Can DOD really defeat PowerPoint?

Military leaders launch an offensive against slideshow presentations, but is it a winnable war?

IF TORQUEMADA HAD A LAPTOP. The Defense Department has declared war on PowerPoint. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who heads U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told the New York Times, “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.”

To prove his point, McChrystal’s been displaying an indecipherable slide of the United States’ military strategy. “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” he’s said.

Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, Joint Forces commander, put it more succinctly: “PowerPoint makes us stupid.”

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In defense of PowerPoint

Kudos to military leaders for fighting the good fight, but is this a winnable war? It’s not as if the coma-inducing effects of slideshows haven’t been known for years. Back in January 2000, Peter Norvig created his classic send-up of PowerPoint, putting the Gettysburg Address into a stultifying set of bullet points. A 2003 New Yorker cartoon depicts the devil conferring with one of his minions: “I need someone well-versed in the art of torture — do you know PowerPoint?” A few years ago, a military forum posted “The Ballad of the PowerPoint Ranger,” a tribute to the downtrodden grunts who spend their time making slides for the brass. Graphic design guru Edward Tufte, now working for the Obama administration, has railed against PowerPoint for years.

And yet slideshows soldier on, as persistent as zombies in a horror movie. A Google search for “PowerPoint torture,” for example, produces plenty of discussion on the pain of sitting through slideshows — and no shortage of torturous PowerPoint presentations on the very subject of torture.

Is there any escape? Or is there still no better way to make your point at a meeting or conference?

Admittedly, PowerPoint has become snappier over the years, adding moving images and interactive capabilities. But it’s still the business equivalent of somebody’s vacation pictures. And military leaders make a valid point about the dangers of oversimplification. Our guess is that, for now, we’re pretty much stuck with it.

Meanwhile, for the sake of posterity, we’d like to create a sort of rogue’s gallery of bad presentations, a museum of slideshow atrocities. If you have a “good” one, include the link in the comments section below. Future generations will thank you.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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Reader Comments

Mon, Sep 20, 2010

I teach power point classes and the one thing I stress is that PP is an extension of your presentation. It is NOT your presentation. It should be clean and highlight the high/valid points of your speech/presentation. I have sat through power point presentations that made me want to just die from the agony and pain the presenter was putting me through. PP's done right are a great TOOL! Done is the death of a presentor.

Tue, Sep 7, 2010 Jeremy MD

Look at the way Steve Jobs does his Keynote speeches. His slides are usually white background with one or two words on the screen...very large. If not he will have a simple picture. He uses it the way it should be used, as an extension of his speech. He doesn't use it as the speech itself. How much time would be saved if your slide deck took you 5 min to prepare instead of 5 hours.

Wed, Sep 1, 2010 Liz MD

The problem with Power Point (and other automation tools) is that it makes it so much easier to put together a bad presentation (report, estimate, etc.). Years ago, when slides had to be typed or prepared individually by a graphic artist, then converted to vu-graphs, there was a lot more emphasis on getting the message right before the photo department got it for conversion. Now, anyone can slap together a presentation in minutes and the scrubbing process is, at times, non-existent. We forget that the software is only a tool. Just as Excel doesn't generate a cost estimate without a lot of valid input and logical formulas, Power Point doesn't generate a worthwile presentation without someone developing a logical story line and an appropriate level of explanation and supporting information.

Mon, May 24, 2010

Tufte is on to something - I read his work "The Cognitive Style of Power Point" last year, and found his reasoning compelling. Only afterwards did I realise that I have been guilty of every PPT sin he enumerated.

Thu, May 20, 2010 TVR San Antonio

I have to agree that it is not the PowerPoint that is the problem. Before that it was Overhead Projectors with slides, 35mm slide shows, flip carts...the list goes on. One of the Greatest problems with PowerPoint is the overuse of graphics and distracting backgrounds. Just as with any presentation, know your audience, make the message applicable, know your topic, and stay on point.

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