PowerPoint and the Military

A few weeks ago I blogged about several people who see PowerPoint as a barrier to understanding. Today, my eye was drawn to a New York Times headline proclaiming: “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint.”

In remarks that appear to be channeling Edward Tufte, General McChrystal has called PowerPoint “dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Others in the military agree.  According to the article, this month at a military conference in North Carolina, Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said  “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” (He spoke without PowerPoint.) At the same conference, 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, likened PowerPoint to an internal threat.

Again, consistent with Tufte’s arguments, the article reports: “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.”

Having just spent two days at an academic conference where every session — including the one I gave — featured a PowerPoint presentation, I wonder if anyone has considered its effects on the creation and dissemination of scientific knowledge…

Teaching Naked

Today one of my colleagues mentioned an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on “teaching naked.”

In essence, the article argues that technology — especially PowerPoint — inhibits the learning process by promoting boredom and passivity, rather than interest and engagement. As a practical matter, anything that’s on a slide can be read asynchronously, so why waste valuable class time going over it? By comparison a real-time interactive discussion and debate about weighty issues is something that’s much harder to replicate outside the classroom, and that’s likely to be much more memorable 10 or 20 years later.

Of course, the problems with PowerPoint are well documented. One of my favorites is Edward Tufte’s essay “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within.” He shows through numerous examples that PowerPoint is simply the wrong tool for conveying all sorts of information. And while he agrees that some small part of the blame can be placed on poor presenters, he asserts:

“PowerPoint has a distinctive, definite, well-enforced, and widely-practiced cognitive style that is contrary to serious thinking” (p. 26).

Somewhat more humorously, some years ago Fortune published a much shorter primer on what-not-to-do entitled “Ban It Now! Friends Don’t Let Friends Use PowerPoint.” Unfortunately the online version lacks the visual punch of the print edition, in which the article’s major points were made as a series of PowerPoint bullets. It went something like this as I recall:

Slide 1: WHY BAN POWERPOINT?

  • It’s a monopoly.

Slide 2: WHY BAN POWERPOINT?

  • It’s a monopoly.
  • It’s inescapable.

Slide 3: WHY BAN POWERPOINT?

  • It’s a monopoly.
  • It’s inescapable.
  • It’s monotonous.

Slide 4: WHY BAN POWERPOINT? (cont.)

I think you get the idea… Indeed, since trading in my corporate career for an academic career, I have found that PowerPoint is as universal in this world as the former — both in classrooms and at academic conferences. The question is: How to overcome the curse of PowerPoint?