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New York Times: PowerPoint-Columbia story, September 28, 2003

From the Sunday Week In Review.

Note graphic (the Boeing slide), reached at the story site by clicking on "Graphic: Speaking in PowerPoint" under "MULTIMEDIA" [link updated March 2005]

-- Edward Tufte

Response to New York Times: PowerPoint story

It is particularly helpful to have the remarks of Columbia Accident Investigation Board about PowerPoint widely distributed. The Board makes distinctions among various forms of presentation, suggesting inherent problems with the tool.

This will all be old news to readers of this board.

The word "slide" is curiously old-fashioned, a relic of carousel slides. How about "lide," a word midway between "slide" and "lie"?

-- Edward Tufte

Response to New York Times: PowerPoint story

Slides, Big Business, Federal Government, and "Yes-Men"

Slides, Big Business, Federal Government, and "Yes-Men"

There are a couple of interesting stories from Lou Gerstner's early days after joining IBM in the early 90s. He found IBM's use of "foils", IBM's term for their version of PowerPoint slides, to be a key facilitator to executive obfuscation of the problems within the failing company.

The following is an excerpt from the September 1999 Washington Monthly feature article: "What Lou Gerstner Could Teach Bill Clinton - Lessons for government from IBM's dramatic turnaround" by Robert Worth.

Worth Article

...Gerstner's first task was to change the ingrained attitudes that had prevented IBM from seeing the world around it. These are often described as a product of the company's unique place in American business -- as one old company saying went, "there's the right way, the wrong way, and the IBM way." But IBM's problems were really not so different from those of any large bureaucracy. "If you leave institutions in place for too long, whether governments or corporations, they get focused on maintaining themselves as institutions," says Jim McGroddy, who ran IBM's research labs from 1989 to 1995. "What they achieve for the customer becomes very secondary." At IBM, as in the federal government, this meant that people who made criticisms -- however valid -- were often ignored or even punished. "The operating principle was, don't make the boss unhappy," says one longtime IBMer. This attitude, she adds, did incalculable damage to the company. Legitimate criticism of products and strategy never percolated up to the people who needed to hear it...

...Gerstner witnessed this "good news only" syndrome at one of his early meetings, where he heard a presentation from the chip-making division, which was widely known to be having problems. The head of the chip division told Gerstner that the problem was that there was no mainframe business, so his division couldn't make money making chips for mainframes. Gerstner stopped him right there and asked why the mainframe guy had just told him his division was doing fine. As it turned out, the mainframe division was in trouble -- but they couldn't bear to admit it to the chief.

"Gerstner made it very clear very quick that you tell the boss the truth," says one IBMer who witnessed the turnaround. How? For one, he spent much of his time during the first few months talking to IBMers, consultants, and customers about the company and making it very clear that he wanted unvarnished truth. "He was the best listener I have ever seen," says Sam Albert, an IBM analyst who worked for the company from 1959 to 1989. Early in his tenure, Gerstner sat down with Albert, and as he asked him what he thought about the company, he took five pages of handwritten notes -- not exactly typical CEO behavior.

Perhaps Gerstner's most effective tool for enforcing honesty in the company was the way he conducted meetings. In the old IBM, meetings were "like a high mass, with supporting documents as thick as your arm," says Dan Mandresh, who was Merrill Lynch's chief IBM analyst for 20 years. The most famous ritual at these meetings were the visual-display "foils" execs used to project charts and graphs onto the wall. "We used to describe talks as a 'six-foil talk' or a 'four-foil talk,'" one veteran recalls. "There were IBMers who literally didn't know how to talk without foils." Meetings were too large, because people were included based on their rank, whether or not they had anything of substance to add.

In the government it's the same story. For many federal bureaucrats, meetings are an end in themselves, a way to create the impression of activity (and taxpayer money well spent) where there is none. Being invited to them is a reflection of rank and status, so that people attend them regardless of whether they have anything to contribute or learn. At the Energy Department, for instance, meetings of the Office of Strategic Planning, Budget, and Program Evaluation have been attended by dozens of representatives from other offices, whose job is often confined to writing notes about the meeting for their own offices -- regardless of whether it has any relevance to their own work.

Gerstner recognized that all this pointless ceremony was crippling IBM. One of the first things he did was to convene his top 20 executives and tell them all to write a short paper, with no visuals, answering these questions: What is your business? Who are your customers? What is your marketplace? What are your strengths and weaknesses? Who are your main competitors? He told them to get it done in two weeks, and that he would meet with each of them one-on-one shortly afterward to discuss it.

That may sound pretty reasonable to an outsider. At IBM, it was revolutionary. "People weren't used to writing in sentences," recalls Jim McGroddy. When he met with Gerstner, "it was just the two of us standing at a table. No projector." The meeting went well; McGroddy convinced the new boss that he was willing to help the company change. Others, however, tried to bring out the foils, and "Gerstner jumped all over them," says McGroddy. According to IBM lore, Gerstner actually walked up to the projector at one meeting, turned it off, and told the exec, "If you can't explain it to me in your own words, you don't understand it." Before long the foils were gone. With them went all the old rituals that had made meetings such a waste of time. He insisted that meetings be as small and as quick as possible. To many company veterans, this felt like a slap in the face. But Gerstner made his intention clear: "I am trying to avoid the concept of reward being associated with these meetings."

So the disease of slides and "yes yes" manager types continues to plague all types of organizations. It is the senior leaders' responsibility to ensure that the facts are properly communicated instead (in spite of?) of hype, fonts and pretty pictures.

-- Jim Crossett (email)

Response to New York Times: PowerPoint story

I wrote the story for the Times, and just wanted to make one thing clear, since it's been brought up here: There was no pressure from Boeing to keep their name out of the story, and I've gotten specific about this in many of the dozens of articles I've written about the shuttle since February.

-- John Schwartz (email)

Response to New York Times: PowerPoint story

In today's NY Times, there are three letters responding to the Powerpoint article: two defending Powerpoint, one criticizing it's use in college lectures. The best part is a graphic of a Powerpoint-like rendition of a letter to the editor (apparently contributed by the Times' editorial staff), complete with heirarchical bullets. In what is to me an amazing (and ill-informed) irony, one of the defenders of Powerpoint uses Lincoln's Gettysburg address as his example!

-- Gregory C. Mayer (email)

Response to New York Times: PowerPoint story

Untitled Document

Atlantic Monthly Article

November 2003

I just received the latest issue today in the mail. William Langewiesche, the Atlantic Monthly author who did such a great job on the "Unbuilding of the WTC", has an article on "Columbia's Last Flight". The second column on page 82 talks about Dr. Tufte's analyis of the PowePoint presentation and the CAIB's views.

I assume that the online version of the article will be posted in the next few days.

The Atlantic Monthly (requires registration)


[link updated March 2005]

-- Jim Crossett (email)

Response to New York Times: PowerPoint story

Guru Tom Peter and His lastest book

Tom Peters Latest Guru Book and PowerPoint

Tom Peters is just now kicking off his book tour for his latest, Re-Imagine!

In his second chapter he has listed 20 ways to Self-Destruct. (Note: If you are not familiar with Peters' most recent direction, self-destruction is what is required to be successful over the long term).

Number 13: Honor Results...not Great PowerPoint Presentations.

This point continues to build on what has been this thread's theme.

-- Jim Crossett (email)

Response to New York Times: PowerPoint story

Tufte Post - Execution by Bossidy anbd Charan

Execution - The Discipline of Getting Things Done

by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan

Another recent influential book in the business press is this Wall Street Journal bestseller. Here is a brief excerpt from pages 22-23 in the 2002 first edition from Random House's Crown Business Division. The emphasis (bold and italics) in the quote below are mine.

The heart of execution lies in the three core processes: the people process, the strategy process, and the operations process. Every [organization] uses these processes in one form or the other. But more often than not they stand apart from one another like silos. People perform them by rote and as quickly as possible, so they can get back to their perceived work. Typically the [organization's top leadership] allot less than half a day each year to review the plans—people, strategy, operations. Typically too the reviews are not particularly interactive. People sit passively watchinig PowerPoint presentations. They don't ask questions.

They don't debate, and as a result they don't get much useful outcome…This is a formula for failure. You need robust dialogue to surface the realities…You need accountability for results—discussed openly and agreed to by those responsible—to get things done…You need follow-through to ensure the plans are on track.

My premise in this thread is that cultures like NASA's or like IBM's from the early 90s (see my earlier post on this thread), are able to hide difficulties and potential friction behind those LIDE bullets. Tom Peter's idea of re-invention (mentioned in another earlier post on this thread) also states that [bad] communication and organizational inertia hides behind these kinds of presentations.

The ubiquitous PowerPoint software has allowed this kind of organizational behavior to continue it's insidious spread so that the "yada yada yada LIDES" are allowing presentations to happen WITHOUT corresponding proper communication and appropriate action taken.

But the solution to the problem is not in removing the use of the software, it's the leadership and associated culture that needs to be addressed. The fundamental question is, "Can a culture change?" when there is an easy crutch like PowerPoint readily available for use in hiding our professional and organizational shortcomings.

-- Jim Crossett (email)

Response to New York Times: PowerPoint story

Tufte Response - December 14, 2003

Here is the latest on the subject. Although it contains no new facts, it does show that the topic of interest is still considered newsworthy by the NYT.

NYT Article: PowerPoint Makes You Dumb - December 14, 2003

[link updated March 2005]

-- Jim Crossett (email)

I also don't like the word "slides" in reference to PowerPoint. Why not use "projection" as a noun? (As in, "the presentation had many projections, but little content.") It is more accurate, doesn't involve creating a word, and connotes both the ability to obfuscate and be clear.

-- miguel (email)

In the February 2nd, 2004 international edition of Newsweek, page 54, there is an interview with Imelda Marcos:

Q: A documentary about you called "Imelda" competed at Sundance. How do you feel about that?

A: I met the director, and, [as] it was a documentary, I was all for it. [But] I don't know what it is all about. All our lives, we were committed to a vision, [an] ideology, theology towards human order. So much so I can put it in PowerPoint.

-- David Person (email)

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