Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Did Libby's PowerPoint help convict him?

Guilty on four out of five counts: Now that the Libby verdict is in, people far more knowledgeable about the case than I -- including the entire amazing team at Firedoglake -- will be analyzing why the jury decided as it did. Clearly, many factors helped pave Libby's path to prison, but ever since the closing arguments I've been curious about the role PowerPoint might play, because of a passing observation posted by Pachacutec at Firedoglake.

As noted in an earlier post of mine, PowerPoint didn't do much for CentCom in planning the Iraq war. Perhaps it's poetic justice, given the role Scooter Libby played in the war as Dick Cheney's top aide, that PowerPoint apparently didn't do much for Libby's defense in the courtroom either, in contrast to the prosecution's effective use of this often abused tool -- as Pachacutec parenthetically pointed out in his post.
Side note: the government's argument was much better supported by its visuals, especially the recurring wheel of spokes and arrows depicting the outing of Valerie Plame, with Libby in the middle. The defense went bullet point crazy, jamming too much content into the visuals, and should have read this before assembling its slides.
Pachacutec's link goes to "Really Bad PowerPoint," a post at Seth Godin's blog. Godin, the author of Small Is the New Big: and 183 Other Riffs, Rants, and Remarkable Business Ideas, has a somewhat different take on PowerPoint than Edward J. Tufte's view referenced in the CentCom post above. Partly it's because they're talking about different applications. Tufte is talking about conveying information in settings like technical conferences. Godin is talking about communicating with emotion, using PowerPoint as a visual aid -- not a bad skill to have at your disposal in a courtroom.
PowerPoint could be the most powerful tool on your computer. But it’s not. Countless innovations fail because their champions use PowerPoint the way Microsoft wants them to, instead of the right way.

Communication is the transfer of emotion.

Communication is about getting others to adopt your point of view, to help them understand why you’re excited (or sad, or optimistic or whatever else you are.) If all you want to do is create a file of facts and figures, then cancel the meeting and send in a report.

Our brains have two sides. The right side is emotional, musical and moody. The left side is focused on dexterity, facts and hard data. When you show up to give a presentation, people want to use both parts of their brain. So they use the right side to judge the way you talk, the way you dress and your body language. Often, people come to a conclusion about your presentation by the time you’re on the second slide. After that, it’s often too late for your bullet points to do you much good.

You can wreck a communication process with lousy logic or unsupported facts, but you can’t complete it without emotion. Logic is not enough.
People rely on stories to enliven factual information with resonance and meaning. Packaging too much data as bullet points may confuse your audience. It may also convince them that you are trying to hide behind data, or that you are trying to manipulate them with bullet points because your story doesn't make any sense. Which, come to think of it, was probably true in Libby's case.


Nadine said...

Interesting post, but those of us who love links (as well as bratwurst) would appreciate it if you'd fix the broken link on the word "this" in the quote from Pachacutec. And speaking of bratwurst, the countdown to the World's Largest Brat Fest -- held annually in Madison -- is under way even now. It's scheduled to begin approximately 76 days and 17 hours from the time I finish posting this comment.

Madison Guy said...

Nadine, thanks for the punning tip -- it's fixed now, even if everyone has run off to the Brat Fest site by now.