Those words form the headline of a Wall Street Journal article from a few years ago that focused on the amount of time and effort put into developing PowerPoint slides for the war in the Middle East, and how that time is relatively poorly expended.
The generals quoted in the article are all critical of PowerPoint, but each deals with the inevitability of PowerPoint in his own way. In their own way, each is implementing aspects of The Audience Manifesto.
“Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reviews printed-out PowerPoint slides at his morning staff meeting, although he insists on getting them the night before so he can read ahead and cut back the briefing time.”
In other words, I can read faster than you can talk. Send me the reading. I’ll do it. Then you’ll answer my questions when we get together. And, by the way, don’t bring additional slides to the briefing.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and says that sitting through some PowerPoint briefings is “just agony,” nonetheless likes the program for the display of maps and statistics showing trends.
If you have a picture of value to show me — one that is truly worth 1,000 words — show it. Otherwise, bring two pieces of paper (instead of 20) and/or learn to use the “B” key on your keyboard (and blank the screen) when the picture’s no longer necessary.
General Mattis, despite his dim view of the program, said a third of his briefings are by PowerPoint.
In other words, there are may brave people in the armed forces. Everyone knows the Boss hates PowerPoint, but a third of those serving under him have the courage to ignore his wishes and use it.
I recently came across an interesting article in the Small Wars Journal, in which military commander Ben Zweibelson expresses his belief that because the “military has become addicted to the benefits of PowerPoint,” decision-makers have become blinded to “the many negative impacts on organizational learning, creativity, and critical thinking” of slide-driven briefings.
There are a number of reasons why Zweibelson believes that PowerPoint negatively impacts decision-making:
- PowerPoint-driven briefings focus on the “What” versus the “Why”
- PowerPoint-driven briefings kill productivity
- PowerPoint-driven briefings emphasize quantity over quality
￼Zweibelson uses a bicycle metaphor to make this point. Imagine that your briefing is focused on the strategic benefits of using bicycles during war. PowerPoint-driven briefings focus on each individual part of the bicycle—the seat, the gears, the wheels, the tires, the spokes, the handlebars. Information is categorized into small, isolated packets.
Because of its linear nature, PowerPoint encourages decision-makers to focus on data, rather than how that data could and should be interrelated, even though interrelationships are critical to effective decision-making.
Ideally, decision-making should focus on why. In other words, the bicycle needs to be assembled and consideration given to where or why (or if) it should be ridden, and could be used strategically in battle. The interrelationships of the various parts should be the primary consideration when people sit down to make decisions.
Instead, Zweibelson writes that PowerPoint presentations are used to standardize briefings into “uniform and repetitive procedures that codify organizational perspective into ‘group think.’ We follow the slides, and conform to the slide requirements. Next slide, please.”
Zweibelson points out that modern military briefings (and indeed the vast majority of presentations to all decision-making groups) consist of densely packed slides. More often than not, the person conducting the briefing reads from the slides while offering little additional information of value.
He recommends that decision-makers ask the presenter to turn off the slide projector as soon as this situation manifests itself. “If the presenter is unable to articulate their thoughts or convey much of anything,” Zweibelson writes, “you might determine that the slideshow is the actual briefer, while the human has become the willing presentation aid.”
We’ve all witnessed the same issue with printed presentation decks.
When everyone gets together, the conversation focuses on the “what” in the deck, not “why” it’s important to the organization. If you want to change this, put the decks away; they should never form the basis for any meeting.
Painstakingly (and painfully!) plodding through decks may very well be the ultimate productivity sin of the 21st century.
Quantity over Quality
In any presentation—whether briefing a group of decision-makers or delivering a keynote to 1,000 or more—there is always more information than time.
The challenge is to apply critical thinking skills to bring precisely the right information to create understanding and facilitate effective decision-making. However, as Zweibelson points out, PowerPoint-driven briefings always attempt to cram “ten pounds of dirt into a five pound bag,” which “does little to improve organizational learning” or facilitate effective decision-making.
Zweibelson makes some interesting recommendations to enhance critical thinking, improve productivity and facilitate decision-making:
- Presenters should be limited to a maximum of three slides, yet the length of the meeting should be maintained. Group discussion will identify critical issues that require attention.
- The projector should be turned off and presentation decks should be put away.
- Other briefing aids should be encouraged and staff should be challenged to conduct briefings with no PowerPoint whatsoever.
- And, in a radical departure, he even recommends removing chairs and tables. “We become programmed to behave in certain ways because we are conditioned to sit and be silent while a briefer spoon-feeds us information while the same information is projected,” he writes. “Why? What happens when everyone is no longer seated for a briefing?”
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