'War consists largely of endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides'

Afghanistan officer fired after complaining about PowerPoint, brass

An Army Reserve colonel serving at the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Afghanistan was fired after writing a harsh criticism of the military’s use of PowerPoint slides in what he says is an unproductive, top-heavy environment.

Lawrence Sellin, who has written regularly for UPI’s Outside View column, wrote recently in a column titled “PowerPoints ‘R’ Us” that, “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.”

His acerbic column also took the IJC, as the command is known, to task for being overloaded with with brass (“Around here you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a colonel.”) and said officers’ days are spent on the presentation, and viewing, of slideshows.

“Each day is guided by the ‘battle rhythm,’ which is a series of PowerPoint briefings and meetings with PowerPoint presentations,” Sellin writes. “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.

“And you can't skip these events because they take roll – just like gym class,” he adds.

After reports of Sellin's criticisms began to cirulate, Sellin's commanding officer told him it was time to pack up and go home, Wired reported.

While it’s doubtful that Sellin’s overall views reflect those of the military, or even many other military officers, he does have company in his claim that the military overuses PowerPoint, or uses it badly.

Back in April, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who then headed U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, decried the overuse of PowerPoint, telling 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.”

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In defense of PowerPoint

McChrystal’s comments spurred a debate over PowerPoint among readers who commented on our stories. Although some readers decried the activities on “PowerPoint Rangers” who spend all their time on presentations, many drew the distinction between the tool and the user.

“An old saying is appropriate to complaints about PowerPoint: ‘A poor craftsman blames his tools.’ PowerPoint has its flaws, but the real problem is briefers whose presentations are disorganized and who glop up slides with graphics that don't support the presentation's key themes,” wrote one reader.

“PowerPoint is simply a tool that works as well as the person using it,” was another comment.

Regardless of their opinions on PowerPoint, many readers did agree that it should not be overused.

“A bigger problem than bad briefings, is TOO MANY briefings,” wrote one reader. “Study after study has shown that the knowledge retention from a briefing, within a few hours, is absurdly low. When questioned, ‘That’s the way we've always done it’ is the main rationale. In an organization, much better to put GOOD summaries and background info on a Web site or SharePoint page, and limit most or all briefs to a one- or two-slide zero-level summary of the project, with a pointer to where the info resides if the listener actually needs or wants to learn more. And unlike a briefing, they can refer back to the material as needed.”

The question may be whether the process is ingrained in the military (which seems to be Sellin's main point) regardless of the tool.

“Not even Gen. McChrystal was really slamming PowerPoint the software, he was slamming PowerPoint the staff activity,” wrote another reader. “The people here defending the software apparently do NOT work in the DOD, or they'd understand this.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include reports of Sellin's firing.

About the Author

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

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Reader comments

Fri, Sep 17, 2010

It is ridiculous that just because he points out a very true issue he is fired. So I guess you can't make the brass look bad at all, even if just talking about slideshows? Boy, they are really oversensitive. And it is just as true industry, no matter how important or complex an issue, you have to boil it down to 3 slides. sometimes I just make the 3rd slide state" need more discussion on this important issue"

Wed, Sep 15, 2010

Who is the winner? He is back in the states. His fellow officers are in a war zone.

Thu, Sep 9, 2010

Decision makers MUST be briefed. I've attended a large number of briefs and I'm amazed at how inept many of the briefers are. Obviously, these poor briefers have never been taught even the very basics of making a presentation. When these poor communicators use powerpoint, it just highlights their lack of skill. Tools are never the problem. It's ALWAYS the user of the tool that is the problem.

Tue, Sep 7, 2010 Larry

He was exactly right. The same attitude exists in a lot of businesses and is pervasive in government. It's called death by Powerpoint.

Tue, Sep 7, 2010 KingMel

I imagine that much the same is true in many other areas of modern government and industry. My personal opinion is that everything started going downhill when charts began taking the place of reports - the charts became too detailed for a good briefing and were still not nearly detailed enough to substitute for a quality formal report. In the aerospace industry this trend predates PowerPoint, but accelerated with the widespread use (and misuse) of that tool. If an organization is willing to commit resources to the development of idea or concept, then it should be willing to commit the effort to properly document the effort and the associated results. Briefings and briefing charts/materials should be a natural outgrowth of this process (as needed), rather than an integral part of the documentation flow.

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