‘PowerPoint makes us stupid’

Have you ever bored an audience stupid with a PowerPoint presentation?

I think I may have done so once or twice – not because the presentation was especially awful, but because I packed in too much and went on too long.

Anyway, according to General James N Mattis of the US Marine Corps, PowerPoint can not only bore people stupid, but “makes us stupid”.

He managed to say that – without the help of PowerPoint – at a military conference in North Carolina recently.

Dangerous illusions

Another US military man, Brigadier General HR McMaster, said of PowerPoint: “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bulletizable.”

No? Does he mean you can’t explain all the complexities and nuances of the Middle Eastern conflict with a rigid list of seven bulletpoints?

Apparently not. “If you divorce war from all of that,” he said, “it becomes a targeting exercise.”

When leading the campaign to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, McMaster banned PP presentations. But junior officers — otherwise known as PowerPoint Rangers — are still kept busy preparing daily presentations.

Winning the war with PowerPoint

In January 2009, the website Company Command asked US army commanders and platoon leaders in Iraq what they spent most of their time doing. One officer, Lt Sam Nuxoll, said: “Making PowerPoint slides”.

When pressed, he added: “I’m dead serious, guys. The one thing I spend more time on than anything else here in combat is making PowerPoint slides. I have to make a storyboard [a PP presentation] 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 microgrant? Make a storyboard.”

(Some people might think that keeping US forces busy preparing PP presentations all day long would be a good thing, since it would deflect them from their “targeting exercises”.)

Captain Crispin Burke, an army operations officer at Fort Drum, NY, said in an interview that he spent about an hour every day making PP presentations. He has spent another hour or two writing an interesting essay about PP on the Small Wars Journal website. He points out – without a single bulletpoint – that PP is not to blame: “Rather, our over-reliance on slide-view software, over-filtering of information, and over-simplification of complex ideas into small bullet points and cartoons is to blame for our communication errors. Not all presentations need be complex and filled with special effects, nor do important ideas need to be transmitted via PowerPoint.”

In other words, PowerPoint is just a tool. All depends on how we use it.

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