Death by PowerPoint

The New York Times returns to the topic of PowerPoint in the military in an article today.  

Seth Godin, author of the most popular marketing blog in the world, provides his own take here, particularly focusing on the danger of bullet points: "Guns don't kill people, bullets do"!

I wrote about another military PowerPoint slide in my book, a slide that was made famous by Thomas Ricks in his book Fiasco:

This slide, from a military briefing on the Iraq war, was featured in a book critical of the war and the planning process that led up to it. After the book’s publication, the image of the slide and the accompanying criticism from the book appeared online, and the slide itself was heavily criticized. Much of the criticism centered on the apparent incomprehensibility of the slide: it is “as clear as mud.”


Fiasco larger

We need to be careful about criticizing slides out of context; this was the only slide we could see from a (safe to presume) very long deck, and the buzzwords and jargon on the slide that make it seem so obscure to us are presumably quite familiar to its intended audience. In fact, I do not think that the unintelligibility of the slide is its main problem. 

To those familiar with the situation, the slide is in fact quite intelligible. The slide passes the “squint test” : flow from left to right is clearly evident, as is the compression of the forces on the outside, funneling the elements in the middle of the slide into the supposed unity on the right side of the slide. And the message is quite clear: a series of pressures will force the disparate elements within Iraq to move toward unity. So the slide does have simplicity of design, of a sort.

The real problem with this slide is that it is lacking complexity of detail. It appears to have a lot of detail — there is certainly a lot of stuff on the slide. But the problem is that all that “stuff ” is not actually details. In fact, it is the opposite of details: a bunch of abstractions, such as “stability,” “resettlement,” and “integrated economy.” Detail implies specifics: this is the role that detail plays in your presentation, bringing it down from the abstract into the concrete, to make it credible and useful to your audience. 

And this lack of detail was exactly the problem, apparently, that the subordinates who received the presentation of which this slide was a part — in lieu of actual orders — were facing. In the absence of specifics, it was unclear to them what they were actually supposed to do to achieve the goal expressed in the presentation. (Abela, Advanced Presentations by Design, p. 126).

I think the same criticism can be applied to the slide featured in the NYT: while it passes the squint test, the details it provides are pseudo-details: there is not much that is useful on the slide.  Perhaps the best service I can offer to my country is offer to run the Extreme Presentation workshop at the Pentagon…

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