PowerPoint® Presentations: What Are They Saying?

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Recently I’ve seen some interesting discussions of PowerPoint presentations, most notably a discussion on the use of PowerPoint for military briefings.  Here’s some of the scuttlebutt (as reported recently by the New York Times).

General Stanley McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint diagram meant to portray the complexity of the war. His remark?  “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”

Since he voiced his concern, this slide has become a symbol of how PowerPoint use in the military is (to some) “out of control.”

For instance, The Times reports that General James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, remarked at a recent military conference – presumably without the help of any PowerPoint slides — that “PowerPoint makes us stupid.”  And, we’re now told that Brig. Gen H.R. McMaster banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005 because “It’s dangerous…[PowerPoint] can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control…some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

(See also Seth Godin’s blog today on “PowerPoint makes us stupid.”)

In General McMaster’s view, the Afghan War slide is not the problem, it’s the more pervasive, rigid lists of bullet points that take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces.  In other words, it’s the dummying down of the information.  It’s also, as some other military commanders say, the way a PowerPoint presentation itself (without the presenter) can be used as the total explanation of the subject at hand, and when presented by a person how it can stifle discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision making.

I found all of this interesting because I have mixed feelings about PowerPoint presentations.  We produce them for our clients and on the whole they are good: there isn’t too much verbiage on the slides and there aren’t a lot of bad/hard to discern images.  I can certainly understand what the presenter is attempting to convey, but I certainly don’t want someone to say to me, “Now take this PowerPoint presentation and develop a White Paper for me.”   Because without extensive speakers’ notes and some additional conversations with the author – and perhaps some research – there is no way that is possible. 

Which does make you wonder about those PowerPoint presentations that Defense Secretary Robert Gates receives each day and the PowerPoint briefings that Richard Holbrooke (our special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan) receives when he visits those countries and “talks” to the military, doesn’t it?

I mean, the PowerPoint presentations that we deliver are not that complex, but then we’re not talking about the troop strength in Iraq, delicate negotiations in some Afghan province, etc.  Does make you wonder…       

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