Death by PowerPoint may mean what it says

US military strategy on Afghanistan - a rare example of PowerPoint complexity

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”

That’s what General Stanley McChrystal, leader of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, reportedly said when shown this PowerPoint slide in Kabul a year ago.

If the slide, titled ‘Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics – Security’, had been intended to show the complexity of US military strategy, it presumably succeeded admirably.

It was certainly a change from the usual bang-bang bulletpointing and straight-line simplicity of many PowerPoint presentations.

It looks as if President Obama’s July 2011 date for starting to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is optimistic. Referring to these plans, a senior Administration said: “There’s some evidence that reminds us that this is not going to be a straight line of progress. It’s probably best described as zigs and zags.” (NYT report of 14 June 2010).

Indeed, but the problem is that the PP presentations said to have invaded military activities usually omit the complexities and the zigs and zags.

Old-fashioned human speech

When British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was touring Afghanistan earlier this year, he was shown a nicely bulletpointed, tidily optimistic slideshow about the battle for hearts and minds in Helmand. This upbeat show left him and his party with their morales boosted – until an official with knowledge of the region (that owes nothing to PP slideshows) summarised the situation in Helmand in the joined-up phrases of fluent human speech. In brief, he made it clear that Helmand was a disaster.

No doubt, PP is useful for gung-ho military men and can-do corporate communicators with a liking for bullets and bulletpoints. But one wonders how far the way it encourages over-simplification and excludes elusive complexities and nuances leads to disastrous military and corporate decision-making.

PP is one of those many tools and techniques that normally intelligent people have allowed to get out of control in a way that stupefies us and leads us into trouble. The ubiquitous slideshow, it seems, does not lead only to a dimming of the lights.

General McChrystal apparently is treated to two PowerPoint briefings in Kabul every day. In so far as these bulletpointed briefings simplify things, they must lead to military mistakes, which tend to be quite costly. ‘Death by PowerPoint’ is probably a literal reality.

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