Would the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster have been avoided?
It has become popular to knock PowerPoint, especially the type of boring presentation that leads to Death by PowerPoint, where the sales rep scrolls through slide after slide that no-one can read but that serve as a prompter, each item marked by a bullet point from the default template, the whole thing in fonts too small to read when shown on the projector, but like a fat little children’s book when the sales rep decides to print it out to serve as the written proposal.
I trust we all agree that these boring presentations are useless in sales. Still, I would submit the following: What if it made no sense to criticize PowerPoint?
Let’s take the example of one of PowerPoint’s great critics, the nonetheless-excellent Edward Tufte (author of “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint”). He blames the space shuttle Columbia disaster in January 2003 on the use of PowerPoint.
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His criticism targets a PowerPoint presentation made by NASA on the eve of the disaster in Houston, and more specifically one particularly complex slide:
This slide has 19 lines of text, six levels of hierarchy and eleven phrases. It contains one comment in small letters that is lost in the mass of the slide: this comment refers to the problem of penetration on re-entry into the atmosphere. Knowing that a piece of insulating foam might have torn off the external fuel tank during the launch and collided with the vehicle’s left wing, experts seeing this comment might have been alerted to the possible threat to a safe re-entry, and perhaps prevented the disaster.
Tufte is right, the slide in question was virtually incomprehensible. However, Tufte blames PowerPoint, and concludes that PowerPoint is bad. The conclusion is questionable, because Tufte forgets that the mistake was in the experts’ conclusion. Why, in fact, was this point buried in small letters at the bottom of the slide? It was presented like that because the experts had examined the point and concluded that it was insignificant. They did tests and decided that it was unlikely that the shuttle had sustained significant damage. And they used PowerPoint to report their results. Consequently, they highlighted the information that they deemed important, and minimized the bits that they considered unimportant. It is the conclusions that were faulty, not the slide, nor PowerPoint.
So then, are PowerPoint and Keynote bad?
PowerPoint and Keynote are just instruments: like musical instruments, their precision, effectiveness and impact depend on how they are used. PowerPoint simply reflects our reasoning and enhances its impact. At worst, the poor use of PowerPoint only reduces its impact, but cannot be blamed for the content’s relevance or lack of it.
This is particularly true when using PowerPoint in sales: The problem lies in the pertinence of the argument, the sales technique and how the tool is used, not the tool itself. There were bad sales meetings well before PowerPoint. There were bullet points, too: think back to when sales reps made their slides on transparencies presented with overhead projectors, or used flipcharts.
The Point of PowerPoint and Keynote
When it comes to selling and influencing, supporting oral communication with visual communications is crucial. I am talking about influencing in the sense of “good for the sales rep” and “good for the client”, not manipulation. When the time comes to influence, the sales rep is addressing clients who are both auditory AND visual, and often more visual than auditory: ignoring one of the basic senses cannot help but deprive the sales rep of a measure of influence.
Human beings have a left brain that deals with logic and reason, and a right brain that processes emotion, as John Sweller describes in his cognitive load theory. Words can never match the power of breathtaking visuals and videos to create emotional impact. It is therefore essential for any sales rep to master PowerPoint or Keynote.
The Conditions for PowerPoint and Keynote Effectiveness
However, sales reps who use PowerPoint to create effective sales presentations must use three very different tools:
1. Breathtaking PowerPoint or Keynote slides that illustrate the verbal presentation and amplify its emotional impact. They should add to the sales argument, not act as distraction or decoration.
2. Personal notes, which are seen only by the sales rep and used as a reminder for key points or maybe a “one-liner”, and which work better when prepared and rehearsed ahead of time: few of us are good enough to come up with brilliant ideas under the stress and pressure of making a sale!
3. The written proposal that the sales rep gives to the client if needed: This document is meant to be read, not projected, so avoid landscape format with text running across the page in large fonts normally seen only in children’s books. This is where the sales rep puts proposal details, references, data and appendices, so that the client can remember the key points of the proposal later, and find the clear, detailed information on which to base a decision.
Do PowerPoint and Keynote kill sales?
No, no more than PowerPoint was to blame for the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.
On the contrary: when used properly, these tools boost a sales rep’s impact.
They can be used to create one or more of the three distinct, very different sales aids: the slide show, and to a lesser degree (Word is better), the personal notes and the written proposal. Do not confuse these. And let’s not hold the tool responsible for a poorly prepared, badly presented sale.
See this news in French : http://presentations-de-vente.com/et-si-la-nasa-avait-pas-utilise-powerpoint-en-2003