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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