PowerPoint rangers and dumb-dumb bullets

It’s a few days old, but I loved this New York Times article about about the problems arising from the use of PowerPoint in military briefing in Afghanistan:

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

In General McMaster’s view, PowerPoint’s worst offense is not a chart like the spaghetti graphic, which was first uncovered by NBC’s Richard Engel, but rigid lists of bullet points (in, say, a presentation on a conflict’s causes) that take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces. “If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise,” General McMaster said.

Commanders say that behind all the PowerPoint jokes are serious concerns that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making. Not least, it ties up junior officers — referred to as PowerPoint Rangers — in the daily preparation of slides, be it for a Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan.

In fairness, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with presentation software, whether it is PowerPoint or Keynote or whatever. It’s just that presentation software is almost universally abused, even by those of us who know better. Often even well-intentioned people with good presentation skills succumb to corporate culture. It’s certainly happened to me.

However, the New York Times article spends a great deal of time on one apparently infamous slide, which they have an image of. It is designed to show the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan. I actually don’t hate that slide as much as everyone else seems to me. To me, it’s all in the intent. If that slide is there to be talked to at length, and used as an detailed explanatory tool, it’s a disaster. However if it’s there simply to serve as a visual metaphor for the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan, it could potentially be quite powerful. Context is important.

Also on the military theme, don’t miss retired Marine colonel and counterinsurgency specialist T.X. Hammes’ essay, “Dumb-Dumb Bullets“, on how PowerPoint erodes decision-making capabilities. As a writer, it resonated with me.

The other kind of bullet points.

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3 Responses to PowerPoint rangers and dumb-dumb bullets

  1. LoveChinaLongTime says:

    Sadly, a corporatized military makes for risk averse leaders and officers more in-tune with politics and MBA-think than warriors.

    Gen. Mattis is a rare breed indeed but the rule has proven that warrior leaders such as the late Col. David Hackworth tend to get suppressed by the system.

  2. Tyson says:

    I believe the article glanced on an important point: The alternative to PowerPoint is communicating ideas in long, detailed documents. Unfortunately, in the age of the 140-character status update, not many people have the writing chops to make that happen.

  3. FOARP says:

    I favour Power Point as an aide-mémoire – the same way I used white/blackboards before I ever used powerpoint. It should highlight and punctuate what you’re saying, not be a replacement for it.

    Unfortunately I have sat through far too many PPT presentations where I could have simply printed out the slides and learned just as much. When it comes to such presentations, less is more.