This cracked me up:
“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.
“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”
In General McMaster’s view, PowerPoint’s worst offense is not a chart like the spaghetti graphic, which was first uncovered by NBC’s Richard Engel, but rigid lists of bullet points (in, say, a presentation on a conflict’s causes) that take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces. “If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise,” General McMaster said.
Commanders say that behind all the PowerPoint jokes are serious concerns that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making. Not least, it ties up junior officers — referred to as PowerPoint Rangers — in the daily preparation of slides, be it for a Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan.
I find this hysterical, because in my day, it was all about what we called “cheese charts.” The great big easels (military issue, of course), with pads of paper the size of Montana sitting on them, with bullet point after bullet point. All they’ve done now is gone high-tech. If I had a dollar for every hour I spent hanging camo netting INSIDE a G.P. Medium to decorate the cheese charts because someone important was showing up for an AAR…
I think laser pointers should have a “kill” setting. That would liven up those monthly staff infections.
If you teach your child only two things make them these.
It’s more important to share than to have the most toys.
Life doesn’t always play fair.
David in NY
Probably right, it isn’t the medium, it’s the way of thinking — just reduce everything to buzzwords, and all will be well.
Sorry to hijack, but I just had to pass this along. Over at Pharyngula they freeped a poll on a Republican congressional website asking people’s opinions about the Arizona immigration law. Rather than take down the poll, the Republicans responded by resetting the poll and removing the option to disagree with the law.
The slide is not the situation.
Do you remember Edward Tufte’s rant about PowerPoint? It was classic. I’m going off to rummage around in Google and see if I can find it, although the last time I looked for it (about two or three years ago) it was only available for $$
Personally, I love Powerpoint. Of course, I never use any text….
Gettysburg address in power point
Honestly, the problem is not with the evil of PowerPoint, but the stupidity of the people who use it. It works great for certain things, but as the general points out, not everything can be turned into a bullet point. Though I have been to numerous presentations where even the bullet point step was skipped and I was forced to listen to the presenter _read off the damn slide_ because they hadn’t grasped the concept of summarization.
Technology is great, but unfortunately, it can’t make people any smarter. It can only amplify the dumb.
@SiubhanDuinne: Here’s a copy.
Belafon (formerly anonevent)
NASA even attributed part of the cause of the last shuttle explosion to an overuse of PowerPoint. (No time to go find the reference.)
seems like a good time to mention that everyone should go read Tufte’s book, Visual Explanations.
i read several years ago about a serious shortage of capts. and majors in the military because they were so damn frustrated at being “powerpoint rangers.”
guess it hasn’t gotten any better.
Jesus, Cole, how long ago with you in the Army? By my time, 87-92, we had overhead projectors and we starting to use PP. I agree with the general point, however.
On a personal note, I knew McMaster in Bamberg, Germany, back when he was a Captain and I was an LT.
Bravo to Gens. Mattis and McMaster for reminding me of how truly great the US military can be.
@Luthe: Exactly this. It’s a tool. In the hands of an idiot, it’s going to be a bad tool. I don’t see what’s so hard about this concept.
PowerPoint is a useful tool when used properly. Banning it is just admitting that you aren’t capable of teaching staffers how to use it in the context of the overall planning direction you want.
In one of the areas in which I work, “quad charts” are all the rage.
@asiangrrlMN: The problem is that the idiotic use of it becomes institutionalized. People then are trained to think in terms of bullet points and more time is spent polishing the PP presentation than thinking about what goes into it.
Never, ever let an officer know you are computer literate. I spent most of my first pre-deployment training time making PP slides, fixing laptops and generally being an office bitch. I think my fave ‘death by PowerPoint’ had to be the ones on VD. It’s 2005 and I was getting my sexual info from a computer screen that made typewriter sounds.
General Egali Tarian Stuck
Our Powerpoint was drawing stick men in the dirt. And a straight line now and then.
Bill E Pilgrim
I would think that “bullet point” would take on a whole new meaning in a military presentation in any case.
I tbhink the funniest thing is that mr aimai read me the exact same paragraphs this morning around six thirty when we were both surfing the net. Weird. No wonder I like this site so much.
@Omnes Omnibus: Yeah, true. It becomes about the tool and not the ideas. When a new tech gadget becomes hot, then everyone has to use it in the same way, whether or not it’s particularly applicable to that situation.
PowerPoint does not make us stupid. Stupidity makes us stupider. Lock and load! LOL!
SuibhannDunn and dmsmilev: did you know that Tufte is now working for the Obama administration?
Having recently attended a video conference, whose agenda was fought over tooth-and-nail, where all the time was taken up by on-screen, unreadable Power Point slides, I’m not feeling at all positive towards PPT. Bah.
David in NY
“Powerpoint is a useful tool”
Well, yes. But what is it useful for? I think, as it’s normally used, for situations that can be reduced to a list, or a series of lists. So I guess a lot of stuff the military does is amenable to Powerpoint treatment. But a lot isn’t. The best illustration of that fact is the illustration at the top of the Times story. This demonstrates the limits of powerpoint in dealing with complex situations.
Sorry, here is the story. Tufte has been appointed to the Recovery Independent Advisory Thingy, which tracks and explains where and how the ARRA money is being spent.
@Bob K: I know you meant “staff meetings”, but that was a nice Freudian slip.
I can sympathize with the poor officer.
I realize that he is pushing for a more complicated and therefore more complete consideration of the issues at hand. But PowerPoint is just a tool. It all depends on how we use it.
Life as a PowerPoint presentation:
— Try again
— Repeat ad nauseum
Yeah, I fail to see how going back to transparencies on overhead projectors or actual physical slides is going to make people at the Pentagon take “account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces.”
I can’t help wonder why putting discussion points on a piece fucking paper make them more valid. This man is in a position of authority?
In the hands of lazy or dumb professor (and/or TA), PP can be death on college campuses, too.
Paul in KY
John, John,…I feel sorry for you old troop. In the USAF, we used white boards (with different colored magic markers). Since these presentations usually took place indoors (Wing Commander’s briefing room, etc.) we had nice framed pictures on the wall & thus no need to hang cammo netting (how gauche). Afterwards, we would all gather at the O-Club for lime rickeys and such.
Ah, the good old days.
@Omnes Omnibus: I was at sea as a contractor in the early 90s, and they were still using grease pencils on those big transparent plastic status boards, and had young lieutenants slaving over navigation charts plotting the ship’s position the old fashioned way with compasses and pencils, etc.
Technology is nice (after all, my company was on board for the express purpose of testing out some experimental technology). But it’s kind of nice seeing the old fashioned ways kept alive just in case the technology breaks on you.
Incidentally, professors have made much the same point about how Powerpoint is negatively impacting the presentation of information in college classrooms. And everybody has pretty much gone Powerpoint these days. I guess this is the curmudgeon in me, but the first thing I reach for when I want to explain something is the whiteboard and the markers. And a whiteboard is the first thing I look for in a new office. Well, cubicle.
That’s a beautiful thing. I’m sending it to my wife, who is a professor of communications.
If people could remember that PowerPoint is really just a way to easily flip through computer-displayed visual aids, instead of being a substitute for everything else, then we could go back to ordinarily boring impressions that seemed a lot less convincing since it didn’t involve projected hypnotism.
The problem is that PP allows for more stupidity/unit time.
And the real horror is that PP isn’t as a result used to reach a stupid quota earlier and thus free up time for more useful activities. No, instead you get a modern, industrialized manufacture of stupidity.
OTOH, more useful than banning PP might be *teaching people how to f*cking read for themselves!*
A list of bullet points on a projection isn’t a visual aid, it’s an insult to your intelligence.
Obviously exceptions should be made for most politicians, top brass, high executives and other entities of too high a rank to read.
rootless-e beat me to it. I teach a business writing course and use the Gettysburg address presentation as an example of PowerPoint gone wrong. Of course, the reaction is that everyone chuckles knowingly and then goes right back to turning out nonsense.
Kevin Phillips Bong
We would work through the night planning the entire (notional) air war for the Korean theater and putting it all in a data rich PowerPoint presentation for the CFACC, then he’d make us jump through our asses right before he briefed the boss because he wanted all the colors on the sand chart changed. “Can I get that icon in a cornflower blue?” indeed.
I like Joey’s approach to PowerPoint. MOAR ACCORDION!
@Tom Hilton: Yes, I remember reading about that a while ago. Story about it here. Definitely a sterling example of why the Obama administration is much much much better for us than the Bushies were.
OT.. Linda Greenhouse suggests folks in AZ wear buttons that say I could be illegal. What do you thing about Tunch t-shirts?
Linda Greenhouse, for those who don’t know, writes about the Supreme Court for the NYTimes.
I somehow got stuck revising and fact-checking all the suits’ PPT presentations in one of my previous jobs, and after one particularly bad editing session, sent the Gettysburg PPT around as an example of how not to do things.
It came back to me three days later from a VP, who called it “an excellent example of how PowerPoint can summarize complex ideas!”
What a twatwaffle.
“Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”
A Brigadier General said this. In Iraq. With a straight face.
I’m guessing he didn’t see the irony.
Levin’s committee getting started with the Goldman execs, Cspan 3.
@dmsilev: Many thanks.
comrade scott's agenda of rage
@Kevin Phillips Bong:
Aaaieeeeeee, you’re bringing back the nightmares. Ppoint just hit the Joint Staff in the Pentagon (I was with the J2) in 1995 and became a big hit. Everything was done in Ppoint. The J2 loved it because he could take a slide show with him to brief people instead of an actual Intel Officer who knew wtf he was talking about.
And yeah, jesusfuckingkeeeristonabike, we’d spend way too much time changing colors, moving the bullets around and all that shit.
If you are condemned to live in a Puzzle Palace, your soul naturally turns for solace to the solvable game presented by reality reduced to bullet points.
Jesus, I just found the best reason ever that I’m glad I never rose above 1st Class Petty Officer. All I had to do was holler at them to pay attention. “Red wire goes on the red post, blue wire goes on the blue post. Got it bonehead?”
Not too thrilled with Word or Excel either.
Struck by this juxtaposition;
And some problems ARE bullet-izable.
“Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”
Try dealing with lawyers who absolutely have to squeeze in 12 subsections and footnotes.
OT but the headline that blared out from this article was
Obama disses white guys
For those not familiar with the DC area, the Washington Examiner is a freebie tabloid that gets handed out around the DC metro stations and which pretty much spews out whatever DrudgeFauxMalkinLimbaugh are ranting about.
On my desk, I have a mug with my second-favorite New Yorker cartoon. The Devil is sitting at a very large desk, and an underling with wings and cloven hooves is sitting in the guest chair. Caption:
“I need someone well versed in the art of torture–do you know PowerPoint?”
Someday the people responsible for PowerPoint will be sitting in that guest chair.
I googled the “spaghetti logic” graphic that’s referred to in the blockquote. Yeah, it’s ridiculous. But just to play Devil’s Advocate, I would be glad to see something like that at work now and then, in contrast to the PowerPoint presentations we actually get with slides like “Git ‘R Done”.
That’s it. No pictures or charts, just that phrase. That was the text of the second slide at a presentation by the director of my department at my current job, low down the totem pole at a branch of the DHS which will remain nameless. Is all management insane, or just management in this branch of government?
@Tom Hilton: I Did Not Know That!!
I really like Tufte. Years ago I attended one of his day-long seminars and it was fascinating. He thinks pretty highly of himself but with good reason AFAIAC (although I think a few people were turned off). He’s smart and funny and his energy is boundless. I think he’ll be an asset to the Obama administration. Thanks for the info.
Somebody should put this on a slide and slip it into a deck that will end up in front of the Governor of Arizona:
Unfortunately, I suspect that that guy will get his wish – and a beating from the police – for DWM.
I thought everything in the military was “bullet-izable.”
Thank you. I’ll be here all weekend. Enjoy Larry the Cable Guy.
I’m in favor of “I’m a US citizen, asshole” myself. But then, I’m of the brown persuasion. I’m quite sure it would come as a shock to the good people of AZ that I was born in Washington D.C. and have forgotten all the high school Spanish I ever knew.
…I am so damn glad I chose Rutgers over ASU for grad school.
Scott Adams, creator of “Dilbert”, has said that no matter what absurd management practice or policy he thinks up, somebody will write in to tell him that’s exactly how it is in their workplace.
I’d make it a trio by adding the following:
He who dies with the most stuff – still dead.
I liked the bit about the Italians accompanying their PP presentations with orchestral music—assures that cinematic feeling.
This puts me in mind of a segment from Capra’s Why We Fight where they’re reviewing the Tanaka plan. The first item on the checklist: Conquer China!
Gives me fits of giggles every time I see it. It’s about as useful as any other “high level overview” I do at work. Conquer China! then what? ooh – grocery shopping (need cornflakes!)
That was great. You can almost see it as a movie scene.
Brought this to mind:
When I was in the Army a few years back, I had a captain working for me. We were writing a (notional) high level operations order for training reservists, and I figured that his experience in the Balkans as a company commander and battalion-level staff officer would be helpful. But he had never seen an operations order in the Balkans; it was all PowerPoint.
I would not doubt that part of the problem with the early stages of the Irag invasion (failure to seize ammo dump? failure to identify antiquities sites?) was due to planning the war with a focus on impressing Rumsfeld with PowerPoint, rather than planning the war for what would be on the ground.
All of the pesky details, like how we’d manage the country after invading it, probably made for messy charts and were left out. Or those charts showed that we’d clearly need the 300,000 men General Shinseki was talking about and Rumsfeld wouldn’t approve that concept, even with the nice cornflower blue lettering.
Have the Underpants Gnomes taught us nothing?
IMO, that would be grocery shopping. Maybe compiling a “honey do” list of weekend chores.
Yes, PowerPoint is a tool, but the tool you use affects what you’re able to do. I’m not sure there is any version of “explain” that is well supported by PowerPoint.
Enumerate, yes. Enumerate with hierarchies, yeah, that too. Enumerate with hierarchies and decorations, even.
There just aren’t that many interesting relationships that can be captured by lists and simple hierarchies.
via boing-boing i think:
every time you make a powerpoint, edward tufte kills a kitten
The hearings will be useless, if the opening questions from Levin serve as a guide. The guy from Goldman isn’t answering anything, has a lot of “don’t recalls” and it is generally incoherent. The Dems are going to ask convoluted questions that can be danced around and the Reps will ask simple questions that tend to exonerate Goldman. I’m afraid the truth is that Wall Street really has no true ethics, and Goldman was simply the best at taking advantage of an unethical and amoral jungle.
On a positive note, the hearings may set the record for use of the word “shitty” on basic cable.
And what lends itself to a Powerpoint presentation better than that thing that is most fundamental to any military operation of any type and that forms the basis for pretty much everything one does in the military — a Five Paragraph Order?
Admin and Logistics
Command and Signals
I’m loving this. I spent 90-100 hours a week for two years of my life doing nothing but making pitchbooks in Power Point.
Believe me, the presentations made by investment bankers are even more vapid and trite than those made by the government/military. Every time the Goldman-ites or their apologists (McMegan, I’m talking to you) say they’re being punished for being clever, I flash back to my days as a pitchbook-monkey. No cleverness there, just regurgitated crap formed into a pretty presentation by a bunch of ruthless mediocrities and their beleaguered analysts.
I dunno. I use PPT for presentations all the time. My slides have few, if any, bullet points. Instead, I use the title to make some statement (ie, ” Localization of quantum dots on a cover slip began by dropping a 10-13 M concentration of particles onto a cover slip, allowing them to dry in place, them imaging the dots.”) Then the rest of the slide shows the raw data and the localized dots. I spend the time talking (not reading frigging bullet points) about the imaging/deconvolution process. I find I use fewer slides, talk longer, and get better response from my audience (including a few intelligent questions) than the bullet point method.
Powerpoint isn’t evil—lazy, stupid people make lazy, stupid presentations. That’s true now, and was probably true back in the day of cave drawings.
@russell: As several have pointed out – it’s just a high tech slide projector. If a photo or a drawing makes your point clearer, then you can show your audience the picture. With powerpoint (I use Keynote, actually) you can add short (!) videos and animations to your repertoire.
I use no bullet points, almost no text (maybe just a few labels to identify things in a picture), and most important, imo, I turn it off when the visuals aren’t really adding anything. I teach biology and being able to show better visuals than what I can draw myself (though I still draw simple things on the board too) is enormously helpful. The ability to show processes in motion through video and animation is huge.
But if the thing is on, one can’t help staring at it. That’s why I hate sitting through most powerpoint presentations. I read the bullet points about 50 times over and over with each slide and miss half of what is being said because I find the slide distracting.
I’m a huge Tufte fan. Took his workshop probably 15 years ago and I’m still using his ideas.
The best part of that article comes at the end:
Davis X. Machina
We’re having Geek Week in the run-up to SAT’s. Friday is Nerd Day, and I want 100% participation in my class.
I had a brainstorm — for spirit week, there’s always a Hawaiian day (In the middle of the winter in ME, it’s funnier, trust me) and every teacher worth his or her salt has a bag of cheap plastic leis in a drawer against that day.
So I just finished a Latin class where we made slide rules. Not because the Romans had logarithms — they didn’t — or I’m good at math (420 SAT) but because I’m one of three people left in the building old enough — 52 — to remember how they work. Everyone on Friday with a slide rule gets counted on Nerd Day.
Some of the kids weren’t exactly fascinated, but the girl who’s dad is an EMT said his ambulance was full of them — specialized, but still slide rules — for vital signs, ECG stuff, dosages — because there’s a life at stake and just because batteries die, patients shouldn’t have to, too.
Years ago I was typing up notes for a manual my organization was going to give high school students about planning for college. The writer was an accomplished teacher who had run a number of counseling programs and knew the process cold but she tended to reduce everything to bullet lists. I kept asking her for more text, to expand on the explanations and give more information. By the time we were through, we had a manual that wasn’t just lists and was much more interesting to read. I could have created all the lists she wanted (in WordPerfect) but I knew lists were good for her as prompts in her verbal presentations but in the book she needed text.
How long until wars are managed on Twitter?
@Davis X. Machina: I used slide rules in high school and college chemistry classes. Later I used a specialized one to calculate proportions for reducing or enlarging graphics as a production editor. I also used a slide rule as a way to calculate changes in stitch numbers for crochet patterns. It’s easier than just doing the numbers on paper because you have a visual of the changes. (Gee, thinking about that now, I should go back to using a slide rule… it was easier.)
@SiubhanDuinne: I still have dreams of attending one of his seminars and getting the firm to pay for it. Although if they won’t, I’d probably go anyway…
@Kndahar Ha ha you just got bombed all yr taliban bases r belong to us o shit wuz wedding party kthxbai
@Davis X. Machina:
Many years ago when I was learning to be a field artillery officery at Ft Sill, I was forced to learn gunnery using slide rules and other mechanical devices before I was taught to use the computer systems. As a result, I understood what the computer systems were doing and I was able to notice when data had been entered improperly because the solution the computer spit out did not fit the approximate solution I had worked out in my head.
@Omnes Omnibus: This. The ‘if you can’t condense it into a bullet point, don’t bother’ idea is a real problem.
licensed to kill time
That is hysterical. I think ‘cheese charts and hypnotizing chickens’ should be a new tag for reporter snafus.
it took them long enough to get to this “Duh” moment…
who knew that “bulletizing” lists would lead to indiscriminate bullet-izing of people?
@PurpleGirl: WordPerfect? Bah! In my day we didn’t have fancy word processors or fax machines or xeroxes.
We typed on manual typewriters unless our bosses splurged for an electric one, and when it said cc: at the end of a document it was meant literally.
The Steve Jobs of our time was Bette Graham.
And typing college papers on stencils so you could mimeo copies for the TA and your classmates… Ah, those were the days.
This is why I use LaTeX Beamer.
That, and I’m a math nerd.
Christ. How could a Captain never have seen an op order? I knew what op orders and frag orders were, and I was a frakking E-4 for crying out loud.
I have to admit…I power pointed my classmates to death yesterday with this classic:
Correlations and causation of the End Permian, End Triassic and K-T Boundary Mass Extinction Events
@David in NY:
No. Absolutely not.
McLuhan’s dictum “The medium is the message” doesn’t mean the medium is the sole message, I believe, but the medium can and does have an effect on the meaning.
Don’t you think twitter has shaped the ‘discussions’ that people have on it? The technology limits the twitter twits to a small number of characters — the textual equivalent of a sound bite. Effective for some things, surely but utterly ridiculous for others. And terrible for communicating any complex problem.
Don’t you think this very medium we are engaged in now — blogging and commenting — has some effect on the kinds of information that is exchanged — and the understanding of it? Sure there’s lots of silliness and stoopidity on blogs. But where it’s serious, where people post real arguments (as opposed to ‘shut up that’s why), its vastly better than what you can get on TV — precisely because people have to write and can think. The medium allows that if they want to. TV is instant. It is suited for sound bites. And it is totally constrained by its time slot. (Jon Stewert had a hilarious segment of his show where he castigated CNN for cutting away from so many important follow-ups with the brush-off phrase “And we’ll leave it there…”)
By the way, this thing about PP forcing reality to be contained in bullet points and how it affects cognition and the analytic process was identified as a key factor in the Columbia space shuttle disaster.
From a WaPo article on PP’s role: Yale political scientist Edward Tufte, a specialist in the visual display of information argued that the program “encourages ‘faux-analytical’ thinking that favors the slickly produced “sales pitch” over the sober exchange of information.”
And IIRC the Challenger disaster investigation found among other problems that PP presentations to engineers limited their understanding of potential problems with the booster seal.
Information design is real, can have big consequences in how people understand stuff.
The best power point slide I ever created was for an presentation to junior economists in my then firm’s transfer pricing practice about defending IRS audits. I took a photo of Godzilla burning down a village with his breath, labeled Godzilla “IRS,” and put a little sign in the middle of the stream of fire that said “you are here.”
RT @LTSmith: #NORK loc8 close w/ & destroy nme. Use manoov & fire.
Omigosh, cheese charts. I was on battalion and brigade staffs in the early ’90’s and that’s all we knew! Packing alcohol pens and markers was more important than uniforms and my 9-mil back in the day. You just gave me cold chills!
I checked Wikipedia to refresh my memory of McMaster’s ’05 Tal Afar operation (its successes were short lived) and found:
“This article is in a list format that may be better presented using prose.”
This seems right. It isn’t that you cannot use it well, but it is true that few people do and that it is easier to give the illusion of contnent without any using PP, than it is with more conventional methods.
Also, in a university setting, they keep making it harder and harder not to use powerpoint. It isn’t that I’d want to ban it, but the administrators seem to want to ban chalk.