U.S. military battles crafty foe — PowerPoint

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being disheartened to read how so many of our nation’s finest military minds are mired in preparing and deciphering PowerPoint slides in this critical time.

A *New York Times* piece earlier this week, detailed the absurd amount of time officers and battlefield strategists are spending [preparing PowerPoint presentations](http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/world/27powerpoint.html?pagewanted=print) and, more significantly, the often ineffective results of those efforts. One wonders how many enterprise users are mired in the same fruitless efforts. More on that in a minute.

As the *Times* notes, it was actually NBC’s Richard Engel who uncovered the worst example of the military’s ‘[Death by PowerPoint slide](http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/MSNBC/Components/Photo/2009/December/091202/091203-engel-big-9a.jpg)’ that was compared to a bowl of spaghetti. In fact, the slide was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but it was a bit too much for General Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

When McChrystal was shown the slide in Kabul last summer he was quoted by an advisor as saying: “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” to which the room burst out laughing.

Some in the military are doing more than joke about ill-conceived PowerPoint presentations. The *Times* said Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005. Later he told the *Times* that PowerPoint is “dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

It’s not the overly-complex slides that bother McMaster, but the reduction of complex issues to the aforementioned bullet points that leave out important considerations like the interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces. “If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise,” said McMaster.

The broader concern cited by commanders the *Times* spoke with is that PowerPoint “stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making.” Along the way, junior officers – known as PowerPoint Rangers – are often tied up in the daily preparation of slides for such gatherings as a Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan.

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**A familiar corporate issue**

This all sounds very familiar to Rick Altman, my go-to guy for anything related to presentations. Rick runs a [presentations training and events ](http://www.betterppt.com/summit/)company and is no stranger to the vicissitudes of PowerPoint having authored the amusing and practical, “Why Most PowerPoint Presentations Suck & How You Can Make Them Even Better.”

“My first reaction was ‘So what, we’ve heard these stories so many times before,’ but for some reason this one resonated,” said Altman, noting his inbox quickly filled with links to the news story after it posted. “It’s actually encouraging to me that the issue is on people’s radar that they realize there’s a need for better presentation content.”

“The good news is these are issues that are pretty easy to fix. It’s not a question of how ugly the slide is or how the presenters aren’t designers. Let’s be real, they don’t have time to make every slide pretty and the audience doesn’t care. The issue is they don’t know how to stop dumping more information in.”

Altman said the correct approach to an effective presentation is to “spoon feed” information. “There are things like the intelligent use of the animation tool which allows you to give information in small doses and sequence it in a more digestible form.”

Without knowing the specifics of the military’s presentations, Altman said PowerPoint issues are rarely the fault of the program, but how it’s being used. He notes it’s so easy to learn how to use in a basic sense, user’s get a false sense that they’ve mastered PowerPoint before getting quickly overwhelmed by its intricacies.

“If we ditched PowerPoint and did charts and slides in Word, we’d be reading articles about Death by Word; it’s all about how you use the tool,” said Altman.

His main rule of thumb for all presenters: “You have to understand you are the presentation, not the slides.”

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