Friday, July 24, 2009

Starbuck on PowerPoint

Starbuck, who writes at Wings Over Iraq and frequently contributes to Small Wars Journal, has a great piece up about the deleterious consequences of PowerPoint's proliferation in the military. If you haven't worked in or around DoD, just trust me when I say that this is right on the money. Elsewhere, thinking people write papers; at the Pentagon, you get slide presentations.

This essay aggregates the thoughts of some others who have tackled the subject (notably T.X. Hammes in an excellent article for Armed Forces Journal) and also offers some unique analysis. It's likely to ring true for all the grudging, reluctant PowerPoint Rangers out there (at least two of whom contribute to this blog).

Also, don't miss this hilarious and awesome contribution from Schmedlap: A PowerPoint Briefing About Why PowerPoint Is Bad For Briefing (just in case anyone needs the slides for this).


  1. Commander Joe runs the joint,
    Every meeting: Death by PowerPoint.
    Every SIGACT on the screen,
    Screams for jolts of caffeine,
    And nary a one fails to disappoint.

  2. By the way, thanks for the correction regarding Bacevich!

  3. PP is not the problem.

    Poor briefers and improper training in how to properly use PP is the problem.

  4. PP is not the problem.

    Poor briefers and improper training in how to properly use PP is the problem.

    Well, sure, that's fine. Except that the problem is really the way that PowerPoint (or the method of conveying information that it allows or even facilitates) changes institutional culture. It encourages poor thinking, it allows for decisions to be elevated to inappropriately senior leaders through the false impression of useful conciseness, and it has changed the way that organizations analyze and process information. You can say that the problem would be solved if individuals briefed better, and that's fine. But there must be some reason why individuals don't brief better, and that the military has embraced this negative change.

    I feel a bit like Gian Gentile here: it's not just that a bunch of guys are bad briefers, but that the prevailing narrative -- the PowerPoint dogma, we might say -- demands bad briefing.

  5. I think the reason why individuals don't brief better could be for many reasons.

    Briefing is hard. Many people don't want to be the guy/girl up in front of the class doing show-and-tell. They aren't good at taking that 3, 5, 25, or 100 page report and turning it into a 3-5 minute brief. It takes a certain type of person, or a certain amount of training to be able to do this effectively. The whole point is to create some type of "useful conciseness" but you are right that this breeds a culture where that conciseness is taken as gospel. And I am sure anyone would say that the only fault of that is the decisionmaker. A good DM understands they are only getting a snippet, and if they want the meat, they go into the written narrative for the fine-grain details. In the IC almost all PP are accompanied by a written narrative (that is, if the PP is not based on a product itself) but this is often not the case in the military. However, it is the job of the briefer to inform the DM of how complex the issues are that they are being breifed about.

    A briefer also has to be a good analyst. You have to be able to understand how your brief will be interpreted by your DM. If something is very complex, you don't foster some false impression by trying to just summarize the complexity in a bumper sticker. But you are right, the PP medium does bring this on, but it doesn't demand it.

    PP has evolved to something it doesn't need to be. It is too often used as a medium to convey information, in place of a written report. I hate when people say "just send me the slides." If you are a good briefer, your DM should not be able to understand your core message just by reading your slides. The message is within the briefer, not the slides. This is where the PP medium has really gone wrong in my book. If your slides have so much text/Franks-like graphics going on, your DM is not listening to you, and you have already lost any chance of getting your real message across.

    The whole problem is the problem of time. And this is not PP's fault. If you are trying to condense a 100 page report into a 4 minute brief for your time-strapped DM, you are going to have to leave some stuff out whether it is through PP or not. You have to hit the high-notes and move on. It is the DM's job to look for the details later on.

    No time to check typos... heading home.

  6. I had no idea about the PP culture of the military.

    The problem of information overload, and how to process complex information, is a problem of the modern world, I'm afraid. Or, am I overstating and it was always overwhelming?

    I'm thinking of the need for physicians to keep up with rapidly changing and expanding information. Even if you are a sub specialist, as I am, and cover a very narrow field of expertise in a teaching hospital, the amount of information is overwhelming. I actually used to kind of use my blog, or an older version, for a kind 'note keeping', although I have different systems to do that now (moogle is my new thing). There are many services for physicians that summarize articles in scholarly journals, a sort of note-taking for physicians. You want to read the whole article, but you end up reading the summarized version.

    I wonder what the solutions are to this kind of information overload? Presenting a lot of information, concisely, while maintaining complexity? Even if you want to follow-up, you may not have the time.

    RA - I let typos stand. I've decided it's my signature....

  7. People misuse PowerPoint for the same reason that they misuse checklists, regulations, and task/condition/standards. They don't understand the purpose of the slides. They see it as a blank to fill in.

    It's the same mentality of most OC's that I put up with at CTCs and RI's in Ranger School. They have a template that they expect you to adhere to. Rather than asking, "why did you do that?" they just point out, "you deviated from what I expected... BAD." Someone with a linear, non-thinking mindset like that will likewise fill in their slides without any regard for the purpose of their toils.

    That mentality is a relic of the personnel system and training system that were designed to man the force and train conscripts to a minimum standard, assembly-line style. That mindset has no place in a professional force. We tend to notice it more with PowerPoint, because it is a relatively new phenomenon. But it is a mindset that has been around for years. In the 1990s, it took the form of obsession with uniform regulations and safety (though I guess those are still with us now - witness the uniform nazis in the KBR DFAC and the ubiquitous reflective belt - there's another slideshow for you).