Any tool can be abused or used ineffectively. Some tools can be used in such a way that it looks as though you are giving all the information anyone could want while subtly diverting attention from the areas you don’t want to talk about. Power Point by Microsoft is one of the very best tools for doing this. I will probably get kicked out of the presenters union for talking about this, but if you want to overload an audience with seeming information, just find yourself someone who is skilled in Power Point.

"Originally posted at Squarestate.net"

Our military is learning this lesson as it fights the war in Afghanistan and tries to wind down the occupation of Iraq. The New York Times has a story today about the institutional love affair the military is conducting with the presentation program.

It is easy to see how they could get there. Done correctly PP can provide a lot of data in a short period of time. The problem with the program is that people fall in love with the slides, not the information. Time is spent putting in flashy pictures or various transitions between slides. All of this can take the audiences attention from the actual information. It can quickly become a mind numbing exercise in death by Power Point slide.

Having given somewhere in the low thousands of presentations, I have found that people tend to not make notes when they are getting presentations on Power Point. They look at the screen and try to absorb the written material as someone talks. The problem here is that to really retain information you need a variety of inputs about it over time. Hearing it is okay, reading it is okay, writing down something about it is okay, but when you put them all together and then ask or answer questions about it, which is when the information starts to really sink in.

Power Point does not really lend itself to this kind of learning. It also limits the amount of information you really provide. Five slides can not hold anywhere near the information that a five page written report can. Worse, if you provide enough slides to get to that level of detail, you will be talking to a room full of people thinking about Bermuda or the weekend or their spouses. They will not be paying attention to what you are saying.

When an organization becomes obsessed with Power Point the amount of actual information flowing tends to go down. The impression is that everyone is communicating with everyone else, but a presentation without the speakers notes is often impenetrable to someone going back to it later. It also becomes its own reason to do things, for example look at this quote form the Time article:

Last year when a military Web site, Company Command, asked an Army platoon leader in Iraq, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, how he spent most of his time, he responded, “Making PowerPoint slides.” When pressed, he said he was serious.

“I have to make a storyboard complete with digital pictures, diagrams and text summaries on just about anything that happens,” Lieutenant Nuxoll told the Web site. “Conduct a key leader engagement? Make a storyboard. Award a microgrant? Make a storyboard.”

The stupefying nature of Power Point is known and used by the military. The daily press briefings are usually 25 minutes of slides, followed by five minutes of questions. After seeing the deluges of apparent information, the reporters as said to look like hypnotized chickens. Is it any wonder they can’t or don’t ask probing questions.

Unfortunately the military is starting to realize Power Point also has the same affect on internal briefings. Bullet points can often seem to provide proscriptive action, but fail to explain exactly what to do. From the article:

Captain Burke’s essay in the Small Wars Journal also cited a widely read attack on PowerPoint in Armed Forces Journal last summer by Thomas X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel, whose title, “Dumb-Dumb Bullets,” underscored criticism of fuzzy bullet points; “accelerate the introduction of new weapons,” for instance, does not actually say who should do so.

Those kind of bullet points are really time bombs. As a commander hearing that new weapons will be introduced faster sounds great. It also gives the impression that it is easy to do and will go off without a hitch. This is not to say that a contentious presenter will not provide the potential problems, but again they will be in bullet point form. This is where you can shade the discussion away from things you would rather not talk about.

It also gives room to a problem which many organizations that lean too heavily on Power Point have. They get into style and time issues. A long and detailed presentation will often lead to directives about cutting it down, hitting only the high points. One of the first things that are often cut from presentation is the caveats and problems.

All of this comes back to the fact that while Power Point is great for displaying some points to talk from, it does not really give space for deep analytical explanations. The audience often leaves feeling like they know something, but they really have only heard the highlights or have drifted off during a long presentation.

The military is starting to push back on this style of presentation. This is a good thing. Sometimes what is fastest and slickest is not the best. When we are talking about making war-fighting decisions, this is doubly true. After all the slide below was thought to be the appropriate way to explain the nature of the Afghan war.

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Providing and assimilating large amounts of information is always a challenge. All tools need to be used to overcome this challenge. Hopefully the military will return to a more balanced presentation style. Until then they will feel like they are fully informed, but will keep missing critical factors.

The floor is yours.

Bill Egnor

Bill Egnor

I am a life long Democrat from a political family. Work wise I am a Six Sigma Black Belt (process improvement project manager) and Freelance reporter for Govtrak.org

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