation software today) can get in the way of meaningful human interaction.
And would this have all turned out differently, the Wall Street Journal writer speculates, if someone’s presentation had only one important point to be made…