Sunday, June 21, 2009

Treating Wounds from PowerPoint Bullets

Or "how to retain your critical thinking skills while being PowerPointed to death".

I recently wrote about PowerPoint Engineering from the perspective of improving technical communications towards decision makers. What about when you are on the receiving end of a volley of PP bullets?

Tufte has a nice critical write-up with "methods for how not to get fooled" while enduring a presentation. The gist (in "bullet" form of course):

  • Be skeptical of analytical claims of "conservatism", these are often rhetorical tricks which hide a lack of quantitative rigor: "we're so uncertain we can't put a number on it, so we were conservative"
  • Close reading pays, beware of contradictory sub-sub-bullets tucked in under vague "big" bullets or headings
  • Be skeptical of claims of "significance" without supporting quantitative statistical analysis, another rhetorical slight of hand
  • Be aware of the scope of an analysis, true statements about a particular case are easily misunderstood to apply generally
  • Disambiguate pronouns, often the importance of the subject (life or death) is hidden by innocuous looking pronouns
  • Be aware of your organization's biases as well as your own (echos of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics)

Of course, in the end it boils down to being an engaged, critical thinker. PowerPoint has been shown to be ill-suited for technical communication, so the information you need is probably not on the slides! To quote from the Tao Te Ching:
We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.

Understanding their omissions is as important as understanding their presentations. In modern, complex systems we often suffer from information and data overload, so there's likely to be lots omitted. Hopefully not the critical few pieces of information, but failure analysis after failure analysis shows it often is.
As analysis becomes more causal, multivariate, comparative, evidence-based, and resolution-intense, the more damaging the bullet list becomes. -- E. Tufte, on bullets

A better list of how to handle the PP barrage than my paraphrase above (emphasis mine):
One's inability to produce the devastating comeback live during the course of discussion-- l'esprit de l'escalier--is why it is helpful, in deciding serious matters (1) to have the material under discussion distributed in advance, (2) to rehearse the possible exchange in advance, (3) to take a time-out, leave the meeting, escape the groupthink and bullying, go for a long walk down the hall (or up the stairs in the French version of after-the-fact-wit), and ask yourself "What would Richard Feynman do?"-- E. Tufte, on analytical reasoning

Beware technocrats bearing bullet points.

NASA keeps coming up in these sorts of discussions, not because they are particularly bad, but because they are a large, technical organization that is public. They don't hide behind the veil of secrecy (proprietary or classified). A recent discussion on Slashdot highlights some interesting stuff. One being that someone who by all rights should be technically competent can behave like a foolish bureaucrat when addled by the wrong sort of system.

No comments:

Post a Comment