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 – soldiers 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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2014 is a very strange year for the military. We’re still in Afghanistan, but whether we’ll be there past December is uncertain. Units are training and deploying, trying not to be distracted by the strategic level decision-making that actually has a direct impact on their and their families’ lives.
The recently proposed Defense budget will likely shrink the size of the military and could potentially reduce benefits of service, including cuts to Basic Allowance for Housing and Commissary subsidies. The upcoming ‘Officer Separation Board‘ will likely result in some 2,000 Captains and Majors – most combat veterans – being kicked out. Some of them will get the word while deployed.
Meanwhile, Iraq and Syria are blurring into a single conflict. Russia invaded Ukraine. It’s all very discombobulating and is creating an odd climate of uncertainty.
Writing for the New York Times ‘At War’ blog, Air Force Major Brandon Lingle captures this in his piece titled Watching Football, Waiting for War:
In the midst of the American drawdown in Afghanistan, after more than 12 years of war, we could be among the last United States forces headed into the country. We’re headed overseas against the current. We have a long, long way to go.
After Budweiser’s “A Hero’s Welcome” commercial, a senior airman said: “What’s with all the military commercials? It’s like they’re trying to make the war cool again.”
These words ricocheted in my head. To me, they acknowledged that our Afghanistan odyssey drones on in the background of our national dialogue. They underscored that a vast majority of Americans have no connection with the military, especially the 37,500 service members still serving in Afghanistan. They argued that commercials, tributes and ceremonies were no substitute for a meaningful conversation about the war. They showed that young Americans who joined the military after 9/11 know that their country isn’t really paying attention.
“Honestly, at this point in the war, is anything really worth someone’s legs or their life or something like that?” Vaughn said. “I’d argue no. We’re not here to conquer or gain more ground. We’re trying to leave.”
2014 is a shaping up to be a very strange year.
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I didn’t do a search term of the week last week because it was just the usual suspects. This week, the term was Tom Finton Vietnam. I had no idea what this was in reference to. I’ve written a number of posts orbiting Vietnam but the name Tom Finton didn’t mean anything to me.
On the rear bumper of my ZX3 I have a 10- by 3- inch Vietnam campaign ribbon sticker. On the left rear side window I have a peace sticker. I put both stickers on the car when Bush went to war after 9/11. Occasionally someone will recognize the campaign ribbon and comment as if we have a symbiotic patriotic bond. When that happens I just nod politely and go on my way. But one day a woman who appeared to be in her mid-40s spoke to me in the grocery parking lot. She had seen both stickers and it piqued her curiosity. “I was in the Army,” she said, “Don’t you think it contradictory to display both stickers?”
As a former Concerned Officer Against the War in Vietnam I responded, “Not at all.” She didn’t stop to talk. Her bemused smile turned to a disapproving scowl as she walked past me.
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