The Medium is the Message

For many science and engineering organizations PowerPoint is a default presentation and pitch tool that offers a seemingly easy and effective solution for presenting data and conveying ideas. Yet, for even the simplest of evidence based science presentations, PowerPoint (along with other slide based presentation tools) has inherent biases and limitations.

The Medium is the Message

Even if you are building a simple slide show you will have to make choices in applying fonts, font sizes, bullets, graphs and images. These stylistic choices comprise, in the aggregate, a design rhetoric on which your presentation will be understood and ultimately judged. This rhetoric embodies analytical structures and, at a deeper level, implicit psychological assumptions. Far from being a just a series of stylistic choices, your ability to navigate the design tools will be the difference between winning or losing your audience.

Take for instance the seemingly simple use of bullets. When making a bulleted list, there are a number of subtle design choices to be made. What size type? How big of an indent? What order? How much space between lines? Each choice influences how your ideas are digested and, importantly, establishes a hierarchy of information. Any inconsistency in formatting within or between lists will confuse your message and can lead an audience to misunderstand your findings. If you plan on using images, graphs or charts, the potential pitfalls increase exponentially.

In Edward Tufte’s Beautiful Evidence there is a powerful example of the what can happen when scientists rely on misformatted and unclear slide presentations. In the book Tufte, an expert in public affairs at Yale University and an established expert in the presentation of statistical evidence, examines the findings of a 2005 NASA report on the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster. Building on one of the core findings of the report (that NASA employees overly relied on PowerPoint slides in evaluating the risk posed by the foam debris that struck the shuttle), Tufte furthers pinpoints the problem as being inherent to PowerPoint itself. “How is it that each elaborate architecture of thought always fits exactly on one slide? The (PowerPoint) format reflects a common conceptual error in analytical design: information architectures mimic the hierarchical structure of large bureaucracies pitching the information”.

What was needed was robust scientific debate and deeper statistical analysis of the problem. Instead, project managers were asked to “condense” information into concise slides that led to incorrect risk assessments by decision makers. After analyzing hundreds of slide-style presentations used by NASA to weigh the risk to of the debris impact, Tufte came to the conclusion that PowerPoint was (along with other linear slide presentation tools) “hopeless for science and engineering”.

Though an extreme case, Tufte’s analysis has real relevance to marketing communication and business development leaders at science and engineering organizations. When your business mission depends on communicating complex science, it is dangerous to rely on linear presentations (PowerPoint, Keynote or otherwise) that hem you into an overly-simplistic format. If you are going to use PowerPoint, it is important to understand its inherent limitations. If your presentation is mission critical, it might be best to seek other, more creative solutions.

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