soldiering

PowerPoint is a Crutch

Or rather, it can be.

Once every couple of years, someone writes about how terrible PowerPoint is for the military. And then a counter argument is written about how PowerPoint isn’t the problem, it’s the way we use it that’s the problem.

We gnash our teeth and it gives us something to talk about around the water cooler for a few days before it disappears again.

In the past, I found myself getting annoyed at the idea that PowerPoint itself was a problem. I’ve always been of the mind that if used effectively, it can compliment briefing and teaching. I still believe that.

There are two recent incidents, however, that have challenged that belief, and I’m starting to move towards the ‘PowerPoint is bad’ camp.

A few weeks ago I was charged with running a rifle marksmanship range and needed to develop a concept of the operation, or CONOP (much more on that here). What I really needed to do was develop a plan – the no shit, how am I going to execute this?

The unofficial gold standard is the “one-slider.” That is, a single PowerPoint slide jammed with information that lays out, in general terms, what is supposed to happen. ‘One-slider’ isn’t a doctrinal term, but everyone knows what it is.

Step One : Look to see if this has been done before – does an old version of that ‘one-slider’ exist? If so, is it still relevant? Can it be modified?

A ridiculous amount of time can be spent searching for a 90% product to ease the pain of having to build your own.  Often, a 90% solution could have been created if one went straight to planning and executing instead of foraging.

In my case, I had about a 50% solution and had to build the rest. As I was building my ‘one-slider,’ I wondered:

“If I didn’t have PowerPoint, how would I do this?”

There aren’t many folks left at the Company level who can answer that question anymore. Those folks are the ones who served in the military pre-9/11, when email wasn’t that big of a thing and people sent runners all day to do their communicating. The “sharedrive” was a filing cabinet and no one would leave work unless there was already a timeline for the next day – they wouldn’t be getting any late night text messages with that information because text messages didn’t exist yet.

The right answer, as it turns out, is the operations order (OPORD) in a written format. Or if the intent really was to deliver a simple concept, then maybe I could physically write out what I intended on accomplishing on a single sheet of paper, neatly.

The point is, the presentation tool we use has a significant effect on how we plan (or fail to plan). And as MG(P) McMaster said, “…it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.”

The second thing that happened, or rather, hasn’t happened, is a class that I’ve been wanting to pitch for a couple of weeks now simply because I haven’t built a slide deck. I’ve attended so many briefings and classes in the military and civilian world given with beautifully crafted, colorful slides – some with animation – that they have affected the way that I envision myself briefing or instructing. My vision, of standing up in a darkened theater with gorgeous, simple slides seamlessly transitioning behind me to a riveted audience before I deliver “one, more, thing,” weighs on my mind as I delay – again – beginning the process of building that slide deck for a short class. I need to spend time building the slides, making sure they’re relevant, using the correct graphics, and then finding a projector, a screen, and a room big enough to fit the participants.

Meanwhile, the nature of the class is such that it can be pitched under a tree with a couple of 3 x 5 cards as notes. Just as effectively.

I suspect that part of the allure of PowerPoint is that is can be saved and it is forever. Once I’ve created a good ‘one-slider’ I can go back to it and swap out some details and be done with it. No real planning has occurred, but it briefs well. Likewise, there is no “digital record” of the class I wanted to pitch if I did it under a tree with 3 x 5 cards. No slide-deck to send around. Just my good word that I did it. And if I wanted to do it again, I’d have to save the notes. Yikes.

So while I haven’t completely abandoned camp and deleted my copies of PowerPoint, I’m more mindful now when I am using it or feel compelled to use it. If I have to brief or instruct and I instinctively reach for a slide-deck,  I now ask myself if this needs to be briefed on PowerPoint (and who said so), and if so, what are my constraints, or am I creating my own?

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12 thoughts on “PowerPoint is a Crutch

  1. I’ve seen each of those iterations. One of my early assignments was as an illustrator in Korea. In those days, the majors and captains in the S-3 THOUGHT and WROTE on yellow paper. SGT Miranda did the typing and I drew the charts. Within a couple of years the Army bought Harvard Graphics which made PowerPoint slides but was so complicated that it took college-educated officers (for the most part) to use it effectively. (“palette management”, anyone?) Officers started spending the night crafting these things.
    PowerPoint made it easy again but the mold was broken. It’s a great outliner but shouldn’t be a replacement for THINKING. Check out Pecha Kucha (http://www.pechakucha.org/)

  2. dwhinson56

    Personally, I believe PowerPoint, lack of meaningful subject research, investigation, and solid analysis, coupled with a six grade level military decision making process is the source of the fog of war. But, I thrive in chaos. It provides me endless entertainment.

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