PowerPoint Corrupts the Point Absolutely

by John Holbo on August 11, 2006

Via Arms & Influence, a passage from that Thomas Ricks book [amazon] everyone has been reading (my copy isn’t here yet):

[Army Lt. General David] McKiernan had another, smaller but nagging issue: He couldn’t get Franks to issue clear orders that stated explicitly what he wanted done, how he wanted to do it, and why. Rather, Franks passed along PowerPoint briefing slides that he had shown to Rumsfeld: "It’s quite frustrating the way this works, but the way we do things nowadays is combatant commanders brief their products in PowerPoint up in Washington to OSD and Secretary of Defense…In lieu of an order, or a frag [fragmentary order], or plan, you get a bunch of PowerPoint slides…[T]hat is frustrating, because nobody wants to plan against PowerPoint slides."

That reliance on slides rather than formal written orders seemed to some military professionals to capture the essence of Rumsfeld’s amateurish approach to war planning. "Here may be the clearest manifestation of OSD’s contempt for the accumulated wisdom of the military profession and of the assumption among forward thinkers that technology—above all information technology—has rendered obsolete the conventions traditionally governing the preparation and conduct of war," commented retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, a former commander of an armored cavalry regiment. "To imagine that PowerPoint slides can substitute for such means is really the height of recklessness." It was like telling an automobile mechanic to use a manufacturer’s glossy sales brochure to figure out how to repair an engine.

He reproduces one of the slides—truly a depth-defying plunge into ‘Phase IV’, i.e, reconstruction of all Iraq.

Ppt1s

The next stage in the evolution of thought is, of course, the production of glossy brochures, selling contempt for the very notion of a working engine. Hence this William Kristol Weekly Standard piece:

It’s become clear, by contrast, that the Democratic party doesn’t really want to fight jihadism. It’s just too difficult. Last week the entire Democratic congressional leadership sent President Bush a letter on Iraq. The Democrats didn’t chastise the administration for failing to do what it takes to achieve victory there. They didn’t call for a larger military, or for more troops in Iraq, or for new tactics. Rather, they seemed to criticize the (belated) redeployment of troops "into an urban war zone in Baghdad." And they complained that "there has been virtually no diplomatic effort to resolve sectarian differences, no regional effort to establish a broader security framework, and no attempt to revive a struggling reconstruction effort" – as if these are the keys to success.

So this would be the ‘aimed pressure to not achieve end-state over time’ plan?

{ 14 trackbacks }

Frendo :: The Plan for Success in Iraq
08.11.06 at 9:23 am
Two Newtons
08.11.06 at 9:27 am
STiTP » Blog Archive » We’re Ruled By Middle-Management Buffoons
08.11.06 at 8:05 pm
trichech.us » Blog Archive » White House Can’t Win the Powerpoint War Either
08.11.06 at 9:50 pm
Tim Worstall
08.12.06 at 5:19 am
Diary of a Mad Natural Historian » To err is human.
08.12.06 at 6:58 am
tom-mcgee.com: the blog » PowerPoint Corrupts
08.12.06 at 11:50 am
morgan’s log » Blog Archive » selling contempt
08.13.06 at 9:01 am
Keywords » Achieving Representation
08.13.06 at 11:08 am
infobong.com » linkdump for 2006.08.13
08.13.06 at 3:04 pm
Amy G. Dala » links for 2006-08-15
08.15.06 at 10:43 am
jwphotodesign.com » Blog Archive » Death by PowerPoint
08.16.06 at 7:04 pm
mlarson.org »
08.17.06 at 10:29 pm
Visual Being » Blog Archive » Making War with PowerPoint
08.24.06 at 2:10 pm

{ 79 comments }

1

Andrew Edwards 08.11.06 at 8:14 am

Sure are a lot of arrows. Whoever made that slide must be REALLY smart to have to use all those arrows.

And all those big words. I could never come up with the words “Aimed Pressure to Achieve the End-State Over Time”, so whoever did must be REALLY smart.

I sure am glad that there are such smart people making PPT slides.

Now what is it that this slide says I should do….?

2

Cheryl Morgan 08.11.06 at 8:25 am

Anyone who has been in business for any length of time knows only too well that the whole point of PowerPoint presentations is to show commitment to the objective without ever making concrete recommendations for which one might be held responsible at a later date should they fail.

3

Matt 08.11.06 at 8:37 am

Is our problem that some of those arrows are not pushing properly, or that some of the balls are slipping outside the funnel or won’t fit in the big ball at the end, or what?

4

JMG 08.11.06 at 8:57 am

A retired Marine colonel of my acquaintance who’s familiar with the services’ war colleges for staff officers told me a year ago that the military is teaching how to make Power Point presentations more ambiguous and military options less appealing to civilian decision-makers.

5

Bill 08.11.06 at 10:11 am

Edward Tufte has written extensively on the impoverishment of PowerPoint as a medium. Several threads in his discussion board discuss it as well; see esp.
http://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=0000fv&topic_id=1&topic=Ask+E%2eT%2e

6

Russell Arben Fox 08.11.06 at 10:41 am

I’ve never used Power Point for any purpose whatsoever. Maybe that’s Luddism on my part, but still: the whole notion of turing textual directives, arguments, ideas, and explanations into flowcharts and graphs has always freaked me out.

7

Benjamin Nelson 08.11.06 at 10:44 am

I don’t understand why folly, arrogance, and stupidity is always blamed on PowerPoint. Presumably, for instance, direct orders could be easily put on screen (if one wanted to do that), and without much confusion. If there’s still misunderstanding, choice of software is probably not the vital cause.

Oh well. Maybe this is one of those hep conventions I don’t understand, like why Timberers call each other by posting order instead of name, or why people use the expression “pot kettle black” when contemporary pots and kettles come in an exciting variety of colors and shades.

8

John Emerson 08.11.06 at 10:52 am

Macnamara, Weinberger, and Rumsfeld are so much alike. It seems that in some sense, the US as a functioning unit has failed to learn anything at all during the last 45 years.

I blame Operations Management, as described by Mirowski.

9

John I 08.11.06 at 10:56 am

The only good use for PowerPoint is making art:
http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,61485,00.html

10

Ralph Hitchens 08.11.06 at 10:57 am

Funny, in the many PowerPoint briefings I gave as an intelligence analyst (in a previous life) in the Pentagon and elsewhere, my single overriding goal was clarity of expression. After all, these briefings were strictly informative, not “decision tools.” Clearly, things have changed in the national security business.

11

Richard Cownie 08.11.06 at 11:00 am

Tufte gives some terrific examples of the way the
use of PowerPoint can be fatal to any detailed
analysis: some thoughts are too complicated to
fit in a bullet point, and PP forces you to dumb
those down until they become meaningless. NASA’s
terrible mismanagement of shuttle safety issues is
one of his examples – the engineers exchanged
emails and technical reports which told the full
scary story, but the PowerPoint presentations
were confusing and hid the dangers in cryptic and
confusing lines deep in a hierarchy of bullet
points.

12

P O'Neill 08.11.06 at 11:05 am

This must be the upside to that “first MBA President” that we were told about in 2000.

13

jaywalker 08.11.06 at 11:07 am

What about applying the chart’s recommendations to the US? Eat your own dog food, as they say at Microsoft.

It must be possible to bring those reborn christians together with latte drinking atheists. Let the Wyoming ranchers mingle with inner-city youth. All you need is a little pressure …

14

etat 08.11.06 at 12:50 pm

So rich, yet not filling!

# 13: lines deep in a hierarchy of bullet points sounds like it has some promise for future warplanning lingo. Hold that thought, there may a presentation in it!

I see the brass are seduced by stars and big arrows just as much as any office neophyte.

I also see why it would be some feat for a SoD to issue clear orders on the basis of such presentations. I think it’s time to blame the messenger!

Doesn’t that particular slide diagram the function of a meat grinder? Looks like sausage meat over on the right.

Re Kristol’s “there has been virtually no diplomatic effort…”: could he miss the point any more completely?

and finally, to Ricks: is he saying that there’s a philosophy and a logic to militay thinking that has somehow escaped Rumsfeld et al for lo, so many years? Who’d a thunk it?

15

etat 08.11.06 at 12:53 pm

PS: next they’ll reveal the Brian Eno soundtrack to these presentations.

16

Cryptic Ned 08.11.06 at 12:54 pm

Reprinting that nonsensical arrow-laden chart doesn’t indict Powerpoint. That chart looks more like something copied from a 35-year-old reference work, drawn by somebody who didn’t understand the subject matter very well.

Powerpoint can be useful as long as there are very few words per slide, and those words are organized in sentences instead of in random order.

17

Leslie 08.11.06 at 12:56 pm

Can’t the Pentagon afford the services of a graphic designer?

18

bi 08.11.06 at 1:06 pm

etat: Well, Rumsfeld’s famous known-knowns known-unknowns unknown-knowns speech has to come from some military treatise, except I don’t know which.

Cryptic Ned: useful … for what? What are the purposes that PP slides can usefully serve? It seems that’s the crux of the problem.

19

blah 08.11.06 at 1:07 pm

Power Points actually can work very well in a legal context, when one needs to give an opening or closing argument. You can use the PP to focus attention on items in a lengthy list, quote longish passages from cases, incorporate relevant documents and highlight the relevant portions, etc.

Having a PP presentation to supplement an otherwise dry recitation is very useful.

20

Allen K. 08.11.06 at 1:11 pm

I had heard at some point that the Navy had banned PowerPoint. All I could find on the subject now was this and this, and its ban at Sun:

“We had 12.9 gigabytes of (Microsoft) PowerPoint slides on our network. And I thought, ‘What a huge waste of corporate productivity.’ So we banned it. And we’ve had three unbelievable record-breaking fiscal quarters since we banned PowerPoint. Now, I would argue that every company in the world, if they would just ban PowerPoint, would see their earnings skyrocket. Employees would stand around going, ‘What do I do? Guess I’ve got to go to work.’”
– Scott McNealy
Sun Microsystems, quoted in the San Jose Mercury News, January 27, 1997

21

troglodyte 08.11.06 at 1:14 pm

Powerpoint can be used well, I agree. It requires a clear mind and time to get the presentation cogent and correct. The crowded arrow slide suggests more than a touch of both impatience and senility in its creator.

22

ecoboz 08.11.06 at 1:17 pm

“Ban PowerPoint”? “Don’t use PowerPoint”? Yeah, that will solve everything. Once we switch back to overhead transparencies its all good. I mean it would be impossible to make that slide above on an overhead.

23

Fides 08.11.06 at 1:18 pm

Wow. I used to work for McKinsey & Co, so I’ve seen a lot of PowerPoint slides in my day, but that is one of the worst.

I’m not evaluating this as military strategy, or even it’s connection with reality (although that connection seems quite slim.) It’s just one of those slides that is designed to look like it’s something, but has such scattered content it doesn’t actually mean anything.

24

Equal Opportunity Cynic 08.11.06 at 1:19 pm

Re: Benjamin #9, Ralph #12,

You’re right. PowerPoint itself is no more an evil tool than the Internet or explosives are evil tools. Like many helpful tools, it gives bullshit artists the means to obfuscate (right on, Cheryl #12!), and that could be what’s happening here. Or it could be that the author of this infamous slide meant it in good faith, and just doesn’t understand how to present information clearly.

The plan itself (on the slide) wouldn’t be so bad if there were any methods to say how this is going to happen, or any accountability to judge whether it’s actually happened.

It seems that Bush/Rummy’s legacy is the total Dilbertization of the military, into some sort of dysfunctional private firm where the engineers run around trying to keep the bosses from messing up their work. Maybe the military’s always been thus, but it certainly seems to have reached its pinnacle with these oaves in charge.

25

Disputo 08.11.06 at 1:23 pm

That’s nothing.

I’ve seen entire product manuals written in PowerPt.

26

CaliforniaDrySherry 08.11.06 at 1:30 pm

Jeebus. If I was Microsoft I think I’d sue Rumsfeld for making my product look bad.

And I say that as no great fan of MS or Powerpoint, though I use both pretty much all the time.

On the other hand, this does highlight one of the major problems with Powerpoint – it makes just about everything look too easy.

27

Rube Goldberg 08.11.06 at 1:46 pm

They stole my next cartoon, the assholes!!

28

me2i81 08.11.06 at 1:56 pm

It’s too bad they didn’t use Keynote, like Al Gore does.

29

Mysticdog 08.11.06 at 2:00 pm

I like that there isn’t a single reference to employment on there. Just isn’t important.

30

Steve 08.11.06 at 2:45 pm

Another post in which the author has no idea what he’s talking about.

Power Point is used because there is no alternative. OPORDs (Operations Orders) and FRAGOs (Fragmentation Orders) are still written, and still used as a means of communication in the military. It was used in Bosnia three years ago. It is used in National Guard training events every month. It was used in New Orleans a year ago. If you work for a private contractor that runs wargames for the military, you will use it to learn the fake battle that you will be wargaming. What they aren’t used for is to brief or educate leadership.

It would be impossible to do so. At the division level (a division is approximately 15,000 soldiers), an operations order is several hundred pages long. There are chapters on how/where to set up radio towers; what roads to use for resupply; how often resupply will occur; the total tonnage of resupply possible; information on the civil structure of the area in which one is operating (civil affairs); estimates on the enemy situation; a chapter on weather; a chapter on terrain; and so on and so on; as well as the traditional ‘plan’ (or scheme of maneuver to attack the bad guys). The different chapters are written by majors and lieutenant colonels.

The next higher organization is the Corps, which will be longer and have even more detail. The next higher organization is either Army or Combatant Command, with more detail still (example; coordination with Navy and Air Force, or other nations). Thus, at the Tommy Franks/Rumsfeld level, an OPORDer could easily be a thousand pages long (and is certainly hundreds of pages long). How do you intend to brief a thousand page document to the Secretary of Defense (you may have three hours)? Neither of those two even read the whole thing. Why would they? Does Donald Rumsfeld need to know the location of every radio retransmission tower in Iraq? The location of every school or mosque? Tommy Franks learned about it by seeing power point slides from the majors and lieutenant colonels who wrote it. He had his own staff winnow those briefings down to create a briefing to Donald Rumsfeld. Tommy Franks doesn’t need to read the entire OPORDer any more than you need to see the blueprints of the building you work in, or to understand how to rewrite the code for Windows on the computer you use to type. That would be getting ‘lost in the weeds.’

Furthermore, briefings aren’t just created each time a new one is required. The military has a set planning process, with a set briefing structure, for each mission. The overall structure of a briefing that created in the National Guard is the same overall structure that Tommy Franks sees when he is briefed (since TF briefed Rumsfeld, a civilian, I don’t know if the same structure is followed in that briefing, but I would guess it was).

So what can Power Point do?
Present maps. In color. With movable stuff on it (i.e. a movable model of a battle). Easily transportable (a laptop or even a thumb drive). Easy and fast to make. just about everyone in the military understands it and can use it.

What else can Power Point do?
If you make a crappy power point slide (like the one above), you will have a crappy power point slide (similarly; if you write a crappy document, you will have-believe it or not- a crappy document).
Piss off all those majors and lieutenant colonels. Everybody hates power point, because there’s so much of it. Military staffs literally work full time making power point slide shows. If you want to get a quote from a major or lieutenant colonel saying that power point sucks, you will not have any difficulty finding a willing major or lieutenant colonel.

What are the alternatives?
In the past, there was:
During the Civil War, signal flags, verbal orders carried by horseriders, occassionally written orders of a page or two.
During WWI, they had telephones and some radio, as well as runners with vehicles.
During WWII, radio, maps with stickies on them, perhaps overhead projectors using grease pencils.
Today, there is Power Point.

Of all the methods above, if you ran IBM, which would you choose as your means of communication to bosses or subordinates?
Of all the methods above, if you ran a war, which would you chohse as your means of communication to bosses or subordinates?

And finally, if you had to brief someone on a 1000 page document (say, War and Peace), and the details mattered (the names of the locations in the book; understanding where those locations actually are in Russia, the names of the major characters, how large each family was, who lived or died, and when, etc), and you had an hour to do it, and it really mattered whether your audience remembered the stuff (they take a test immediately afterwards), what would be the best way to communicate that information?
A lecture, where you recite names, recite cities, recite the facts, and hope the audience just remembers it all?
A Power Point slide, with maps of Russia, with the locations highlighted, slides showing the families organized, listing their names, a chart showing their relationships to each other, an additional slide showing deaths by year perhaps?
Some other alternative (signal flags, and telephone like in WWI, perhaps)?

Many of you are educators; you know educational theory-that some people learn by seeing, some by reading themselves, some by hearing. You also know that utilizing more than one method (seeing, reading, hearing) enhances retention of information. In a Power Point slide, the audience reads, hears a briefing, and sees pictures. Name a better alternative that uses the same amount of time.

Steve

31

y81 08.11.06 at 2:58 pm

Re #32: Wow, a knowledgeable, intelligent, and judicious comment. That will certainly derail the discussion for a while.

32

Cranky Observer 08.11.06 at 2:59 pm

> Neither of those two even read the
> whole thing. Why would they?

Winston Churchill did. Drove his military advisors nuts. They had to spend a lot of time keeping him under control. Which was perhaps (as Alanbrooke later admitted) Churchill’s real point: the generals had to be smarter and better informed about the details than he was. How do you think Mr. Rumsfeld would fair if called in front of PM Churchill for a briefing?

> Of all the methods above, if you ran IBM,
> which would you choose as your means of
> communication to bosses or subordinates?

That would be this one: “During WWII, radio, maps with stickies on them, perhaps overhead projectors using grease pencils.” In my experience people who can carry off a presentation successfully using those presentation tools tend to actually know the underlying details, be able to give good in-depth answers, and can think on their feet. The PowerPoint wizards? Not so much.

Cranky

33

jaywalker 08.11.06 at 3:11 pm

Some read the book and some only read the Cliff Notes. Guess who usually gets the better marks.

I know, with this Cliff Notes president it is basically hopeless, but simplifying complex problems is risky (and lethal). If I had to pick either the planners of Operation Overlord or Operation Iraqi Freedom, I wouldn’t hesitate a second.

34

Equal Opportunity Cynic 08.11.06 at 3:27 pm

Steve:

Your points are well taken. As many have said, PowerPoint itself is not the problem.

But don’t you think that, when something as incoherent as this slide survives and is propagated in an organization, that it’s indicative that muddled thinking may be tolerated in that organization? In other words, what sort of boss would look at this slide and say, “Good work!” What sort of boss would look at this slide and say, “I hope your underlying detail is clearer and better thought out than this slide. Can you meet with me to explain the detail at a high level?”

I’d much rather have the second boss running things.

35

MBunge 08.11.06 at 3:33 pm

“And finally, if you had to brief someone on a 1000 page document (say, War and Peace), and the details mattered (the names of the locations in the book; understanding where those locations actually are in Russia, the names of the major characters, how large each family was, who lived or died, and when, etc), and you had an hour to do it, and it really mattered whether your audience remembered the stuff (they take a test immediately afterwards), what would be the best way to communicate that information?
A lecture, where you recite names, recite cities, recite the facts, and hope the audience just remembers it all?
A Power Point slide, with maps of Russia, with the locations highlighted, slides showing the families organized, listing their names, a chart showing their relationships to each other, an additional slide showing deaths by year perhaps?
Some other alternative (signal flags, and telephone like in WWI, perhaps)?”

You’ve just highlighted one of the problems of the democratization of information. It used to be that if you wanted to know things, you had to put in the long, hard work of learning them. Now we’ve got technology like Power Point that allows people to absorb fragments of data, without gaining any real understanding of the information, creating people who think they’re knowledgeble when they profoundly aren’t.

The folks in your first example would fail the test and would know they didn’t know anything about War and Peace. The Power Point drones would do better on the test and would think they understood War and Peace when they really didn’t have a clue.

Mike

36

eyelessgame 08.11.06 at 4:10 pm

When I have to give a presentation, I write a summary. To some extent this summary is hierarchical, but sometimes it’s mostly linear. Before PowerPoint, I would put the summary on index cards. With PowerPoint, I put the summary on slides. Can’t see there’s much wrong with that.

But I always do the “cards” (a text file) first, and I never spend more than about a minute creating each slide. Anything more than that and I’m worried about form instead of content.

The exception is when I’d have to draw something on a whiteboard: then I draw it ahead of time and paste the result into Power Point.

I guess what I’m saying is that the way many people use PP is as an excuse to obfuscate — and it is extremely good at that.

So perhaps the next version of Power Point should have a sysdmin-configurable option to make each slide writeable for only five minutes after it’s created; if the user tries to modify it after that, it’s automatically deleted. I suspect the quality of presentations using Power Point — and the productivity of its users — would go up dramatically.

37

Chambershines 08.11.06 at 4:15 pm

Powerpoint may be an issue operationally, but how anyone could start with a premise that treats “ethnic”, “tribal” and “religious” as separate entities or forces that simply needs to be unified(?) or, somehow, managed is beyond me. Ironically, the end state labelled as “strategic success” where these forces are illustrated as overlapping is a better reflection of what the real problem was then and continues to be now.

38

nutty little nut nut 08.11.06 at 4:56 pm

My wife and I both use PPT to teach Humanities; Critical Thinking, Ethics, Literature, Sociology. We find the ability to reach the visual learners beyond what any other accessible, yet simple, teaching medium can achieve.

39

strangely enough 08.11.06 at 5:01 pm

equal opportunity cynic: Bush/Rummy’s legacy is the total Dilbertization of the military

That is classic. I was thinking this is the “Office Space” admin/SecDef, but you nailed it.

40

agm 08.11.06 at 5:14 pm

@richard cownie:
I say bullsh**. The reason the message didn’t get through is because no onw had the balls to put the words “If you don’t fix this, then the shuttle WILL explode” on any powerpoints.

———————

Powerpoint is irrelevant to the matter (notice how no one ever blames Keynote, though it fills exactly the same ecological niche as powerpoint). The issue is operating and communicating in a manner which has as its primary aim iron-clad CYA. If you don’t make clear, definite statements (e.g., the direct military orders mentioned in the comments), you may (or may not) get a lot done but you’re much less likely to be nailed to the wall when something goes awry.

41

william 08.11.06 at 5:48 pm

Completely agree with #38. Dysfunctional organizations communicate dysfunctionally, no matter what tool they use to do it. For me, reviewing the presentation before a meeting and checking that I’m bringing out the important points is an indispensible part of preparing for that meeting, and I’ve been in many meetings where other people’s slides have helped structure the discussion. I get more worried when I go into a meeting and no-one has slides — how do you know that anyone’s prepped?

42

JCC 08.11.06 at 6:11 pm

Lord, how many times have we all sat through a Powerpoint presentation and wished they had just printed off the slide sheets and let us go back to our desks and read them?

This little gem, though, wouldn’t have made any sense however is was viewed, so agm is right that Powerpoint is irrelevant to the issue of imparting information in a form that is immediately understandable. If a presentation doesn’t give you the information, the fault lies with the one who created it. However, I do have to agree with me2181 saying they should have used Keynote. I created a Keynote presentation for my organization, but had to translate it to Powerpoint because I didn’t have a Powerbook available. I had to show through Microsoft’s inferior setup. Unfortunately, that meant I lost a lot of the smooth transitions and impressive graphic shifts.

The reception by the crowd was fine. The group got the point and many even congratulated me on the presentation. However, the next time I was asked to show my little creation, I got hold of a Powerbook and was able to show it as I had meant it to be shown. The difference in the reaction was unreal. Everybody was leaning forward during the screening, with mouths open. No, the slickness didn’t override the message, it just enhanced it. At the end, everyone wanted to talk about the subject and feedback was at least double what I received after the Powerpoint version.

Still, bottom line is, if I had put together a confusing and disjointed presentation, not even Apple could have made it meaningful.

43

serial catowner 08.11.06 at 6:27 pm

Well, generals have been writing down orders and subordinates have been failing to obey them for centuries. Kinda hard to think that writing down 400 pages of orders will change much, if the people involved don’t know enough about their subject to talk about the important points in a succinct manner.

In fact, there’s always been considerable suspicion that overly complicated plans that depended on too many people doing exactly what they should…….were prone to failure.

I have noticed that CPR training that used to take an hour has expanded, with the aid of PP, to take all day. What a waste of time.

44

lee 08.11.06 at 7:16 pm

Mcnamara, Weinberger, Rumsfeld–so much alike. No, actually Weiberger is much better–he’s dead!

45

Doctor Memory 08.11.06 at 7:36 pm

Parenthetical to agm in #38: nobody ever blames Keynote for the same reason that nobody ever blames OpenOffice Presenter. Both products are relatively new, and have close to zero market penetration. In short: nobody uses them, and few people even know that they exist. Tufte’s complaints about PowerPoint are about the inherent limitations of the 4-bullet-points-on-a-slide presentation format, not about what happens to be the most currently popular implementation of that concept.

46

Jim Ramsey 08.11.06 at 8:34 pm

I can’t help it. Imagine a future war-crimes trial where the general’s defense is, of course, “I was only following Powerpoint”.

Seriously, I’ve used Powerpoint slides (prepared by others) to teach complex technical stuff. It’s not the slide that’s the problem. If you can’t think clearly, the choice of tool is not going to fix that.

47

John Holbo 08.11.06 at 8:45 pm

For the record, I use quite a bit of powerpoint for my intro philosophy lectures. My vice is putting too many words on the slides, in case you were curious. I actually think it is an ok product, but one that is easily abused in fairly well-known ways (so I agree with absolutely everyone else on that score.) So I agree that blaming PowerPoint, per se, is not exactly right. But – pace comment 32, above – it’s pretty obvious, I think, that blaming PowerPoint is not really the important point about the slide in question, nor about Ricks’ claim that it is emblematic of a somewhat disordered culture of command. Sorry if my cute title threw you for a loop about what the point of the post was.

48

Sleepy Professor 08.11.06 at 8:54 pm

I think that the phenomenon of Power Point gives a good illustration of Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism that “the medium is the message”. Now, anyone who has seen Annie Hall knows it is dangerous to discuss McLuhan in public, but as he is no longer living, I hope to be spared his subsequent post stating “you know nothing of my work …”

In any case, I think that just as film and text have different strengths, and tend to promote different types of storytelling, perhaps even different stories, so it is with PP and other media that one might choose.

Steve’s interesting post at 32 makes this point, perhaps without meaning to: Power Point isn’t good for details, it’s good for visuals and organizing key principles. But it isn’t favored for detailed parsing of an argument, or amassing of a large corpus of information from which one may draw informed judgements. So one ultimately gives a different presentation, and perhaps the organization makes different decisions.

With the style of discourse Power Point favors, the audience must rely, to perhaps a greater degree than in other forms, upon its trust in the presenter — since they don’t have (and aren’t given) the supporting data to check the assertions being made.

Which is perhaps the basis for the great joke:

“Power currupts, but Power Point corrupts absolutely.”

49

jet 08.11.06 at 9:49 pm

If I had to pick either the planners of Operation Overlord or Operation Iraqi Freedom, I wouldn’t hesitate a second.

Yeah, the complete fubar that was Omaha was a huge improvement over Iraqi Freedom? 2,000 Americans dead in 2 hours. Bad intelligence, poor reports of the results of the naval and aerial bombardment, and the extreme inflexibility to shift to less well defended areas was an improvement of IF? The Brits and Canadians had no problems getting their tanks ashore, but the Americans in charge couldn’t even accomplish that apparently easy task. Omaha was a success INSPITE of the plans, not because of them. Omaha was a success because those men shared a culture that would not leave each other to die, IE, some hard assed men kicked some ass. And a lot more of them would have lived if the jackasses in charge could have been just a little more flexible.

You can make fun of Powerpoint and Rumsfelds all you want. But don’t for a second congratulate the planners of Operation Overlord (Omaha beach) for their “exquisite” planning.

50

Dee 08.11.06 at 10:32 pm

Somehow this reminds me of a cartoon that I’ve been holding onto for at least 25 years. I hope this works:

!http://i62.photobucket.com/albums/h82/Deesphotobucket/goodwork.jpg!

51

still working it out 08.11.06 at 10:49 pm

I have often wondered if a clever enemy might develop computer virus’s specifically aimed at crippling Microsoft Powerpoint and then sneaking them into the DoD network at a critical moments, such as just prior to a sneak attack.

This seems like a very dangerous threat until you realise that the enemy could never really know if disabling Powerpoint would be a help or a hindrance to the US Military.

Its true that without Powerpoint that most of the senior US military leadership would be lose the ability to communicate. But cosidering that ability seems inversely proportional to Powerpoint usage, the net effectiveness of senior US military command might actually go up.

52

aaron 08.11.06 at 11:09 pm

“Wow. I used to work for McKinsey & Co, so I’ve seen a lot of PowerPoint slides in my day, but that is one of the worst.”

No, it’s not. It’s typical in US government.

53

dearieme 08.12.06 at 6:59 am

It’s not powerpoint that’s the problem, it’s thinking in bullet points. Consider: these comments aren’t marked with bullet points, but with numbers. Numbers: the start of organisation.

54

Nell 08.12.06 at 8:44 am

In the days before PowerPoint, were the detailed orders summarized in writing, or in crappy charts that were presented with overhead slide projectors? Is Ricks old enough to know the answer to that question?

55

raj 08.12.06 at 9:18 am

The slide in the post reminds me of a PERT chart that engineering managers used to draw up to plan engineering programs. Problem was, this was in the days before computers, and so they were drawn by hand. And had to be revised almost weekly.

BTW, Dee’s cartoon in comment #54 is hilarious. I’ve seen it before, but it is quite applicable in the context of this post.

56

adamsj 08.12.06 at 9:55 am

In reference to #32′s comment:

if you ran IBM, which would you choose as your means of communication to bosses or subordinates?

Tufte dispenses with that question on the first page of The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint with a quote from former IBM chief Lewis Gerstner’s autobiography, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? Inside IBM’s Historic Turnaround:

At that time, the standard format of any important IBM meeting was a presentation using overhead projectors and graphics that IBMers called “foils”. Nick was on his second foil when I stepped to the table and, as politely as I could in front of his team, switched off the projector. After a long moment of awkward silence, I simply said, “Let’s just talk about your business.”

57

Tangurena 08.12.06 at 10:50 am

There is a reason that I call that program Powerpointless.

58

Cranky Observer 08.12.06 at 11:05 am

Well, everyone else is cross-copying their posts from Kevin Drum’s site, so here goes ;-)

> The subject of MS bashing is irrelevant.
> In pre-PPT days, I had people sketch similar
> things on paper and then tell me “make that
> happen.” Now they can use PPT, so I can get
> more neatly-drawn vague directions to work
> from.

Your point, and similar above, is not technically wrong, but in practice it doesn’t seem to turn out that way. There is something about Microsoft tools that seems to make the people who use them dumber; I have seen this happen again and again over the last 15 years in different environments with different toolsets. Microsoft Access is another example: in theory it should be a fine low-end graphical database tool. In practice anyone who uses it for long becomes unable to understand, much less us, good database practices. And what is worse unable to learn from others.

Never been able to pin down exactly what it is about Microsoft tools that causes this to happen, but I have seen it too often to dismiss it.

Cranky

59

bi 08.12.06 at 11:34 am

#55: But a clever enemy might think of the whole matter from another angle. If disabling PowerPoint helps the US military, then perhaps the best way to hinder the US military is to enable more PowerPoint! What Al-Qaeda should do, therefore, is to make lots of bootleg copies of PowerPoint and distribute it to as many senior officers as possible. To top it off, they can also write a virus that’ll sneak into people’s computers and help them install PowerPoint if it’s not already there!

60

astrongmaybe 08.12.06 at 12:00 pm

PP version of the Gettysburg Address: http://www.norvig.com/Gettysburg/

61

halfbaked 08.12.06 at 2:25 pm

That’s why this is called the CEO administration.

I remember during the 2000 election listening to pundits boast that the Bush administration is going to be the first “CEO Administration.” I distinctly remember feeling quite ill at the thought of CEO administration.

Anyone who has ever worked by or near a CEO, particularly one who has a MBA, could predict the level of incompetence that plagues this administration.

We don’t want CEOs running the country, we want people who can get stuff done.

62

Ragout 08.12.06 at 2:47 pm

#32,

Your alternatives to powerpoint (signal flags, telephone, etc.) are the way orders would be transmitted *during a battle*. But Ricks isn’t talking about this, he’s talking about communication among staff officers during the months when a battle was being planned. The officers are all in the same office building, not on the battlefield.

Ricks’ claim isn’t that Franks did a bad job of briefing his superiors. It’s that Franks did a bad job at instructing his subordinates. He would send powerpoint slides when something more detailed was required.

Whether or Ricks is right, I have no idea. I’ve read the first 50 pages or so of Fiasco, and it’s all like this: lots of details about poor management that are really impossible for the reader to evaluate, but not much analysis. Is the rest of the book any better?

63

Russ Hicks 08.12.06 at 3:56 pm

Does Mel Blanc have a son who does voice-overs?

64

Cal Gal 08.12.06 at 5:14 pm

For any of you not clicking through to Tufte, he is not only an expert on the visual display of information, his seminar on that issue is the most concentrated education I have ever received.

If he comes to your town, break open your piggy bank to go.

65

nick s 08.12.06 at 5:54 pm

There is something about Microsoft tools that seems to make the people who use them dumber

Perhaps. But perhaps it’s also that it puts the means of production in the hands of dumb people. I certainly think that the ‘wizards’ provide easy access to dumb solutions.

A corollary: the advent of WYSIWYG word processors, and the provision of said applications to those outside a dedicated ‘secretaries’ pool’, can often be detected in offices that keep a couple of decades’ worth of archives. You’ll see documents where people have apparently spent as much time pissing about with fonts as they did on the content.

66

ziz 08.12.06 at 6:59 pm

I often think that when the lights go down for a PP presentation the brains switch off as well. Are people too scared to tell the PP presenter it’s total bullshit ?

The best computer systems I have worked on (25 years of experience) start with the CEO saying I want a peiece of paper on my desk every morning that tells me this … and programmers keep writing , refining re writing until they get it right.

I cannot imagine military planning is any different.

If the guy at the top knows what he wants, he will make sure everybody else gets to know and act accordingly.

Powerpointless … spot on Dude.

67

Benjamin Nelson 08.12.06 at 7:03 pm

Richard (aka Mister 13):

Tufte’s “Cognitive Style of Powerpoint” booklet (which included that NASA blurb) is mostly superficial nonsense. As agm (41) pointed out, the NASA case involved the presentation of a conclusion which was the exact opposite of any sensible reading of the stated argument and evidence. The problem was social and organizational. They rushed to get the launch accomplished because speed was prioritized over quality and communication. Tufte also gives a baffling example of what he considers to be effective communication, a 500 page physics tome by Richard Feynman, as if it were the paradigm of communicative efficiency in a briefing/debriefing scenario. I guess my sentiments lie elsewhere. If we all took the literature of academia or law as paradigms for effective communication, we would soon avoid social contact altogether, to protect our heads from the torrent of superfluous words. (This was one of Steve #32′s points, I take it.)

Tufte also presents us with his idea of a perilously truncated maxim, “Correlation is not causation”, preferring instead the wankerific “Empirically observed covariation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for causality”. What the deuce? The only relevant useful addition here is the word “necessary”. So we say “correlation is not necessarily causation”, which is intelligible enough, and accurate enough for most situations, and leave logical jargon to situations in which they’re worth the headache.

68

Anarch 08.12.06 at 7:10 pm

You can make fun of Powerpoint and Rumsfelds all you want. But don’t for a second congratulate the planners of Operation Overlord (Omaha beach) for their “exquisite” planning.

Are you nuts? Compare the relative strengths of the German army and the Allied invasion force; the tonnage of materiel needing to be transported relative to the techonologies of the day; the multi-year preparation (in the middle of war, not 30 miles from German forces) and requisite counterintelligence operations; the complete lack of sophisticated satellite and airborne surveillance techniques (not to mention precision bombing and the like) and there’s absolutely no friggin’ comparison whatsoever. We had a cakewalk in the planning for Iraq as compared to Normandy, an absolute friggin’ cakewalk, and I’ll wager you anything you’d like that the Pentagon planners would agree. What obstacles we had there were largely self-imposed — not using the full capacity of our airforce (e.g. carpet-bombing), an unwillingness to accept large-scale casualties, the diplomatic debacle in Turkey and the strategic ramifications thereof, etc. — but that shouldn’t be confused whatsoever with the sheer godawful complexity and triumph of the Overlord planners. It wasn’t perfect, true; but the mere fact that it was, and was successful, is the highest honor I can think to bestow.

69

Ragout 08.12.06 at 7:46 pm

According to Stephen Ambrose, the D-Day planners did a good job with the first few days, but failed miserably to prepare the troops for the next month. So in this respect anyway, Rumfeld is following in their footsteps.

One memorable example: Allied leaders didn’t know that the hedgerows that ringed every field in Normandy were serious obstacles. So they didn’t train troops or devise any tactics for dealing with them.

70

anonymous 08.12.06 at 9:06 pm

An important point Ricks makes in another passage is that in the process of summarization and redaction of planning documents at successively higher levels of the intelligence hierarchy, the summaries became more and more optimistic and ideologically slanted. Result: the present war in Iraq.

The details, which suggested a greater degree of pessimism and complexity, were omitted. Ricks’ example was intelligence, but the results of PP summaries in the military were probably the same.

But the problem is inherent to PP as a medium: would “[bullet point] Possible insurgency” have made a great difference if it represented suppression of detail?

71

poor leadership 08.12.06 at 9:59 pm

McKiernan had another, smaller but nagging issue: He couldn’t get Franks to issue clear orders that stated explicitly what he wanted done, how he wanted to do it, and why.

That my friends was the problem, not PowerPoint.

72

bi 08.13.06 at 3:35 am

Benjamin Nelson: “The problem was social and organizational” is as wankerific as one can get — it’s one of those fluffy vacuous phrases which pinpoint no particular problem and propose no particular diagnosis. It’s precisely the kind of vacuous phrase that’s encouraged by the medium known as PowerPoint. And the opposite of fluffy vacuous phrases isn’t abstrust postmodernist gobbledygook, it’s clear writing — isn’t there another thread about this?

And if the lives of millions of Iraqis isn’t “worth the headache” of looking at “jargon”, then I ask, what is worth the headache?

73

Benjamin Nelson 08.13.06 at 10:44 am

Bi, perhaps you missed the next sentence: “They rushed to get the launch accomplished because speed was prioritized over quality and communication.”

The “headache” comment was directed at the correlation-causation aphorism, not at the NASA or Iraq points.

74

matt d 08.13.06 at 2:31 pm

I once worked for a company that wrote its reports and proposals in PowerPoint. All of them. No one in the office ever used Word. We’d print off the reports in slide mode, bind them, and deliver them to clients. Everyone seemed to think that preparing 100 page text documents was a task better suited to a word processing program than presentation software. Or rather, they seemed to think that PowerPoint WAS word processing software.

75

Nancy Irving 08.13.06 at 7:36 pm

Now if we could only get Osama to start using PowerPoint, maybe we’d have an even chance in the GWOT…

76

Lindstrom 08.13.06 at 11:04 pm

That powerpoint slide is just vague enough to work!

Well not really, but Rumsfeld probably thinks so.

77

Ftl 08.15.06 at 12:28 pm

Here may be the clearest manifestation of OSD’s contempt for the accumulated wisdom of the military profession and of the assumption among forward thinkers that technology—above all information technology—has rendered obsolete the conventions traditionally governing the preparation and conduct of war

It really is funny how the more you look, the more the entire overriding theme of the Bush administration is anti-intellectualism in all its forms. Not just anti-intellectualism in the sense of hating effete academics, but a fundamental distaste for any form of traditional intellectual authority, from accepted Military practice to Judicial experience to conventional political ethics to science and evolution to international law… in general, if there is a well-tested body of knowledge somewhere, they will send a Harriet Miers to implement it.

78

Daniel Martin 08.15.06 at 12:30 pm

It seems to me that there are one or two clear empirical questions here which ought to be amenable to proper investigation:

1. Does exposure to a Powerpoint presentation on a subject impart more or less information than some other form of presentation on the same subject? (Say, an unaided lecture, or a lecture given from accompanying plain text notes)

2. Does the act of preparing a powerpoint presentation on a subject cause the preparer to learn more or less about the subject than the act of preparing an unaided lecture? Assume the identical amount of time both for preparation and presentation was allotted to both methods.

My (completely speculative) guess is that the answer to the first question will not be easily determined, and any measurements will be within the margin of error, but that the answer to the second question will be a resounding “less”.

It has been my personal experience that preparing a five-minute talk to be given unaided (or perhaps aided only by a whiteboard) causes me to think carefully about the subject of the talk much, much more than does creating a powerpoint presentation. I suspect that this – the effect of preparing a presentation on the presenter – is really where the disadvantage of powerpoint lies. Note that if I am correct, this is directly relevant to the military example in the original post.

79

Amanda 08.15.06 at 1:18 pm

daniel martin, #89: “It has been my personal experience that preparing a five-minute talk to be given unaided (or perhaps aided only by a whiteboard) causes me to think carefully about the subject of the talk much, much more than does creating a powerpoint presentation. I suspect that this – the effect of preparing a presentation on the presenter – is really where the disadvantage of powerpoint lies. Note that if I am correct, this is directly relevant to the military example in the original post.”

Yep, I’ve found the same to be true for me. Slopping together enough bullet points to fill 15 slides is pretty quick and mindless; feeling comfortable giving a 10 minute presentation unaided or with only spontaneously-created aids (whiteboard) makes me really go through and think about what I’m going to say.

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