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We all knew what was coming. Lockdown had been leaked, we just wanted the details. Like millions of other Britons, I tuned in to Saturday night primetime TV on October 31st to watch Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance stalk into the Downing Street briefing room, in a socially distanced single-file fashion. You could aptly describe the next twelve minutes or so as ‘death by PowerPoint’, as a succession of data-packed slides revealed the grim truth about the present and Britain’s probable future without some kind of intervention.

The presentation was subsequently criticised by the Office for Statistics Regulation for its lack of sources. According to the OSR, “the data and assumptions for this model had not been shared transparently”. Key features of many of the models presented in the news conference were not published on the government website, making it impossible to see how they were created. This made it hard to spot errors, such as the mistake in a chart suggesting the second wave of the pandemic could see a death rate far higher than the first. The government had claimed the death rate could reach 1,500 deaths every day by December, six days later it emerged this had been quietly revised down to 1,010, in line with the first wave peak.

Accurate or not, the clarity of the presentation left a lot to be desired. Did anyone understand what Whitty and Vallance were on about?

Here are some thoughts on the Halloween data-fest and how it might have been improved, based on tips we teach on our Presentation Skills and Business Writing courses.

1. Check that the technology is working

Saturday’s slides looked a bit wonky. They didn’t quite fit on my TV screen properly, and the resolution was rather odd. I was taken back (nostalgia-free) to my first days with Working Voices, using a ‘British made’ laptop bought in a misplaced fit of patriotism that continually malfunctioned and refused to display my slides properly. They should have done a technical rehearsal.

2. Show up on time

The Rolling Stones once turned up on stage a bum-numbing SIX HOURS after their promised time slot. Johnson & Co were a mere two hours late, but failing to manage time (either by starting late or overrunning) isn’t going to make you many friends.

3. Start with why

At the top, the Prime Minister made a few apologetic remarks about wrecking everyone’s Saturday night, before handing over to his experts to deliver the bad news. The data was thus thrust on the nation without introduction or explanation. Sure, everyone probably knew what was coming next, but if you must grind through 16 PowerPoint slides in 12 minutes, it would be helpful to let people know WHY you’re putting them through it.

Mr Johnson could perhaps have started by saying ‘Tonight, we’re here to announce that new lockdown restrictions will be put in place across England from Thursday morning. Before I go into more detail, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance will explain the scientific analysis behind the government’s decision’.

4. Use headlines

Have a look at the two slides below, which kicked off the presentation.

They look rather similar to one another, don’t they? And it’s not immediately obvious what the slides are attempting to illustrate. Both Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick’s presentations have been posted online, so the Government is clearly under the impression that the data speaks for itself. And it might do, if you’re prepared to spend a lot of quality time with these slides. What Whitty appears to have assumed – based on his comments introducing these slides – is that because people might have seen them before at previous televised briefings, they will understand what they mean. That’s a mistake. It’s wrong to assume too little knowledge in your audience, but equally unwise – as is the case here, I think – to assume too much.

What can help readers and listeners understand what you’re talking about – and signal your aim – is to think about crafting your headlines: behaving more like a newspaper leader writer when you’re trying to work out what to call your slide. Good headlines signal intent; they also tell us what we’re meant to get from the slide.

Professor Whitty’s message was intended to be informative, but also persuasive: to make us realise that Johnson’s lockdown announcement was the only possible course of action, because Covid is spreading and increasing across the country, especially amongst the over 60s, who will most likely end up in hospital and put a strain on the NHS.

His slide headings do little more than point to the kind of information that might feature on the slide. There’s no hint at what they actually say. So have a look at the slides with slightly revised headlines:

5. Make sure your slides aren’t too busy

At one memorable point Sir Patrick paused to gather himself and apologised for the quality of the slide below, describing it as ‘complicated’ and ‘from the NHS’ (i.e. not my fault).

Many of our clients have been in a similar position, delivering over-detailed slides they haven’t written themselves, and – as was the case here – trying to get a coherent message across using material supplied by different people with very different perspectives. The danger is that you may lose sight of the most important people – your audience – in the process. And the audience in this case had turned on waiting to watch spangled celebrities doing the cha-cha-cha in ‘Strictly Come Dancing’.

So how could you make that slide better? Well, I’d start by breaking it into two: there’s simply too much information on it. I’d also label the graphs more legibly, so that you could see at a glimpse what they’re trying to say; I’d make the accompanying text bigger (or cut it out); and I’d use fewer acronyms too (SPI-M, in case you were wondering, is the Scientific Pandemic Influenza group on Modelling).

It’s a presentation that bears all the signs of haste and a general lack of readiness: rumour has it that they planned to make the announcements on Monday 2nd November, but had to go earlier, because the lockdown plans had been leaked. With a little more time, thought and rehearsal, it could have been a lot more effective. That’s a message we’ve given to our clients for many years, to good effect, so it’s all the more shocking to see the same old mistakes being made, at such a critical moment.

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