Speech students, pay attention: some big guns in the U.S. military hold PowerPoint in about the same esteem they hold al-Qaeda:

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable” [Elisabeth Bumiller, “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint,” New York Times, 2010.04.26]

Ironic that it takes soldiers to tell us that bullet points aren’t the best way to explain a complicated problem.

PowerPoint presentations are apparently pretty common in the field, the Pentagon, and even the White House. They aren’t all bad: General David Petraeus tells Bumiller the program has its advantages, like sharing maps and statistics. But slides with bullet points too often produce sloppy thinking:

Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs [Bumiller, 2010].

Read more officer thinking on PowerPoint:

“Before PowerPoint, staffs prepared succinct two- or three-page summaries of key issues. The decision-maker would read a paper, have time to think it over and then convene a meeting with either the full staff or just the experts involved to discuss the key points of the paper. Of course, the staff involved in the discussion would also have read the paper and had time to prepare to discuss the issues. In contrast, today, a decision-maker sits through a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation followed by five minutes of discussion and then is expected to make a decision. Compounding the problem, often his staff will have received only a five-minute briefing from the action officer on the way to the presentation and thus will not be well-prepared to discuss the issues. This entire process clearly has a toxic effect on staff work and decision-making” [Thomas X. Hammes, “Dumb-Dumb Bullets,” Armed Forces Journal, 2009].

Thomas Ricks, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of two books on the Iraq War, notes that the use of PowerPoint slides instead of written text permeated the US military during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Ricks noted in his book Fiasco, that General Tommy Franks’ reliance on passing PowerPoint slides to his subordinates in order to plan the initial stages of the war, instead of explicit, written orders, caused much frustration among senior military officers. Ricks notes that military leaders such as General Robert McKiernan were often baffled as to how to interpret the slides. Ricks also interviewed Dr. Andrew Bacevich, who felt that substituting PowerPoint slides for formal, written orders was “the height of recklessness” [Crispin Burke (a.k.a. Starbuck), “The TX Hammes PowerPoint Challenge,” Small Wars Journal, 2009.07.24]

[but see also Burke’s praise for PowerPoint done right in Capt. Travis patriquin’s game-changing 18-slide presentation on the 2007 surge in Iraq]: The 18-slide presentation—looking for all the world like something out of a Jack Handey sketch—was distributed among a number of senior officers. Despite the near-Hollywood production values which go into many PowerPoint presentations, it was this presentation which caught the attention of senior officers. The ideas presented by Captain Pataquin helped to change the course of the Iraq War. The format and look of Patriquin’s message wasn’t what counted—it was what he said. For all the satire and adolescent humor contained in his presentation, it presented a much clearer message about The Surge of 2007 than nearly any other document.

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