16 February 2009

Okay guys, it's time to discuss PowerPoint

(I know that Powerpoint is pervasive in the military, and most government organizations also.  I'm actually curious as to how those of you in the private sector are using Powerpoint, if at all)

Powerpoint is to written communication as Star Wars:  The Phantom Menace is to the original Star Wars.  Yes, it's kind of pretty.  It wows the audience.  Animated helicopters can move across the screen and cause as many "oohs" and "ahhhs" as double-bladed lightsabers.  But at the end, you're left with a deep sense of nothingness.  The overly simplistic bullet points of a Powerpoint presentation are about as sensical and juvenile as Jar Jar Binks.  The CGI characters might look pretty, but I'll take the profound impact of "Do or do not, there is no try" over "Meesa called Jar Jar Binks" any day, just as I'll take a book over a Powerpoint slide any day.

Powerpoint is a tool, just like any other computer-based product, and it's only as good as the people who make the slides and convey the information.   A number of studies (and one doctoral thesis) have been done on the psychology and over-simplicity of Powerpoint.  But I think I'll add in some amusing anecdotal evidence that might shed some light on the situation.  Feel free to add in your own Powerpoint stories to the fray.

New Orleans, 2005.  In the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a battalion intelligence section, concerned with the threat of crime in New Orleans and how it affects the ability to successfully restore order to the city, produces a Powerpoint slide to illustrate when and where crimes are being committed in New Orleans.  A massive ring dominates the PowerPoint slide.  Around the circumference of the ring are the times of the day, from 0000 to 2359.  Concentric circles indicate the day of the week.  Small dots litter the circle.  

The slide is shown in a briefing.  Eyes squint and try to make sense of the slide.  They spend a good minute or two trying to decipher the cryptic information.  What profound information was it trying to tell us about crime in New Orleans?

It was trying to tell us that most crimes in New Orleans occur on Friday and Saturday night.  

Great!  Next thing you know, the Intel section is probably going to tell us that the number of boobs flashed in New Orleans increases 50000% on Mardi Gras, and they tend to target the Girls Gone Wild Camera crews.  

Powerpoint also has the ability to over-simplify or greatly obfuscate topics that shouldn't be.  Take "Phase IV Operations"--the plan to rebuild Iraq after the 2003 invasion.  Just look at this plan for reconstructing Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion (this is the actual US Central Command slide for "Phase IV", from early 2003 or so):

Simple, right?

Powerpoint has also been used to grossly oversimplify safety hazards in the Space Shuttle Columbia.  NASA has recognized the error of its ways and has gone back to the practice of writing good old-fashioned engineering reports, as they provide much more relevant information than the cartoonish bullet-point words and pictures which dominate PowerPoint slides.  

With this said, I want to hear your Powerpoint stories.  Ever spend hours on a slide just to add in bells and whistles to make it look pretty?  Ever have a slide that said absolutely nothing?  Ever spend time dumbing down something blatantly obvious in Powerpoint?  

I'm certain there's thousands of Powerpoint Rangers out there who would love to chime in.


Anonymous said...

NASA moving away from PowerPoint? News to me. That type of information dissemenation has been around the agency since the days of Mercury and Gemini, as evidenced by the old-timers talking about "View-graph presentations".

It's also alive and well in the private sector, I can tell you from 2nd-party information.

As far as amusing anecdotes? I heard one just today of a presentation that contained no actual text on the slides. Everything was written in the "notes" field to be distributed with the printouts. Kind of defeats the purpose.

Seth Godin said...

Have you guys read this?


Starbuck said...

John Boyd liked to talk about how he used to give presentations in the 1960s and 70s with charts and view-graphs. Although the technology was a little more primitive (they had specialized people who did the graphs), it was much the same thing I take it. I think they used to use Harvard Graphics instead of Powerpoint.

Nice to have Seth Godin with us, too!