A PowerPoint diagram clarifying U.S. strategy in Afghanistan
Having gone on record against the narrative-killing malevolence of PowerPoint (“Unsure? Tell a story . . .”), I was pleased to see that the most popular story in The New York Times this week documents military commanders’ disgust with the fancy slide show. But we haters have little impact: recently someone asked me if I could give a presentation in PowerPoint on a magazine article I wrote. No and no!
The Times‘ April 26 story by Elisabeth Bumiller refers to a recent evisceration of PowerPoint in Armed Forces Journal by retired Marine Corps officer T.X. Hammes, who writes in his essay, “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.”
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. . . .
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.
I read my first criticism of PowerPoint before I’d consciously seen many presentations. It probably flowed from Edward Tufte, author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, whose essays “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” and “PowerPoint is Evil” damn it as cognitive novacaine. Citing Tufte, the board that investigated the space shuttle Columbia disaster implicated the software, used during the crisis, for what was allegedly a flawed response to the ship’s danger. (See “PowerPoint, Killer App” by Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post.)
I can’t speak knowledgeably to that, but I do study storytelling, and recently I’ve noticed PowerPoint’s danger for any users—from businesspeople to educators to ministers—who want or need to tell stories. PowerPoint is fatal to stories.
The software is being misused any time the speaker’s primary goal is storytelling—it’s astonishingly effective at killing personal narratives and personal arguments. Among other things, it flattens heartfelt content and subtext, destroys narrative pacing and structure, and makes what should be personal scattered and bloodless. And everyone knows this. By now, a Pavlovian stupor settles upon the audience when the fancy slideshow begins.
Probably okay for certain presentations if used intelligently, PowerPoint reduces the user who would tell a story to a mere host who can only point witlessly to the elephant sucking the oxygen from the room. At best, such a speaker appears to be selling something, not telling a story, the most potent way our species has discovered to receive meaning.
If you need to tell a story, that human thing, stand up there and try without a technological overlay. Anything is better than using PowerPoint thoughtlessly, even flailing your arms and bursting into tears. I say unto you as I say unto myself: When in doubt about what you should do, when you aren’t sure if your audience really needs bullet-point factoids, when you need to make an introduction and fear waffling on and babbling, just tell a story.