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    Nobody Asked Me, But...

    Order a PowerPoint Stand-down

    Captain E. Tyler Wooldridge III, U.S. Navy (Retired)
    Proceedings, December 2004


    A recent study by a Washington think tank found that children now spend more time playing computer games and watching television than they do reading. Subsequent to the report’s publication, child education and psychology experts speculated about the long-term effects this trend could have on children’s development. They cited such risks as failing to develop critical thinking skills, inability to interact with people, and inadequate physical activity.

    The military should be concerned about fostering those same flaws in its junior officers. In this case, however, the culprit is PowerPoint. The art of creating a PowerPoint brief frequently has become a substitute for real planning, thoughtful discussion, and cogent analysis. The military should worry it is not breeding innovative thinkers.

    Briefings are widely used to communicate plans and proposals to senior leaders. PowerPoint, however, does a poor job of conveying information. In his article “PowerPoint Is Evil” in the September 2003 Wired, Edward Tufte writes that in a PowerPoint presentation a slide “typically shows 40 words . . . with so little information, many slides are needed. Audiences consequently endure a relentless sequentiality, one damn slide after another. . . . It is difficult to understand context and evaluate relationships.” PowerPoint, therefore, does not enable a briefing audience to assimilate the information presented and think through all the factors that may be pertinent to an issue or pending decision.

    Despite these shortcomings, PowerPoint briefings have become the center of gravity on military staffs. When confronted with a problem or issue, an officer’s first course of action is to construct a brief. In their efforts to create the perfect brief, however, officers neglect content in favor of “slide-ology.” Content becomes secondary to format, and the process of developing and delivering a brief replaces true thinking, planning, and problem solving.

    Because briefing is the center of gravity, it has become vital for senior officers to develop subordinates who are skilled in this peculiar art of war. Because “the mission is the brief,” the most valued attribute a staff officer can be blessed with is to be a “PowerPoint Ranger.” The labels “innovative,” “analytical,” and “strategic thinker” are not used with the same sense of awe. I cannot express it any better than the following excerpt from “The PowerPoint Ranger Creed,” author unknown:

    “Without my PowerPoint, I am useless. I must format my slides true. I must brief them better than the other staff sections who are trying to outbrief me.

    “My PowerPoint and myself know that what counts in this war is not the information. We know that it is the number of slides, the color of the highlights, and the format of the bullets that counts.

    “My PowerPoint and myself are defenders of my country. We are masters of our subject. We are the saviors of my career.”

    We all have become PowerPoint editors. Flag officers are just as likely to dive into the details of slide construction as the brief’s creator. Why? Because they can. It is like obsessively polishing your shoes or straightening your tie before a personnel inspection, and it is a heck of a lot easier than critical thinking.

    PowerPoint is used by attorneys in court and taught to elementary school students, so it is not surprising to find it embedded in the military culture. It is symptomatic of the ascendancy of style over substance, however, and I suspect ambitious staff officers rather than a chief engineer at sea or a company commander in the field institutionalized it in the Pentagon. The casualties of this preoccupation with PowerPoint are significant, with the foremost being truth telling. If your mission is to deliver a great brief (i.e., make the brief a successful event), information that could cause the brief to become unsuccessful gets left out. A retired flag officer told me his staff would deliberately use old information in a brief because including current information would cause the brief to be less polished.

    Much harder to pinpoint as PowerPoint casualties are the missed opportunities. What ideas have been shelved by staff officers because they were continually modifying slides? What issues were not vetted properly because the mechanics of constructing the brief crowded out thoughtful discussion and analysis? What information that could have been conveyed in a venue other than a PowerPoint brief did not become part of the decision-making process? No one can answer these questions; “Lost Opportunities” would be a poor slide title.

    Although PowerPoint may be evil, it is a symptom of other problems. If it disappeared tomorrow we would find an equally mesmerizing substitute. But just as TV is blamed because children cannot read or think critically, PowerPoint might be faulted for officers who cannot plan or analyze problems. We therefore need to apply the same solutions being tried to address the problems in our schools. We should establish a “PowerPoint Stand-down,” just as schools urge parents to turn off TV for a week. We would start with an introspective look at staff functions and processes, especially information management and how we communicate with each other and across organizational lines. We would, I hope, see the same benefits that families report: a weaning from the electronic medium, better communication, and improved thinking and analytical skills.

    Captain Wooldridge is a civilian working at U.S. Pacific Command in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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