Hail of Bullets: PowerPoint and the Military

Think that the mindless use of PowerPoint is just a problem in corporate workplaces?  Sure, there are a lot of bad presentations out there and they waste a lot of time.  But they’re hardly a matter of life and death or national security, right?

Well think again.  Check out this quote:

“The best way to paralyze an opposition army is to ship it PowerPoint.”

Who would say such a ridiculous thing?  You’d think that they must really have it in for PowerPoint, wouldn’t you?

But this is actually a quote that Robert Gaskins and Dennis Austin, the inventors of PowerPoint, gave to the Wall Street Journal.  Gaskins feels strongly that PowerPoint is simply overused, that people spend too much time messing around with things like fonts and the look of their slides rather than spending the time developing their ideas.  As he conceived it, PowerPoint slides were meant to act as quick visual summaries of  bigger ideas and documents.  But now, he complains, “a lot of people in business have given up writing the documents. They just write the presentations, which are summaries without the detail, without the backup. A lot of people don’t like the intellectual rigor of actually doing the work.”

But surely Gaskins and Austin are just using the military as a metaphor, right?  There’s no way that our armed forces could get bogged down in a PowerPoint quagmire, is there?  According to several recent articles about the debate over the use of PowerPoint in the military, it’s a real threat.  A couple of years ago there was a story about the army investigating why there was so much traffic clogging up its computer networks.  Their first guess was that they were having the same problems that many corporate networks experience— too many people downloading videos, MP3s and other media for their personal use.  But what their analysis found surprised them; a huge amount of their bandwidth was being consumed by the transfer of PowerPoint files.

Then there was We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint in the New York Times, accompanied by the following slide– which was meant to illustrate the situation faced by the forces in Afghanistan but has come to represent the limitations of PowerPoint:

The meaning of this slide is perfectly clear, right?

When General Stanley McChrystal, who was in charge of our forces in Afghanistan, was shown this slide he joked “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”  The main thing most people get from looking at it is how incomprehensible it is.  Did someone really create this slide intending to put it on a screen and have people read it?  That it could represent the complicated relationships between all of the various groups in Afghanistan? How could they?

Admittedly, it’s an extreme example, but it is a great visual representation of the overwhelming complexity of so many of the slides that people put together without really thinking about whether they can possibly be effective.  We’ve seen people use slides that were almost as complicated.  Network engineers are inordinately fond of diagramming things down to the tiniest detail, even when they’re presenting to an audience of laymen who have no chance of understanding what they’re being shown.

Some of the other Generals quoted by the Times are more blunt than McChrystal.  “PowerPoint makes us stupid,”  according to Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis.  Another explains  “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.  Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Besides the dangers created by reducing complex issues to simple bullet points, one of the most frequently mentioned issues with PowerPoint in the military is how much time is being taken up by the need to create slides for every presentation and briefing.  One officer makes his job sound like an endless process of created slides:

Last year when a military Web site, Company Command, asked an Army platoon leader in Iraq, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, how he spent most of his time, he responded, “Making PowerPoint slides.” When pressed, he said he was serious.  “I have to make a storyboard complete with digital pictures, diagrams and text summaries on just about anything that happens,” Lieutenant Nuxoll told the Web site. “Conduct a key leader engagement? Make a storyboard. Award a microgrant? Make a storyboard.”

It’s a problem that hasn’t escaped the attention of the military’s top leaders.  In what he has said is his final address to cadets at West Point, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointed to this as one of the major issues that the military is going to be forced to deal with in the future.  Although the recent conflicts fought by the army has given junior officers outstanding experience and skills, it may be hard to retain them when they find themselves doing office work:

“Men and women in the prime of their professional lives, who may have been responsible for the lives of scores or hundreds of troops, or millions of dollars in assistance, or engaging or reconciling warring tribes, may find themselves in a cube all day re-formatting PowerPoint slides, preparing quarterly training briefs, or assigned an ever-expanding array of clerical duties,” Mr. Gates said. “The consequences of this terrify me.”

Obviously, this problem isn’t unique to the military. Does it sound like your workplace?

Every day over-reliance on slides renders millions of presentations dull or incomprehensible and leaves people feeling like they’re doing busywork rather than something that’s actually interesting or helpful.  People in all kinds of jobs put together PowerPoint slides out of habit, whether that’s what they really need or not, because they think it’s what’s expected of them.  They think of slides as a mandatory part of any presentation, or they simply emulate what they see everyone else doing (peer pressure doesn’t end in high school).  They feel like it shows people, especially their bosses, that they’ve produced something.  Conference, companies and professional organizations expect you to have slides for all of your talks;  so that’s what we do by default.

The military isn’t the only place where the impulse to create PowerPoint slides is leading to ineffective presentations and stifled careers. Creating all of these slides comes at the expense of doing work that is thoughtful and useful.

Next time you’re thinking about doing a presentation, try to ask yourself what you could do differently than what’s expected of presentations in your environment.  What can you do that would really grab an audience’s attention?  What would make it more interesting for you?

Here’s a hint:  just about anything will be better than bullet points on slides.

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One thought on “Hail of Bullets: PowerPoint and the Military

  1. Pingback: How PowerPoint Is Ruining Teaching: Learning Bad Habits Young | BulletProof Presentations

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