PowerPoint Wars — Colonel under fire

When we coined the term PowerPoint Wars we thought of it as a cultural phenomenon, a period of transition from outdated paradigms to contemporary ways of preparing, designing, and delivering presentations in the media age. That this kind of “war” could claim real victims was beyond our imagination — until now. Back in August, Army Colonel Lawrence Sellin got fired by the International Security Assistance Force’s Joint Command in Afghanistan, 48 hours after United Press International published his polemics about the military’s excessive use of PowerPoint presentations.

For headquarters staff, war consists largely of the endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information. (…) Each day is guided by the “battle rhythm,” which is a series of PowerPoint briefings and meetings with PowerPoint presentations. It doesn’t matter how inane or useless the briefing or meeting might be. Once it is part of the battle rhythm, it has the persistence of carbon 14… — Col. Lawrence Sellin, Outside View: PowerPoints 'R' Us, Breitbart / UPI, Aug. 24, 2010)

Col. Sellin is not the first to criticize the handling of Microsoft’s presentation program by army personnel. But, as he said in a later article, this is not about the software. It is about content and quality.

I don’t hate PowerPoint. It’s a useful tool. But it can be a crutch as a substitute for thinking. It’s too easy to produce a lot of slides and create volume, not quality. You really think that with a lot of detailed slides that you’re making progress, when you are actually not. — Col. Lawrence Sellin, as quoted in: Fired colonel calls PowerPoint a crutch, Marine Corps Times, Sep 9, 2010

After some serious criticisms voiced by high-ranking officers such as Gen. James N. Mattis (“PowerPoint makes us stupid.”), Gen. H. R. McMaster (“Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”), and others (Elisabeth Bumiller, We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint, New York Times, April 26, 2010), the debate about the effectiveness of PowerPoint presentations in the military seems to have reached a new stage. The trenches inside military bureaucracy seem to get deeper — PowerPoint rangers and their superiors on one side and PowerPoint challengers on the other. That a high-ranking officer got under fire might have as well to do with calling his generals “cognitively challenged”. But that is beside the point.

The point is that all this hassle seems so unnecessary. We already know who will win that “war”. The problems with PowerPoint, as well as with other presentation software, are recognized and acknowledged. The road to better presentations lies open. Anybody is free to follow it rather than making the same old mistakes over and over again, sometimes with devastating results. Today, we know enough about the new media and how to use them properly to protect our listeners from cognitive overload.

Read more about the PowerPoint Wars in: PowerPoint Wars — Update from the battlefield

Axel Wendelberger