Generals miss the point on PowerPoint

Death by PowerPoint is no joke in the military

If your new tires fell off after installation, whose fault would it be — the mechanic or his tools?

If you’re a U.S. general, you blame the tool.  At least that’s what they’re doing in an article in today’s New York Times about the military’s use of PowerPoint.  Lost amid all the jokes and criticism of a “tool that has spun out of control” is a simple fact: PowerPoint done right enhances rather than undermines the quality of communication.

Great PowerPoint presentations seek to persuade rather than dump information.  Great presenters crystallize their message long before they sit down to design slides.  I was a multi-bullet, heavy-copy PowerPoint people in my previous life, but I now find myself spending more time thinking through the message and the appropriate visuals.  I think about the story, the audience, the decision-making journey, and how to make my points as simply as possible.

It’s a joke to see these senior officers moan about the quality of presentations and the time wasted delivering them.  As you read the quotes from the “PowerPoint Rangers” about the time spent preparing slides, ask yourself whether the generals delivering them had anything to do with crafting the message…or whether they even looked at their decks before delivering the presentation.

Hey, generals!  Fixing this problem is simple:

  • Limit the number of slides you can use in a given period of time.  General McCrystal, you’re the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, for God’s sake.  Tell your people that their slide limit for a 30-minute briefing is five.  Period.
  •  Teach junior officers the right way to present.  Start them at West Point, in ROTC classes, and at Officer Candidate School.  Highlight the people who do it right; re-educate those who don’t.  Reinforce the message at the senior-officer schools.
  • At the beginning of a presentation, ask presenters to explain their objective.  If they can’t communicate it quickly and briefly, send them back to the drawing board.
  • Teach junior officers — and their bosses — how to WRITE clearly and persuasively.  There are times you use PowerPoint and times you use memos.  My high-school English teacher prevented us from graduating until we could put together a well-reasoned essay (thank you, Mrs. Banikowski).  Our children hit college (and eventually the work world) with expertise in Twitter (how persuasive can you get in 140 characters?) and IM’ing.  Ugh.
  • Know your audience.  I’ve spent time with Tyler on his college essays over the past few months and if he’s learned nothing else from our calm, collaborative sessions (he would characterize those conversations differently), it’s that you have to consider who is reading your paper (or listening to your presentation).  I hope he brings the memory of our time together to college with him this fall.

Of course, these tips don’t apply only to our soldiers in Afghanistan.  You can use them on your own personal and corporate battlefields.  Click here for other posts I’ve written about bringing brevity, clarity, and simplicity to your communciations.

What advice would you give the generals?

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5 thoughts on “Generals miss the point on PowerPoint

  1. Seth’s points — as always — hit the target. But I continue to feel that it’s not the bullets that kill. It’s the person pulling the trigger. And to be most effective, the shooter has to aim the gun, take a deep breath, and squeeze the trigger. In other words, they need a message before they build their deck and they need the confidence to deliver that message without a crutch. PowerPoint is just a technology and people get in trouble when they spend more time playing with the bells and whistles than they do thinking about the message. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

    Peter

  2. If the mechanic were using needle nose pliers instead of a pneumatic wrench, I would definitely blame the tools. PowerPoint is not an ideal tool for creating visually effective presentations. Presenters need to be taught not to use bullet points in their presentations, but that is difficult to do when Microsoft gives them a template built around bullet points and doesn’t give them the tools to efficiently design slides on their own.

    I wonder about your suggestion to limit the number of slides in a given time period. Wouldn’t that more than likely encourage a presenter to cram each slide with more information? Teach presenters to limit the amount of information on each slide, but allow them to use as many slides as necessary to relate the amount of information they have time to address.

    1. Nathan, thanks for your comment. It’s a valid point but I believe it gets back to manager oversight. It gets back to being persuasive rather than providing an information dump. The best presentations I’ve seen are the ones where the presenter has an objective and great stories to illustrate his or her points, using memorable graphics and charts that reinforce the key points.

      BTW, if the mechanic used needle-nose pliers to change a tire, I’d still blame the mechanic. I do believe you can get visually effective presentations with PowerPoint; just don’t use the templates. I’d urge you to look at Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds or slide:ologoy by Nancy Duarte (their books or their websites) to see just how good PowerPoint can look!

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