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How poor Presentation lead to the Columbia Shuttle Disaster.

March 19, 2011

At the moment I am putting together a presentation for a really great presentation skills trainer. One of the points she makes in her training is that most people don’t really present, they just dump data on a slide and hope that the audience are able to decipher it.

As a consequence things can go very wrong, sometimes they can go a little wrong, and sometimes they can go very very wrong. Poor presentation of materials means that important information is not understood and decisions are made in error.

A clear case of this can be seen with the Space Shuttle Columbia. The shuttle took a big “foam hit” on take-off and it was heavily suspected that the shuttle needed to undergo repairs to its heat shield before re-entry. Of course, fixing space shuttles is a rather expensive business what with all that flying new parts up into space and what not, so NASA asked their engineers to advise them on the likelihood that these changes were actually needed going forward.

The very clever fellows in the engineering department put together their findings and put it into a set of powerpoint slides. Below is the slide that has a summary of the most important information. What do you think they were advising?

They were actually advising that repair work should be carried out, or at least explored in greater detail. The NASA chiefs decided after looking at the powerpoint that Columbia was safe, and all would be fine and dandy upon its re-entry into Earths atmosphere. It was safe.

It wasn’t. This is what happened.

Of course everyone decided it was the fault of powerpoint and it’s “Dampening effect on clear thought and expression”. What wasn’t addressed was the blatant inability of the engineers to structure their argument in a correct or persuasive manner. A poor workman blames his digital tools.

This is probably one of the more important/tragic incidents that has given powerpoint its bad name. But in doing so we are just passing the blame to a programme that beams visuals onto a screen. We are the “smart” ones, it’s up to us to take the initiative and figure out how to use out visual aids to our advantage, this requires time and effort… two things that people try to avoid spending at all costs, but is something that we just need to do!


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