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July 1, 2009  

Essay: Dumb-dumb bullets

By T.X. Hammes

As a decision-making aid, PowerPoint is a poor tool

Every year, the services spend millions of dollars teaching our people how to think. We invest in everything from war colleges to noncommissioned officer schools. Our senior schools in particular expose our leaders to broad issues and historical insights in an attempt to expose the complex and interactive nature of many of the decisions they will make.

Unfortunately, as soon as they graduate, our people return to a world driven by a tool that is the antithesis of thinking: PowerPoint. Make no mistake, PowerPoint is not a neutral tool — it is actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making. It has fundamentally changed our culture by altering the expectations of who makes decisions, what decisions they make and how they make them. While this may seem to be a sweeping generalization, I think a brief examination of the impact of PowerPoint will support this statement.

The last point, how we make decisions, is the most obvious. Before PowerPoint, staffs prepared succinct two- or three-page summaries of key issues. The decision-maker would read a paper, have time to think it over and then convene a meeting with either the full staff or just the experts involved to discuss the key points of the paper. Of course, the staff involved in the discussion would also have read the paper and had time to prepare to discuss the issues. In contrast, today, a decision-maker sits through a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation followed by five minutes of discussion and then is expected to make a decision. Compounding the problem, often his staff will have received only a five-minute briefing from the action officer on the way to the presentation and thus will not be well-prepared to discuss the issues. This entire process clearly has a toxic effect on staff work and decision-making.

The art of slide-ology

Let’s start by examining the impact on staff work. Rather than the intellectually demanding work of condensing a complex issue to two pages of clear text, the staff instead works to create 20 to 60 slides. Time is wasted on which pictures to put on the slides, how to build complex illustrations and what bullets should be included. I have even heard conversations about what font to use and what colors. Most damaging is the reduction of complex issues to bullet points. Obviously, bullets are not the same as complete sentences, which require developing coherent thoughts. Instead of forcing officers to learn the art of summarizing complex issues into coherent arguments, staff work now places a premium on slide building. Slide-ology has become an art in itself, while thinking is often relegated to producing bullets.

Our personnel clearly understand the lack of clarity and depth inherent in the half-formed thoughts of the bullet format. In an apparent effort to overcome the obvious deficiency of bullets, some briefers put entire paragraphs on each briefing slide. (Of course, they still include the bullet point in front of each paragraph.) Some briefs consist of a series of slides with paragraphs on them. In short, people are attempting to provide the audience with complete, coherent thoughts while adhering to the PowerPoint format. While writing full paragraphs does force the briefer to think through his position more clearly, this effort is doomed to failure. People need time to think about, even perhaps reread, material about complex issues. Instead, they are under pressure to finish reading the slides before the boss apparently does. Compounding the problem, the briefer often reads these slides aloud while the audience is trying to read the other information on the slide. Since most people read at least twice as fast as most people can talk, he is wasting half of his listeners’ time and simultaneously reducing comprehension of the material. The alternative, letting the audience read the slide themselves, is also ineffective. Instead of reading for comprehension, everyone races through the slide to be sure they are finished before the senior person at the brief. Thus even presenting full paragraphs on each slide cannot overcome the fundamental weakness of PowerPoint as a tool for presenting complex issues.

The next major impact of slide-ology has been the pernicious growth in the amount of information portrayed on each slide. A friend with multiple tours in the Pentagon said a good rule of thumb in preparing a brief is to assume one slide per minute of briefing. Surprisingly, it seems to be true. Yet, even before the onslaught of the dreaded quad chart, I saw slides with up to 90 pieces of information. Presumably, some thought went into the bullets, charts, pictures and emblems portrayed on that slide, yet the vast majority of the information was completely wasted. The briefer never spoke about most of the information, and the slide was on screen for a little more than a minute. While this slide was an aberration, charts with 20 items of information portrayed in complex graphics are all too common. This gives the audience an average of three seconds to see and absorb each item of information. As if this weren’t sufficient to block the transfer of information, some PowerPoint Ranger invented quad charts. For those unfamiliar with a quad chart, it is simply a Power Point slide divided into four equal quadrants and then a full slide is placed in each quadrant. If the briefer clicks on any of the four slides, it can become a full-sized slide. Why this is a good idea escapes me.

PowerPoint has clearly decreased the quality of the information provided to the decision-maker, but the damage doesn’t end there. It has also changed the culture of decision-making. In my experience, pre-PowerPoint staffs prepared two to four decision papers a day because that’s as many as most bosses would accept. These would be prepared and sent home with the decision-maker and each staff member that would participate in the subsequent discussion. Because of the tempo, most decision-makers did not take on more than three or four a day simply because of the requirement to read, absorb, think about and then be prepared to discuss the issue the following day. As an added benefit for most important decisions, they “slept on it.”

PowerPoint has changed that. Key decision-makers’ days are now broken down into one-hour and even 30-minute segments that are allocated for briefs. Of particular concern, many of these briefs are decision briefs. Thus senior decision-makers are making more decisions with less preparation and less time for thought. Why we press for quick decisions when those decisions will take weeks or even months to simply work their way through the bureaucracy at the top puzzles me. One of the critical skills in decision making is making the decision cycle and method appropriate to the requirements. If a decision takes weeks or months to implement and will be in effect for years, then a more thoughtful process is clearly appropriate.

This brings me to the third major concern with PowerPoint’s impact on our decision process: Who makes the decisions? Because the PowerPoint culture allows decision-makers to schedule more briefs per day, many type-A personalities seek to do so. Most organizations don’t need more decisions made at higher levels. But to find more decisions to make, a type-A leader has to reach down to lower levels to find those decisions. The result is the wrong person is making decisions at the wrong level. Maneuver warfare and W. Edwards Deming’s methods of quality control drive decision making downward to the appropriate level. PowerPoint works against this approach.

PowerPoint’s proper use

PowerPoint is not entirely negative. It can be useful in situations it was designed to support — primarily, information briefs rather than decision briefs. For instance, it is an excellent vehicle for instructors. It provides a simple, effective way to share high-impact photos, charts, graphs, film clips and humor that illustrate a lecturer’s points. Here, the bullet can function as designed by providing a brief, simple outline of the speaker’s material that facilitates note-taking and even (one hopes) student retention. Yet even in a classroom setting, it is not appropriate for developing a deep understanding of most subjects. For that, additional reading is required. There is a reason students cannot submit a thesis in PowerPoint format.

PowerPoint also can be appropriate for operational decisions that need to be implemented immediately. In this format, it can inform and stimulate discussion on a subject that should be fairly well understood by most of the participants in an ongoing operation. In a crisis where that background knowledge may not exist, PowerPoint can be used to provide basic background information to a larger group fairly quickly. While not ideal, it is a useful tool when confronted with time pressure.

Unfortunately, by using PowerPoint inappropriately, we have created a thought process centered on bullets and complex charts. This has a number of impacts. First, it reduces clarity since a bullet is essentially an outline for a sentence and a series of bullets outline a paragraph. They fail to provide the details essential to understanding the ideas being expressed. While this helps immensely with compromise, since the readers can create their own narrative paragraphs from the bullets, it creates problems when people discover what they agreed to is not what they thought they had agreed to. Worse, it creates a belief that complex issues can, and should, be reduced to bullets. It has reached the point where some decision-makers actually refuse to read a two-page briefing paper and instead insist PowerPoint be used.

Further, it is an accepted reality that PowerPoint presentations — particularly important ones — inevitably are disseminated to a much wider audience than those attending the brief. We have created huge staffs and they are all hungry for information. This means most of the people who actually see the brief get an incomplete picture of the ideas presented. Some briefers attempt to overcome this by writing whole paragraphs in the briefing notes portion of the slide. Clearly, a paper is a better format than PowerPoint. If the concept requires whole paragraphs — and many do — then they should be put in an appropriate paper and provided ahead of time.

And while the PowerPoint culture leads to wide dissemination of briefs, it has resulted in the reliance on PowerPoint as a record of the decisions made. We used to keep written records of the decisions made at meetings and officials had to initial them and indicate whether they approved or disapproved. Further, they often made notes in the margins to clarify their position. Future historians are going to hate the PowerPoint era; it will be impossible to follow the logic chain of decisions or determine where various people stood on the issues. Of course, that’s only fair since we often don’t know ourselves.

One excuse given for using PowerPoint is that senior leaders don’t have time to be pre-briefed on all the decisions they make. If that is the case, they are involved in too many decisions. When the default position is that you are too busy to prepare properly to make a decision, it means you are making bad decisions.

PowerPoint can be highly effective if used purely to convey information — as in a classroom or general background brief. It is particularly good if strong pictures or charts accompany the discussion of the material. But it is poorly suited to be an effective decision aid. Unfortunately, the Pentagon has virtually made a cult of the PowerPoint presentation.

AFJ 2009 essay contest

AFJ is running its second annual essay contest. Submit an essay of no longer than 1,500 words on a PowerPoint presentation that most affected your career — for good or bad. The winning essayist will receive a set of books recommended by T.X. Hammes; runners up will receive book gift cards. The winning essays will be published in our November issue. Go to www.armedforcesjournal.com for details.

T.X. Hammes retired from the Marine Corps after 30 years of service. He is pursuing a doctorate in history from Oxford University.

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