Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Is PowerPoint the Enemy?

Recently, The New York Times ran an article entitled, “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint” by Elisabeth Bumiller. The article focused on how PowerPoint is now the military standard in briefings much to the chagrin of many who see creating PowerPoint presentations as a time waster—and the enemy to actual "discussion, critical thinking, and thoughtful decision-making." Some junior officers spend the majority of their time creating PowerPoint slides for briefings that storyboard "just about anything that happens," according to Lt. Sam Nuxull, an Army platoon leader in Iraq.

Of course, this contentious article might never have been written if not for the following slide that received much attention:


Part of a presentation to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and other officials, this graphic depicts the complexity of the American military strategy in Afghanistan. However, if the author of the slide intended to show how the strategy is convoluted and confusing, he succeeded, because no one in the room could follow it. After viewing this PowerPoint slide, the general commented, "When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war."

Graphics like this one and many other convoluted presentations give PowerPoint a bad rep. But PowerPoint is not the enemy. People not being properly trained in how to create graphics and good presentations are the enemy to ... well ... PowerPoint and audiences everywhere that are held captive by these confusing and boring briefings. People assume that merely knowing how to use graphic software will automatically make their ideas and concepts understandable. They forget that PowerPoint is just one of many tools that they need to master to properly communicate their message and successfully reach their goals and reach their audience's limited attention spans.

The presenter spent a lot of time preparing the Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics slide. Unfortunately, they didn't use the proper techniques to disseminate their information and clearly conceptualize the final product. What is the primary objective? Is it a process flow? If so, where is the beginning or the end? How does each element relate the other? Is there a hierarchy? If the author "chunked" the information—pulled out and arranged information in sections—then maybe the audience could have followed the slide. (Check out our latest E-Zine for ways to "chunk" information, so your graphics doesn't become the next example of "what not to do.")

However, there is one situation in which a graphic like this one could work. If it is shown as the current situation/process/tool with the following slide depicting a clean, easy-to-follow version of the new solution—one that your company or team is proposing. That setup would be a brilliant way to win your audience's attention and their gratitude for offering a better solution.

Now if only we can figure out the above slide and help the general win the war ...