PowerPoint combatants go at it again

One of the military's top leaders reignites a battle over the merits of the ubiquitous presentation software

It has been said that there are two kinds of information graphics: those that explain things and those that need to be explained.

That's the gist of a long-running battle over the merits of PowerPoint presentations, and it's turning into something of a quagmire at the Defense Department.

The battle lines are fairly clear. Proponents argue that PowerPoint has proven to be a real boon for speakers and audiences alike by helping speakers organize their ideas and information in ways that traditional speech writing never could.

But PowerPoint haters allege that the software often serves as a crutch for lousy speakers, enabling them to limp along with a presentation long after their audiences have lost interest. Worse yet, speakers often try to jam information into the format without any thought given to clarity. "Death by PowerPoint,” it's called.

The latest skirmish broke out when Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times reported on the decidedly anti-PowerPoint sentiments of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who leads U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” McChrystal said. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

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

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

McChrystal's diagram "has an undeniable beauty,” writes Julian Borger at the Guardian’s "Global Security" blog. “Done the right way (embroidered perhaps), it would make a lovely wall-hanging and an ideal gift for the foreign policy-maker in your life.”

But aesthetics aside, Borger notes that the image is something of a red herring. The problem is that PowerPoint is designed to simplify the presentation of information. But the point of this particular slide is not simplicity but complexity.

Military officials appear to be suffering from PowerPoint fatigue, which has been rampant in the private sector for years, writes Sharon Weinberger at AOL News. Military slide briefings, she notes, “have proved particularly susceptible to lampooning” because of the complexity and seriousness of the subject matter.

But an item on the controversy by Kevin McCaney at Federal Computer Week's sister site, Government Computer News, brought a fierce defense of PowerPoint from numerous readers. They argued that the fault for bad presentations lies not with the software but with the presenter.

“PowerPoint is a wonderful presentation tool, in the right hands,” said one. “It is also very simple to use. Don't blame the medium for poor presentations. Garbage in, garbage out.”

“This tool is highly misused and abused by presenters, secretaries and supposed PowerPoint ‘experts,’ ” wrote Scott, an audiovisual technician/graphic artist in Los Angeles. “When used properly, it is a great communication tool! It is similar to video production in that it tells a story, holds the audience's attention and provides support for the presenter’s message.”

Echoing that sentiment, reader DT pointed out that slideshows of any kind are a complementary tool for the discussion at hand. “PowerPoint is only used to present highly summarized and condensed information to give someone an initial exposure to the subject matter. Decisions should be made from follow-on detailed analysis reports. Anything less is inviting disaster.”

Readers charged critics with shooting the messenger when the tool itself is innocent.

“PowerPoint in and of itself is not the real villain,” said another. “OK, maybe it leads people astray. But a tool is only as good as the skill of the person using it. As long as you have briefers who insist on having every single point of their presentation on the screen, you will have bad presentations.”

About the Authors

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

John Monroe is Senior Events Editor for the 1105 Public Sector Media Group, where he is responsible for overseeing the development of content for print and online content, as well as events. John has more than 20 years of experience covering the information technology field. Most recently he served as Editor-in-Chief of Federal Computer Week. Previously, he served as editor of three sister publications: civic.com, which covered the state and local government IT market, Government Health IT, and Defense Systems.

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Reader comments

Wed, May 12, 2010

As Secretary Gates said last week during his remarks to the Command and General Staff College: "This next assignment for you cannot just be mastering the art of PowerPoint."

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