We have met the enemy, and he is PowerPoint (or is it?)


“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.

The slide has since bounced around the Internet as an example of a military tool that has spun out of control. Like an insurgency, PowerPoint has crept into the daily lives of military commanders and reached the level of near obsession. The amount of time expended on PowerPoint, the Microsoft presentation program of computer-generated charts, graphs and bullet points, has made it a running joke in the Pentagon and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

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 or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan.

Extract from NY Times. Read the very good full story at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/world/27powerpoint.html Helene Cooper contributed reporting. 

My take and 5 useful tips: 

Having experienced a slide crash in mid-flight last week ( as reported in my previous blogpost), and luckily able to successfully complete my talk without any audio-visual aids, I have 5 observations to make:

1. NEVER rely on your slides as your notes. If you can’t tell your story without slides, you have to wonder why you are up there in the first place. Bullet point slides went out of fashion in the 90s. Take the time also to explore alternative tools for augmented storytelling. http://www.prezi.com takes a vastly different approach to most presentation software and could be much more useful in clustering themes or demonstrating connections. 

2. Instead of text, can you use a picture to “convey a 1000 words” and create a mental hook or metaphor of the concept/ point you are communicating? If you choose images that are emotionally evocative, these can be a useful “aide de memoire”. This can take HOURS to find, and tie up lots of resources- so consider the ROI on people’s investment of time vis-a-vis the magnitude of the impact you need to achieve with your message. In my experience, its very difficult to outsource this process and get a good result unless the speech writer is closely involved in the selection of the imagery, because we all see the world through different eyes.

3. If you want to provoke reflection, thinking or discourse among your audience, could you talk the message and use a slide only to interject and frame the questions you want the audience to ponder at various stages of the talk, or to signify a transition?

4. Can you introduce the “back channel” at various stages of the talk, or even participate in it in mid-flight? This depends on the nature of the audience, talk and degree of tech savviness, but its a real way of bringing the thought stream of the audience into the dialogue or to make the zeitgeist visible. (Not advisable for insecure speakers, newbies to Twitter or those unable to think on their feet.)

How can you execute this?

 Via my clever friend @kcarruthers, I was alerted of a tool to integrate live tweeting in real time with a Powerpoint presentation using this. I havent used it yet, but will report on it as soon as I do- count on it for AMP’s next Social Media Cafe ( my safe experimentation space!)  Via @stevenringo, I was alerted via Twitter to this Applescript that will allow you to insert code into your Apple Keynote slides  that will “tweet” into the back channel while you are talking (how cool is THAT? ). And via @ethos3 presentation gurus, the cloud-based presentation software from http://www.sliderocket.com allows for a range of audience interaction facilities, including live polling and engaging in the conversation- view the demo here. Some good tips on how to master all of this available here and here.

By the way- there is a very insightful post on the blog “Learnlets” about the etiquette and value of the back channel – a contrarian view and I recommend this read! Another good discussion in similar vein from @engin_eer over at http://engineerswithoutfears.blogspot.com/2010/03/live-and-direct.html. (Hat tip: @katiechatfield)

5. Can you deliver the talk without slides and focus on audience intimacy, but make your content available on Slideshare for those who want to refer to the notes? Could this offer the best of both worlds? Sharing materials via http://www.slideshare.com generates influence and reputation value for the speaker/ thought leader and knowledge value for the researcher- so this is a win-win. (Although I find slides full of pretty pictures but without notes to explain them/ link the argument are not terribly useful.)

What other comments do you think we should add to this post? Was this useful? 



  1. I agree with all the risks of death by PowerPoint — but I think that PowerPoint is really just a scapegoat for a problem with how we try to abstract or summarize information. The hypothesis here is that complex information and situations are difficult to communicate. While I think that’s true, I think there are also effective ways that we have to model or create discrete views of complex ideas that, combined together, do a sufficiently effective job of conveying those complex ideas. So, we have "art" that allows us to pull at emotional responses; we also have "scientific models" that allow us to effectively describe factual information about a situation (UML, Zachman, Systems Approach, Scientific Modeling). I think that a blend of that art and science can be done using any number of presentation tools. My summary of the challenge is that "abstract models should be less precise, but not less accurate, than the reality of a situation."

  2. Thanks Paul- I love your contribution and it talks to my 2nd point. Of course, one can also evoke abstract concepts with simply word pictures or metaphor, and when doing so, even the presenter will be drawn into a different head space!

  3. This is useful, Annalie. Thank you.Speaking only from my experience and what works for me…As a professional presenter for nearly 20 years I have rarely used slides or PowerPoint for a few reasons:a) My major focus is on reading and adapting to the audience – props and slides can put a thin veneer of separation into that precious space of audience-speaker engagement;b) Technology fails too often (enough said);c) The ‘live’ show is more urgent and compelling. Even pictures can become a crutch. As humans we are equipped with the most outstanding ‘multimedia’ capabilities – imagination, experience, voice, story-telling, intuition, presence etc. Somehow *we* got dumbed out of the equation in lieu of software upgrades, tablet computers and best-selling books with catchy titles.Of course, the above is contextual. If I was a manager briefing staff on Performance Standards, I would obviously need to give thought to the dissemination of information. That said, my human presentation capabilities are always my first choice, then use machines to transfer the specific detailed information.Best, Robin 🙂

  4. Robin- I think you are right about the speaker also suffering partial attention deficit disorder when using machine/ slideshow, and creating a degree of separation from being fully "in the moment" with the audience. It’s a no-brainer that this is an example of multi-tasking and the super slick presentations that we see someone like Steve Jobs deliver at product launches are rehearsed TO DEATH until the actions become automatic- like a sports person repeating a stroke over and over again till its unconscious and they don’t have to think about it. Most of us dont repeat our talks that often (there’s nothing I hate more than seeing speakers trot the same talk out slide for slide from conference to conference, but you can understand why! The investment in time for flawless execution is ENORMOUS- and thats why you pay such big money for these celebrity speakers) )

  5. And if I were selling and marketing Apple’s products, I too would make sure that they were seen as the ‘standard’ tools without which a ‘presentation’ must surely fail. It’s an effective strategy that highlights the merging of presentation and product demonstration.

  6. Hi Maverick Woman, I can’t pass without leaving my calling card, as I LOVE slide shows. Seriously LOVE creating slide shows of anything and everything. EXCEPT when I’m in the audience!I’ve only seen a couple of presenters use this media well, and for all the reasons cited in the commentary. One exception is Glenn Capelli, who with the use of Art, music and his vocal prowess tells a story that leaves his audiences wanting more.I would love to see this art form revived.

  7. LOL and interesting we picked on the same ppt presentation (see this one posted a few weeks ago: http://lelaissezfaireisover.posterous.com/where-is-my-mind-asks-mbc-on-the-afghan-surge )I think the point has been made in a previous comment by Paul that ppt is just an easy scapegoat. This military diagram could have been made with any publishing tool… or even with a pen and paper – it would have still looked equally foolish in the context of the US military in Afghanistan.An other point which has been nagging me in the last few weeks as I now spend a fair bit of time with people who do praise themselves for doing high quality presentation slides. It might boil down to the fact that PowerPoint has given the democratic *illusion* that doing that stuff is within reach of anyone: a bit like electronic pianos made bad new wave bands think they could rival Peter Gabriel… all those tools do is make it easy for anyone to cook, it still does take skills and flair to be a Chef…

  8. Hi Xavier…just proves that communication and knowledge transfer is still an enormous art….and has to be approached with much care and consideratiom – whether in the military or the boardroom or the classroom, and tools along with it!

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