Don’t Use Presentations for Evil
Presentations should be used as vehicles for good, not evil—they are very powerful tools that can easily persuade. One glance at the hundreds of slides used as evidence in the Enron trial proves that presentations can play an obvious role in the perpetration of lies.
Counts against Jeff Skilling (Chief Executive Officer), Richard Causey (Chief Accounting Officer), and Kenneth Lay (Chairman of the Board) were all attributed to their presentations. Ken Lay was hit with two counts for employee presentations and each of the three was charged with 10 counts for their earnings call presentations. The Federal crime of wire fraud was also charged to Jeff, Ken, and Richard for the transmission of their presentations into various states via phones and web technology. On top of the charges mentioned, Skilling was sentenced to an additional fifty-two months for each of the five counts which he was convicted that involved presentations.
Presentations got these executives into this mess, while the right presentation could have prevented it altogether.
- Scandal started with a presentation: Andrew Fastow, Enron’s Chief Financial Officer was the mastermind of clever accounting that used “special purpose entities” to hide billions of dollars and ultimately line his pockets with over $45 million dollars. According to USA Today, Fastow gave “a slick presentation on the LJM partnerships” (the organization created to hide debt) and the “Enron managers and analysts stared at each other in confusion. It sounded too good to be true.” A slick presentation by a slick villain lured them into this mess.
- Scandal could have been prevented with a presentation: A detailed presentation given by Arthur Anderson’s David Duncan in February 1999 feebly warned the Enron Board of Director’s audit committee of the company’s risky accounting practices. This presentation could have saved Enron. If Duncan had boldly built a slide in capital letters saying “ENRON HAS RISKY PRACTICES THAT NEED INVESTIGATION,” its demise might have been avoided. Instead, Duncan’s notes found on the margin of his dense slide presentation said, “Obviously, we are on board with all of these (risks).”
Enron’s top executives played by their own rules. They made risky bets motivated by greed and ambition. The collapse was inevitable. As masters of the PowerPoint chart, they showed upward projections for sales and profits, encouraging employees to invest while they themselves were frantically removing their own money. Employees who raised questions were mysteriously moved to other departments. Skilling distracted investors by proposing bold strategies for the next big score, like entering the broadband and weather futures markets. (What’s an oil company doing brokering weather anyway?)
They aggressively designed communication that abandoned reason and truth altogether, and used presentations as a propaganda device to spread lies to employees, analysts, and stockholders about Enron’s performance. In the ensuing collapse, the credibility of the board and the executives involved was obliterated, and tens of thousands of employees were financially ruined.
Oral communications have built and toppled kingdoms. Presentations are a powerfully persuasive medium that should be used to build up—not tear down.