If you have bad news to convey in your presentation, don’t bury it.

In his essay The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, Edward Tufte analyzed the slides used by NASA to assess the danger to the Columbia shuttle upon reentry after debris damaged its wing during takeoff. Tufte writes that the slides gave “mixed readings” of the threat.

“The lower-level bullets often mentioned doubts and uncertainties,” he writes, “but the highlighted executive summaries and big-bullet conclusions were quite optimistic.”

As you might already know, this obscurity led NASA to not advise the Columbia crew to repair the damage, and the shuttle disintegrated upon re-entry, killing all crew members on board.

In his comments, Tufte is speaking to an important principle of being responsible with hierarchy in PowerPoint: Don’t bury the most important information in indented statements and bullet points. And don’t mislead with a vague header or summary statement that doesn’t reflect the facts. If people were dying from GM car malfunctions, that belonged in the headline or at least the top-level bullet point—not in a “back-up slide.”

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