A Pie Chart Totals 128%

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A pie chart represents part of a whole, so how can numbers total more than 100%? They can’t. On Twitter, Dorsa Amir identifies additional problems.

The caption is also concerning: “High Support for Legalizing Marijuana.” Do we see evidence to prove this claim?

Discussion:

  • What is the point of the chart?

  • What data would prove the point, and how could the designer have presented data differently?

Charts About Uber and Lyft

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A New York Times article compares Uber and Lyft in four simple charts. As you might expect, Uber leads in bookings and revenue, but it has greater losses and expenses.

The graphics are traditional bar charts, which are horizontal. Although we call vertical graphics bar charts, technically they are column charts. Either way, the charts are easy to read and compare, but can they be improved?

Discussion:

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  • How else can data about the two companies be compared? For example, would side-by-side bar charts work better? Or vertical instead of horizontal bars?

  • Can you think of a way to show all four categories of information in one chart? Would that help understanding or not?

  • What other suggestions would you make to the NYT designer?

Views About Social Media

Is social media influencing over lives positively or negatively? A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that Americans see more problems than benefits to society, although 70% of respondents use social media sites every day.

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Respondents also don’t have high trust in technology companies, rating the federal government as more trustworthy, with Facebook getting particularly low grades. This is tough news for the tech firms considering Gallup’s research on confidence in institutions. Given a list of 15 institutions, including small business, the police, and the military, Americans have consistently rated Congress last.

Discussion:

  • Do these survey results surprise you? Why or why not?

  • The Gallup question is different, asking about “confidence” rather than “trust.” Could the wording make a difference in responses? Why or why not?

  • Evaluate these Wall Street Journal graphics. How well do they convey the information? What could be improved?

Alex Trebek Announces Bad News

Alex Trebek, the longtime host of “Jeopardy!” announced that he has pancreatic cancer. Since 1984, Trebek has been almost synonymous with the TV show, and now his Stage 4 diagnosis is casting doubt on the show’s future.

In a video, Trebek, announced the news with optimism and some humor, referencing his three-year contract. Unfortunately, the prognosis for pancreatic cancer is very poor. The ten-year survival rate is only one percent—the lowest rate of any cancer. Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer in 2011.

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Discussion:

  • Assess Trebek’s video announcement. How does he convey the bad news and display emotional appeal?

  • Did he do the right thing by announcing the news himself? Why or why not? How do the show and network benefit, and what are the downsides?

  • What leadership character dimensions does Trebek demonstrate?

  • Assess the cancer survival rate chart. What principles of business communication does the designer follow, and how could it be improved?

Equifax and Marriott CEOs Testify About Security Breaches

U.S. Senators grilled Equifax and Marriott CEOs about data breaches at the companies in the past two years. Equifax CEO Mark Begor responded to questions following a Senate subcommittee report titled, “How Equifax Neglected Cybersecurity and Suffered a Devastating Data Breach.” The report concludes an investigation of the 2017 breach of 143 million customers’ personal data and accuses the company of not prioritizing security, not following its own patching policies, failing to notify the public in a timely manner, and more.

Begor defended the company and blamed the increasing sophistication of hackers:

“These attacks are no longer just a hacker in the basement attempting to penetrate a company’s security perimeter, but instead are carried out by increasingly sophisticated criminal rings or, even more challenging, well-funded nation-state actors or military arms of nation-states.”

But Senators pointed out that credit company competitors Experian and TransUnion have managed to avoid similar attacks.

The Marriott breach affected 83 million guests of Starwood, which Marriott acquired after the breach took place. Compared to the Equifax situation, Marriott got a pass from senators, such as Tom Carper of Delaware, who said, “The data breach announced by Marriott this past November does not appear to have been caused by the same cultural indifference to cybersecurity the record indicates existed at Equifax. Rather, it looks like Marriott inherited this breach from Starwood.”

Marriott has been consistent in blaming Starwood for the issue, wanting to preserve the brand. In his testimony, CEO Arne Sorenson reinforced the company separation:

“We conducted an assessment on integrating the two systems, although this inquiry was legally and practically limited by the fact that until the merger closed, Starwood remained a direct competitor.”

Here is Sorenson interviewed on CNBC:

Discussion:

  • Watch some of the testimony. How well did each CEO handle the Senators’ questions?

  • Assess Sorenson’s appearance on CNBC. What did he do to try to rebuild the company’s image? What persuasive strategies did he use?

  • Review the subcommittee’s report on the Equifax breach. How is the report organized? How would you describe the writing style and tone? What suggestions would you have for the authors to improve readability?

  • From your perspective, what leadership character dimensions do the CEO illustrate or fail to illustrate?

Measles: Evaluating Evidence

The news about a resurgence of measles raises interesting questions about how we evaluate evidence. About a dozen years ago, a small study alarmed parents and caregivers that the measles vaccine may cause autism. Since then, several large-scale studies have debunked that theory, and the article was retracted.

But the damage was done—and it lingers. A few hold-outs still believe the vaccine may be dangerous, and so they do not have their children vaccinated.

Recently, about 100 measles cases have emerged in the U.S., and once again, the evidence is up for evaluation. How are people convinced? What makes people change their minds?

In his book Factfulness, Hans Rosling offers this advice:

[I]f you are skeptical about the measles vaccination, I ask you to do two things. First, make sure you know what it looks like when a child dies from measles. Most children who catch measles recover, but there is still no cure and even with the best modern medicine, one or two in every thousand will die of it. Second, ask yourself, “What kind of evidence would convince me to change my mind?” If the answer is “no evidence could ever change my mind about vaccination,” then you are putting yourself outside evidence-based rationality, outside the very critical thinking that first brought you to this point. In that case, to be consistent in your skepticism about science, next time you have an operation, please ask your surgeon not to bother washing her hands.

Along these lines, a Medium article, The Falsification Mindset, suggests ways for us to change our opinions. The author encourages us to consider what evidence we would need in order to change our minds. This process is particularly useful because we more typically look for reasons to continue believing what we believe—confirmation bias.

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Discussion:

  • What examples can you identify of when you have experienced confirmation bias. In retrospect, could you have avoided the bias to make a better decision or to have a more accurate view?

  • What’s your view of the measles vaccination? How did you form this opinion? How has it changed over time?

  • Identify a belief. What evidence would you need to think differently?

  • How is humility relevant to this situation?

McKinsey PPT Slide Causes Problems

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Back in 2006, Boeing hired management consultancy McKinsey to help the company launch its 787 Dreamliner despite rising titanium prices. According to a New York Times article, McKinsey evaluated a proposal for Boeing “to mine titanium in India through a foreign partnership financed by an influential Ukrainian oligarch.”

On a PowerPoint slide, the consultancy suggested that Boeing “respect traditional bureaucratic process including use of bribes.” Included on the slide were names of eight “key Indian officials.” As the article notes, “Nowhere in the slide did McKinsey advise that such a scheme would be illegal or unwise.”

McKinsey admitted authoring the report only after learning that the Times had a copy. Details are fuzzy, and McKinsey isn’t offering more explanation.

Discussion:

  • What’s your view of McKinsey’s responsibility in this situation? Do you believe they encouraged illegal activity, were just doing the job of management consultant firm and considering cultural realities, or something else?

  • The PPT slide seems to have implicated McKinsey. Should the consultants have been more careful about what was documented? Why or why not?

  • What character issues may be at play in this situation?

  • The NYT author wrote, “Nowhere in the slide…” I would say, “Nowhere on the slide…” Which is correct—or are both acceptable?

Lettuce Recall Data

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An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal highlights the value data for decision making. With the article title, “Lettuce Try Not to Panic,” Jim Prevor criticizes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) edict that “U.S. consumers not eat any romaine lettuce, and retailers and restaurants not serve or sell any”:

There are 43 people known to be infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli 0157:H7. The CDC interviewed 25 of them. Eighty-eight percent of those 25 people, as opposed to 47% of the general population, said they ate romaine lettuce in the week before they got sick.

From population data, the Prevor concludes that you have a 1 in 11 million chance of getting sick from Romain lettuce, and a 1 in 28 million chance of ending up in the hospital. The author makes the odds even more concrete:

If this outbreak were active every day, and you ate one salad a day, on average you would be hospitalized for E. coli once every 77,000 years.

Even these data, Prevor argues, are overstated for most of us. Children, older people, and people with compromised immune systems are far more likely to get sick than the average adult. As a result of the CDC warning, the author estimates “tens of millions of dollars in losses.”

On the CDC website, a “Food Safety Alert” details the investigation results and advice.

Lettuce image source.

Discussion:

  • What’s your view of the CDC’s recommendation: better safe than sorry or overblown?

  • How well does Prevor argue his point? What persuasive strategies does he use? Which are his strongest and weakest arguments? What may be missing from his argument?

  • Help an audience visualize some of the data in Prevor’s article. What charts or graphs would be useful to help consumers make an informed decision?

Good News, Bad News About Student Preparation for Work

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A survey of freshmen and seniors at 500 U.S. colleges shows that students feel positively about their career preparation. The According to the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), 93% of students say what they learned in school is relevant to their future career, and perhaps surprisingly, students with professional majors agree only slightly more than students in arts and sciences programs.

This is good news. But a Chronicle of Higher Education article identifies a disconnect: employers aren’t so confident about graduates’ preparation. Employers want students to immediately apply skills on the job, but faculty may not be teaching specific work-related skills, such as running a meeting or writing memos—two examples from the Chronicle article.

Discussion:

  • Students of business communication certainly know how to write a memo—or more accurately, an email. What other skills should be included in a college curriculum for any major?

  • One argument is that employers are responsible for skills training, while the university teaches critical-thinking skills. What’s your view?

  • What report writing principles does the NSSE follow, and how could it be improved? Particularly analyze the charts and graphs, such as the one shown here.

White House Tweets Doctored Video

There is no love lost, as they say, between President Trump and CNN Correspondent Jim Acosta. Now, Acosta has been suspended from the White House because of what Press Secretary Sarah Sanders described as “a reporter placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern.”

However, Sanders posted a video that Storyful compared to C-SPAN’s, and a different story emerges. In the C-SPAN version, Acosta’s hand inadvertently touches the intern’s arm. The White House version omits three frames, misleading viewers to see more aggressive touching—a “chop.”

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A Wall Street Journal article and a Wired report show the videos frame by frame, side by side.

CNN posted that the news organization stands by Acosta, and Sanders tweeted that the White House stands by its decision.

Discussion:

  • One theory is that the White House obtained the doctored video from InfoWars, a conservative news organization. If this is true, should the White House staff have done a better job vetting the source?

  • Assuming the White House didn’t know the video was edited, what should they do or say now?

  • Analyze the unedited video. What, if any, responsibility does Acosta have for the incident?

  • #MicrophoneMeghan is trending. Who’s responsible for the (probably) unwanted attention?

University of Maryland President Resigns

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Following a report about a student death, University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh will resign. Loh had apologized for the loss of Jordan McNair, a football player who died during rigorous training. A Washington Post article quotes the McNair’s attorney about the apology:

Hassan Murphy, the McNair family’s attorney, said Loh “remains the only person thus far in this process who has accepted moral and legal responsibility and has spoken from his heart about what happened.”

“If the university will not do right by Jordan, we promise to explore every possible avenue that will,” Murphy added.

Since then, an investigation uncovered deep issues with the athletics program and a culture of silence: “problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.” An independent committee presented its findings and recommendations in a 200-page report.

Rick Court, the former strength-and-conditioning coach, was terminated, but the athletics director and football coach will remain in their positions. Despite Loh’s recommendation, the University regents encouraged Loh to allow Coach DJ Durkin to return after his suspension. According to the Post article, Loh was permitted to stay at the university through June 2019 only if Durkin stayed on.

Several senators have questioned the decision and accuse the University of putting “athletics over academics.”

The Post also reports that several players walked out during their first meeting with Coach Durkin.

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Discussion:

  • Did the University regents make the right decision in asking for Loh’s resignation? Why or why not?

  • Did Loh do the right thing by allowing Durkin to return?

  • Analyze the investigation report: audience, organization, content, writing style, and so on. Which business writing principles are followed, and how could the report be improved?

Climate Change Report

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If you weren’t already concerned about climate change, a new UN report may change your thinking. The extraordinary report, written by dozens of scientists from 40 countries who reviewed more than 6,000 studies, reveals a bleak picture for the Earth’s future. The introduction, titled “Chapter 1: Framing and Context” is 61 pages, and the rest of the report is a long, deep dive into the data.

The most significant conclusion is that global warming must be limited quickly. The authors write with great urgency that the Earth’s temperature has already increased and that further increases will create heatwaves, eliminate ice in the Arctic Ocean, melt massive ice sheets, devastate coral reefs, and produce intense storms. Further, global warming will result in more poor people: "Climate change is projected to be a poverty multiplier, which means that its impacts make the poor poorer and increase the total number of people living in poverty.”

The authors suggest limiting the planet's warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-Industrial Revolution temperatures to avoid catastrophic results. They also warn that this requires "rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society."

A New York Times article, “Dire Climate Warning Lands With a Thud on Trump’s Desk,” describes President Trump’s disinterest in the report findings. Similarly, a text search on today’s Wall Street Journal home page finds an article about Exxon but nothing about the UN report.

Discussion:

  • Analyze the report audience, objectives, writing style, and organization. Which business writing principles are followed?

  • What improvements would you make to improve report readability?

  • What are your views about climate change? What evidence leads to your conclusions?

Uber Rebranding

In the past, Uber had been criticized for questionable business practices and ethics, and the company is still trying a turnaround. They hired Dara Khosrowshahi in August 2017 and distanced themselves from founder Travis Kalanick.

Now Uber has a new branding initiative. The marketing campaign, "Doors Are Always Opening,” is credited to 72andSunny, a Los Angeles firm.

A video shows significant events in people’s lives—giving birth, meeting your partner’s parents—and how people rely on Uber.

Paulie Dery, Uber's executive creative director, describes the objectives as follows:

"What we are really saying is opportunity happens everywhere if you are willing to move. You know what happens when you sit still? Nothing. And I think that is a great Uber story. We've always had a certain amount of hustle and belief that movement creates something better for everybody, and that's really at the center of the idea."

The company also has a new logo: simply the company name, which insiders hope will become a verb, like Google.

Discussion:

  • Uber’s previous campaign was called “Moving Forward” to distinguish the company’s controversial past with its future. How well do you think this new campaign will accomplish its objectives?

  • What’s your view of the new logo, simply the company name?

Disneyland Employees Speak Out

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Disney employees are on screen in a New York Times op-ed video, "I Work at the Happiest Place on Earth. Why Can’t I Pay My Rent?" A 30-year concierge and a cosmetologist are featured more prominently. One is currently living in her car, and another says, tearfully, that she has spent time in her car. Both say they love their jobs, but along with 75% of Disneyland employees, they can't afford to pay "basic expenses every month." Data comes from a questionnaire and report, "Working for the Mouse."

The argument is for Disney to pay a living wage, and the call is for citizens to vote for an Anaheim proposal that affects Disneyland employees and some local hotel workers. In the video, one claim is that real wages have declined because of inflation—what $15 per hour bought seven years ago isn't the same today.

Business leaders who are fighting the measure say that the increase would hurt jobs. One local Chamber of Commerce member argued, "We estimate 3-4,000 jobs lost over next year or two by companies having to absorb this new increased cost. They're going to reduce hours and reduce jobs."

Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is also featured in the video. He is proposing a bill he calls "Stop BEZOS" to tax Amazon and other large companies for public assistance received by their employees. The idea is for companies with 500 or more employees to pay the government back for support paid to their employees who cannot survive on earned wages.

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Discussion:

  • How well does the video make the case for higher wages? Which are logical and which are emotional appeals? What evidence is presented?
  • Assess the credibility of the questionnaire and report, "Working for the Mouse." From your assessment, what makes the report both credible and questionable? In what ways does the report reflect business communication standards, and in what ways does it fall short?
  • Research the impact of raising wages on industry, for example, this Cornell report. What's your view of this argument? It's a complicated question because of different industries, locations, labor supply, rates, etc.
  • In what ways do the employees featured in the video demonstrate courage? What risks did they take in appearing on screen?

SodaStream Acquisition Communications

Pepsi will acquire SodaStream, which makes sense given declining sales of sugary drinks and bottled water, and increasing sales of sparkling water.

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As we might expect, the press release focuses on Pepsi's "growing water portfolio" and its goal of "reducing the amount of waste generated." Incoming CEO and President Ramon Laguarta emphasized the strategic match between the two companies:

"SodaStream is highly complementary and incremental to our business, adding to our growing water portfolio, while catalyzing our ability to offer personalized in-home beverage solutions around the world. From breakthrough innovations like Drinkfinity to beverage dispensing technologies like Spire for foodservice and Aquafina water stations for workplaces and colleges, PepsiCo is finding new ways to reach consumers beyond the bottle, and today's announcement is fully in line with that strategy."

A Wall Street Journal article included a clear, simple column chart showing the dramatic increase in seltzer water.

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Discussion:

  • What is not said in the press release? What, if anything else, should be included?
  • Pepsi's former CEO was Indra Nooyi, one of the few women running Fortune 500 companies, just announced her departure after 12 years. How, if at all, do you think the acquisition timing is relevant?
  • What visual design principles are illustrated in the column chart?

 

The Debate Over Quarterly Reporting

President Trump is asking the SEC to no longer require report quarterly earnings. Instead, companies would report results every six months.

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This may be good news for those who believe that publishing frequent earnings reports encourage a short-term focus. The idea is that investors make rash decisions based on the results from only three months.

One downside of the change could be less transparency. The value of quarterly reports is that investors are more aware of what's happening. In addition, the process itself may be useful internally, as a former investment banker explains:

"What I see from the inside of the quarterly earnings cycle is that there’s actually a lot of discipline in it. That process of having to prepare it, release it, explain it and answer questions has real value.”

Also, not everyone agrees that eliminating the report will foster longer-term thinking. As a compromise, some are proposing that reports are still published, but that specific earnings-per-share guidance information isn't included.

Discussion:

  • Describe the  importance of transparency in financial reporting. How does this relate to accountability?
  • What's your view of the proposal to eliminate quarterly reports? Do you see additional benefits or downsides than what is mentioned here?
  • In his tweet, President Trump refers to making "business (jobs) even better." How do you see this as a result of his proposal?

Fun Funeral Ads?

Death is inevitable, and we don't like to talk about it. A UK company is trying to change that with "edgy" ads, for example, people running on a beach carrying coffins as surfboards.

The ads are causing a stir. Transport for London, which regulates the city's ads, rejected them as  potentially causing “serious and widespread offense," although officials hadn't actually seen the ads. Still, on social media, people referred to the ads as "shocking,” “vile,” “insensitive,” and “tasteless.”

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The ads compare burial and cremation prices, and one offers "one-way" travel with "roasting temperatures." The ad company founder defended the approach:

“Our reluctance to talk about death is the reason funeral costs continue to spiral and why you pay far too much for writing a will or settling an estate. That’s what we seek to change.”

Discussion:

  • Why do we have a difficult time talking about death?
  • How would you describe the ads and the agency's strategy?
  • Could the ad strategy bring about a positive change? Will the ads bring in business?
  • What if these ads ran in the U.S.? How, if at all, do you think the response might differ?

CEO Activism

Weber Shandwick's third annual report explores CEO activism, which Brian Moynihan, CEO Bank of America, defines and supports:

“Our jobs as CEOs now include driving what we think is right. It’s not exactly political activism, but it is action on issues beyond business.”

The report found that almost half of Americans "believe CEO activism influences the decisions and actions of government," and almost half of consumers "would be more likely to buy from a company led by a CEO who speaks out on an issue they agree with." Millennials, particularly, prefer CEOs to speak out on issues, and CEOs with more social media accounts have better stock performance for their company.

A Wall Journal Street writer observes that leaders rarely make a business case for issues, even if their company would benefit. Instead, they are speaking to consumers directly to change hearts and minds.

Top issues for CEOs include training, equal pay and sexual harassment, and CEOs are avoiding gun control, nationalism, marijuana legalization, and abortion."

A Forbes article offers this advice for CEOs:

  • Develop an authentic voice and quick actions
  • Connect your customers with your activism efforts
  • Align activism efforts with a company’s mission  
  • Be willing to act against your own self-interest

Discussion:

  • What are the risks and rewards of activism to a CEO and to the company? How does integrity factor in?
  • What examples have you seen of CEOs speaking out? How do you assess the situations? How did you feel about the gestures?
  • Read the Weber PPT deck. What principles of business report writing are followed, and what could be improved?

Women Run "As Themselves"

After years of female politicians running for office in the pantsuit uniform, we're seeing newcomers present themselves more authentically. Women on the campaign trail are wearing skinny jeans and sweaters and talk openly about their children, mental illness, and credit card debt. A New York Times article describes their approach as "vulnerability that campaign consultants have long told women to avoid."

A 29-year-old Democratic candidate for Congress says the race is "so dang personal to me," and "It's personal" is a tagline for her commercials. Other examples are showing tattoos, wearing natural hair styles, and discussing a divorce.

A 2017 study, "Modern Family: How Women Candidates Can Talk About Politics, Parenting, and Their Personal Lives," confirms the approach. Comparing tested images, the study authors conclude, "Images [should] work strike the right balance of authenticity, formality, and the interaction between the candidate and the child." According to the findings, the image on the left side "works" but the image on the right doesn't: "Images that don’t work fail because they look too staged, are too casual, and either center the child too much, or seem like the candidate is ignoring the child."

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Cover image source.

Discussion:

  • How might this approach relate to our current political environment and the MeToo Movement?
  • What are the potential downsides for women using this approach on the campaign trail?
  • How does this story related to women leaders in business?
  • Which business writing principles of report writing does the report follow? Analyze the report organization, content, and writing style.

Narrative Alternatives to PPT at Amazon and Google

In his annual letter, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote that he has banned PPT:

"We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of 'study hall.'"

Nancy Duarte describes the value of a narrative or storytelling approach: "storytelling in presentations is a powerful way to grab attention, hold attention, and to change beliefs." She gives examples from our favorite books and movies, which build suspense over time. Stories are also a good way to inspire empathy and other emotional reactions. This is difficult to achieve with traditional PowerPoint bullets.

A Harvard Business Review article, "Structure Your Presentation Like a Story," provides more guidance and summarizes the approach with a graphic:

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For Bezos, the narrative style means that points are connected and organized in a logical sequence with some resolution, conclusion, or outcome. GeekWire created this six-page memo in Amazon's style as an example.

At Google, CEO Sundar Pichai also emphasizes storytelling with pictures:

"Since stories are best told with pictures, bullet points and text-heavy slides are increasingly avoided at Google." 

Both executives are warning against the type of communication that is overly concise and missing context, connections, and cohesiveness. A ZDNet article summarizes some of the issues with PowerPoint and describes the now-infamous role of PPT in a U.S. disaster:

"'[B]ulletized' thinking contributed to the Challenger disaster, where 7 crew members died and a multi-billion dollar craft destroyed due to an O-ring failure. The big problem was that NASA management wasn't really listening to the engineersand breaking issues up into bullets helped them do that."

Pichai's design approach aligns with PPT trends over the past few years. We're seeing much less text, fewer bullets, and more images, and this style follows the evolution of web design. On websites, we see many more background videos and photos and not much text, particularly on consumer websites.

Discussion:

  • What are the advantages and downsides to the narrative memo? For what types of situations do you think this approach would work well? For what situations might PPT be a better choice?
  • For practice, try to convert this terrible PPT presentation to one with less text and more meaningful images. Clean up the design, add charts to help your audience visualize data, and of course, correct the grammar.