PowerPoint Wars — Update from the battlefield

At a military conference in North Carolina in April, some high-ranking officers spoke out about the dangers of using PowerPoint to convey crucial information. Brigadier-General Herbert McMaster said, “It’s dangerous, because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.” In 2005, McMasters had banned PowerPoint when he led an operation in Iraq. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable,” he told the conference. That kind of harsh PowerPoint criticism isn’t new, but it seems that over the last ten years a lot has changed in respect of how presentations are perceived, designed and delivered.

Thomas X. Hammes, retired Marine Colonel, calls PowerPoint “a tool that is the antithesis of thinking”. In his essay, Dumb-dumb bullets (Armed Forces Journal, July, 2009), he says: “Make no mistake, PowerPoint is not a neutral tool — it is actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making. It has fundamentally changed our culture by altering the expectations of who makes decisions, what decisions they make and how they make them.” The use of PowerPoint has grown excessive in the U.S. military. Press briefings are brimming with over-complicated slides, decision-makers have to sit through agonizing 20-minute presentations — known as “hypnotizing chickens” — instead of just reading a 3-page report, officers spend the most of their time preparing presentation slides. There is even a name for them: PowerPoint rangers.

Our personnel clearly understand the lack of clarity and depth inherent in the half-formed thoughts of the bullet format. In an apparent effort to overcome the obvious deficiency of bullets, some briefers put entire paragraphs on each briefing slide. (Of course, they still include the bullet point in front of each paragraph.) — Thomas X. Hammes

The military is not the only habitat of PowerPoint rangers. Industry, politics and science harbor huge populations of them, too. The fundamental problems are always the same: presentations are information-centered and static. They are not created with the audience in mind and must fail — sometimes with disastrous consequences.

PowerPoint’s pushy style seeks to set up a speaker’s dominance over the audience. The speaker, after all, is making power points with bullets to followers. Could any metaphor be worse? Voicemail menu systems? Billboards? Television? Stalin? — Edward Tufte, PowerPoint Is Evil

Obviously we face a cultural phenomenon that goes deep and is hard to overcome. But, the hierarchical, simplified cognitive style of PowerPoint only mirrors the structure of today’s society. Despite all buzz about flat hierarchies, lean management, and learning organizations, the reality we know looks differently. In our presentation seminars, we meet some PowerPoint rangers from time to time. They know their way around with the software, more often than not they see the deficiencies of their work, and they are willing to listen and to improve — if it wasn’t for “company policy” that demanded “documentation slides” that form the basis of “corporate communication”…

Despite the headline of this article we don’t want to put all the blame (and shame) on Microsoft’s doorstep. It is not the software that makes things so bad. It is the thinking it embodies, the metaphor it employs, and all the wrong habits of the people who use it. If the users demanded a change even Microsoft would be willing to oblige — sooner or later…

That is what the “PowerPoint Wars” are about — fighting the wrong habits, not the software itself. Of course it would be nice to have a presentation program that offered a fresh approach to designing visuals and presenting them, too. But so far we haven’t seen anything worth mentioning yet. It’s fairly simple, PowerPoint is a quasi-standard in the business world, and the rest of the pack is forced to follow. Other programs might be easier to use, provide more elegant templates, and might be even more affordable, but all of them are PowerPoint compatible — in format as well as in spirit. What we need here is a paradigm shift — and that paradigm shift is underway.

Read more in: PowerPoint Wars — Colonel under fire

Axel Wendelberger