Finally, someone has said what many of us have long suspected: “PowerPoint makes us stupid.”
That conclusion comes from a plainspoken expert on the subject, Gen. James N. Mattis of the U.S. Marine Corps who, you may safely conclude, is not a fan.
A story in last week’s New York Times revealed how some officers in Iraq and Afghanistan have labeled PowerPoint an “internal threat” to the war effort.
The discussion seems to have sprung from a January 2009 military Web site, Company Command, which asked current Army commanders and platoon leaders in Iraq what they spend the most time doing.
One officer, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, answered “Making PowerPoint slides.”
A lively discussion ensued in which Nuxoll revealed, “The one thing I spend more time on than anything else here in combat is making PowerPoint slides. I have to make a storyboard complete with digital pictures, diagrams and text summaries on just about anything that happens. Recon a water pump? Make a storyboard. Conduct a key leader engagement? Make a storyboard. Award a micro-grant? Make a storyboard.”
No wonder these wars are going slowly.
Can you imagine Gen. George Patten stopping to make pie charts as he rushed across Europe during World War II?
How far would Sherman have gotten in his “March to the Sea” if he had to choose among 50 fonts and color palettes for his orders?
And how could Hannibal have ever crossed the Alps if he had to draw out little pictograms and pass them around to his troops?
There is no doubt that PowerPoint can be an effective tool for popping up a couple of graphs during a presentation, particularly in the hands of a skilled presenter.
However, few of us are that skilled. Too many speakers map out their entire presentation in bullet points and then simply read it to an audience that is already fully capable of reading.
The military has found PowerPoint has two other side effects:
First, it tends to oversimplify complex subjects and lull viewers into thinking things are under control when they are not. Dumbed-down cartoons sometimes pass for in-depth research and analysis.
Some complex subjects are simply better presented as a narrative by a good speaker or writer.
PowerPoint became notorious during the invasion of Iraq, according to Tom Rick’s book, “Fiasco.”
Gen. Tommy Franks insisted on distributing his orders and battle plans via PowerPoint, which left many commanders confused by his creative slides and yearning for simple, clear orders.
Second, creating the PowerPoint shows can be a huge time drain. Soldiers, the military found, were spending an inordinate amount of time figuring out how to add little “bells and whistles” to their presentations rather than spending time in the field.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, says that sitting through PowerPoint briefings is “just agony.”
There are many, many of us out here who would like to say, “Sir! We feel your pain. Sir!”