U.S. Army discovers PowerPoint makes you stupid

Have you fallen in love with your bulletized slides, nifty transitions, and pretty charts in PowerPoint? If so, you're likely getting more stupid, if the experience of commanders in the U.S. armed forces hold true. In fact, one of the force's top commanders says bluntly, "PowerPoint makes us stupid."

The New York Times has an excellent article today, We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint, about the serious problems the armed forces face because of their over-reliance on PowerPoint. It shows an incomprehensible slide (shown below) designed to show the complex U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, and quotes Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, as saying this tongue in cheek when presenting it: "When we understand that slide, we'll have won the war."


That bit of dry humor masks a serious problem when the military --- and business as well --- relies too heavily on PowerPoint. At a military conference recently, Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, explained the problem simply, "PowerPoint makes us stupid."

Why does it make us stupid? It's best to turn to Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who spoke at the same conference to understand why. The Times noted that he "banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005." At the conference at which Mattis spoke, McMaster called PowerPoint an internal threat, and explained:

"It's dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable."

The Times goes on to say:

In General McMaster's view, PowerPoint's worst offense is not a chart like the spaghetti graphic [of our Afghan strategy], which was first uncovered by NBC's Richard Engel, but rigid lists of bullet points (in, say, a presentation on a conflict's causes) that take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces. "If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise," General McMaster said.

Commanders say that behind all the PowerPoint jokes are serious concerns that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making. Not least, it ties up junior officers --- referred to as PowerPoint Rangers --- in the daily preparation of slides, be it for a Joint Staff meeting in Washington.

Even more dangerous, the article implies, is that it leads to bad decision-making, with serious consequences:

Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs.

In fact, the article even points to PowerPoint as possibly contributing to our flawed Iraqi strategy. The article describes an event in the book about the Iraq War "Fiasco" by Thomas E. Ricks:

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.

The article also says that tremendous amounts of time are spent in the military on putting together presentations, and that this takes away from true productivity.

Does all this sound familiar in your line of business? It should. Business relies on PowerPoint as much or more than the military, with similar consequences.

By the way, there does appear to be some reason to use PowerPoint. The article concludes:

Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters.

The news media sessions often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake. Those types of PowerPoint presentations, Dr. Hammes said, are known as "hypnotizing chickens."

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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