Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Blaming the Technology, Not the Users [Updated]

I have received multiple facebook links to a NYT story on Powerpoint.  As a long time user (addict?), as a short time resident of the Pentagon, as an occasional victim of Powerpoint Poisoning, I have a similar reaction to this as I do to advice columnists (Dear Abby, Anne Landers and their ilk) that blame the breakups of relationships on the internet: how do you feel about the phone?  Just like the internet, the advent of the telephone sped up communications and allowed spouses to meet and plan affairs.  Tiger's texting is just a slight advance over the telephone hookups that have been doing on since Alexander Graham Bell breathlessly said. "I need you."

What are the criticisms?

  • That it simplifies complex information.  Well, isn't that the point?  
    • One of my frequent duties in the Pentagon was to craft a one-page slide called a chapeau (that would be hat) to summarize a policy paper that might be a few pages long or many pages long.  The idea is that 2, 3, 4 star generals/admirals will not read every paper, but they will flip through the briefing book and read the slides and then use the slides as a guide to which papers deserve more attention.  
      • and yes, we did joke about earning Powerpoint Ranger Tabs--that the officers around me should have an additional badge on their uniform to make their prowess.  But then again, we joked about Acronym Tabs since we had to proficient in not just US military acronyms (and the Navy, AF, and Army would have different ones) but also NATO acronyms.
      • The funny thing is that the slide highlighted in the piece actually is purposely complex and confusing--to show how hard COIN is.
      • Here is another graphic that does the same kind of thing--one of my favorites from my time on the Joint Staff--illustrating how the US interagency process hooks into NATO's decision-making process.:

    • Scholars do the same thing all the time--we develop theories that simplify reality because reality is too damned complex to be focusing on everything all the time. 
  • That officers spend too much time making super-complex slides.  Um, yeah.  If an officer is spending nearly all of his time making super-spiffy slides, then he is spending more time on style than on content.
    • Can folks over-do Powerpoint?  Absolutely.  Officers clearly sometimes put way too much effort into making slides jazzy.  I did learn a lot of tricks during my year in the Pentagon as it was a PP-heavy environment, but I don't spend hours creating slides.
    • To be clear, these slides are often spread throughout the military (and for non-mil folks, around the world) via trons--that is electronically. So, folks elsewhere can cut and paste from one set of slides to build their own presentations elsewhere.  There is no plagiarism in the military or, perhaps, it is just not a bad thing.  So, it might be the case that some guy somewhere is prepping slides most of the time, but if those slides end up being used by a wide number of people, then the labor may actually be efficient.
  • Powerpoint is only one way to communicate, and it seems as if officers are relying too heavily on the one form.  This really is death by Powerpoint.
    • The worst kind of presentation is when someone puts up a slide and then reads each line.  When traveling through Afghanistan in December 2007, we had way too much of these. 
    • I use Powerpoint in my lecture classes but not in my seminars.  So, when teaching 400-600 undergrads, I will show slides that present an outline of my presentation along with some visuals:
      • Definitions
      • Maps
      • Pictures
      • Figures
      • Tables
      • Webpages
      • Math--rarely :)
      • and other visual materials
    • Students will sometimes complain that my slides are too sparse--that I talk about stuff that is not on the slide--but the alternative would be far worse--again, presenting a slide and then reading it.
    • Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.  Sometimes a picture is worth less than one. 
    • In my interactions with military folks, the tendencies vary quite widely from using the slides to illustrate points and generate discussions to "hypnotizing chickens."  
      • One of the most under-rated and misunderstood programs Canada had was embedding military planners in Afghan ministries to improve their policy process.  But the briefing on it was not death by powerpoint but certainly would have cured the worst case of insomnia. 
  • Certain styles of powerpoint are clearly unhelpful.
    • Using lots of bullet points to assert things or using action verbs with no one identified as responsible--too little text.
    • Overly complex graphics sweeping in and out
    • Too much text.
  •  With any technology, the impact is almost always due to the user and not the technology itself.  So if Tommy Franks is a bad general, powerpoint is not going to make him any better:
"No one is suggesting that PowerPoint is to blame for mistakes in the current wars, but the program did become notorious during the prelude to the invasion of Iraq. As recounted in the book “Fiasco” by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin Press, 2006), Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, who led the allied ground forces in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, grew frustrated when he could not get Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander at the time of American forces in the Persian Gulf region, to issue orders that stated explicitly how he wanted the invasion conducted, and why. Instead, General Franks just passed on to General McKiernan the vague PowerPoint slides that he had already shown to Donald H. Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time."
[Updated: In response to my FB comments on this, this link was posted: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB214/index.htm.  It shows Franks' slides.  And demonstrates conclusively that Powerpoint can illustrate idiotic thinking quite well.

The article indicates that Powerpoint is being used everywhere, including at the small unit level before a mission.  There should be an effort to revise the culture of the military (and not just the American one--Canada has a similar Powerpoint overdose) to train officers in how to use and not use Powerpoint.  

I may sound a bit defensive here and I am biased as I do use Powerpoint almost every time I do a formal presentation.  But Powerpoint and other presentation programs are useful when used correctly and not useful when used incorrectly, just like lawnmowers, chainsaws, artillery and precision-guided munitions.

1 comment:

Chris C. said...

Trying to give talks without powerpoints is even more confusing. Few people can get away with it and there's nothing worse than stumbling over trying to draw something complicated on a chalkboard that could've easily been placed on a powerpoint slide. A few interesting pictures or visual jokes also helps liven up the class.

And 400-600 undergrads in a single class? Wow, you must run a full multi-level TA bureaucracy to keep that class going.