In pictures and in words

While other presentation software solutions are available, Microsoft’s PowerPoint has been the medium of choice for executives across the last twenty-ish years. It’s not surprising, then, that the merits and drawbacks of using computer-generated “slides” (to use the old-school term) as a way of communicating information are pinned on PowerPoint’s back.

Everyone who has ever experienced a less-than-riveting presentation will therefore be familiar with the phrase “death by PowerPoint”, as the speaker tries in vain to merge the themes they are attempting to convey with the blizzard of bullet points that are emerging on the screen.  Every word that made sense when building the slide deck suddenly blend into a meaningless morass of text – as confusing for the presenter as much as their audience.

The failure of this way of communicating to convey what’s key – let alone to prompt appropriate action – takes on a whole new dimension when the case of the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle is considered.  The shuttle, which was returning to earth in February 2003, disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana.  The disaster was attributed to the loss of foam insulation from Columbia’s external tank as it took off from the launch pad.  The foam hit Columbia’s left wing, and the resulting damage enabled hot gasses to penetrate the wing on re-entry, causing the rapid and catastrophic disintegration of the craft.

Well before the fateful re-entry date, NASA’s engineers overseeing the technical aspects of the Columbia mission suspected that the damage – of a similar nature to that which had occurred without incident in previous missions – was of a scale that could trigger disintegration.

Their pursuit of options to assist the shuttle crew, either to mend the damage, or to despatch a rescue, was limited by their decision to communicate the scale of their concern to management using complex, multi-pointed, jargon heavy PowerPoint slides.  In particular, their failure to highlight a scale of risk 640 times greater than tests had modelled contributed to the eventual decision by NASA management to ‘do nothing’.

While there remains a view that repair or rescue options were not viable, and that therefore Columbia’s crew was doomed from the moment the launch damage occurred, it’s still a sobering thought that an audience missed the real detail in such an important presentation because they could not decipher what was presented in front of them.

The reality is, of course, that it’s often much harder than it would first seem to make sure that what we want to convey is being understood and acted on in the way we want it to, and that’s as true in managing car parks as it is in any other walk of life.

There are plenty of examples where being concise and precise really helps.  Many Australian motorists will be familiar with road signs that say “Slow Down – Kids Don’t Bounce”.  It’s short, sweet, funny and direct at the same time.  Repeating the message with a twist can also be effective; drivers negotiating some of the steeper passes in the English Lake District will have come across signs highlighting a sudden drop in gradient – then being told, a little further down the hill – You Were Warned.

Once you dig more deeply on this kind of stuff, you find out lots more interesting details. Studies show that most people find it more difficult to read and understand INFORMATION WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS TEXT than instructions in lower case text.  It’s also recognised that the adage “a picture is worth a thousands words” is likely to be true, especially when it’s remembered that some people are better at consuming information through images rather than words.  Factor in how the internet has changed the way we consume information, how it has shortened our attention spans, and how it emphasises the value of mixed media, and it means that the parking management industry must be continually aware that the content of signage must be under constant scrutiny.

So that means that we need to check that all car park users see our signs, understand the messages (whether that means reading words, viewing visuals or a combination of the two) and are able to act accordingly.

We need to factor in shorter attention spans and differences in interpretative skills and make sure that how we present language is appropriate for now.

We must also remember that while messages need to convey the key contractual detail – so an appropriate level of “standard information” must be in there – each and every sign is an opportunity to get drivers on our side, and become an extension of the car park provider’s own brand personality.

Here at Smart Parking, we’re currently experimenting with using moving images to highlight the features and benefits of our solutions – check out our video and our ‘nuts’ characters at to see how we’re promoting Pay & Walk.

We’re also thinking about how we can work with clients to ensure that the way in which information is conveyed and understood in the best way possible.  It might not be a matter of life and death, but it’s important that our client’s customers get the message in a way that meets their changing needs, and in a way that adds value to their overall experience.