Engineers over use PowerPoints to make technical presentations, and the results can be disastrous. So says Edward Tufte, professor emeritus at Yale University, who is an expert on statistical evidence and analytical design. Example: NASA executives had a fatal misunderstanding of the potential danger to the space shuttle Columbia because of overly simplistic PowerPoint presentations made by Boeing engineers. That may seem hard to believe, but Tufte made a convincing case when he spoke at a seminar in Boston yesterday. His viewpoint was validated by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in a report issued in 2003. “The board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communications at NASA,” the board wrote.
Why are PowerPoints a problem for technical communication? 1) They oversimplify complex technical data, 2) They tend to reflect the biases of the presenter, and 3) Information becomes even more filtered as PowerPoints are summarized and moved up a bureaucratic hierarchy. Tufte puts it simply: “Serious problems require a serious tool: written reports.”
A separate NASA task force investigating escalating communications problems in the agency made this damning statement: “It appears that many young engineers do not understand the need for, or know how to prepare, formal engineering documents such as reports, white papers, or analyses.”