If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might suspect I dislike PowerPoint ever so slightly. But though I often denounce Microsoft’s ubiquitous slide-view software, PowerPoint actually serves as a scapegoat for my frustration with tired thinking and poor communication. I’m not alone, either: top military commanders have lambasted “dumb-dumb bullet-points” again and again. (And again) (And again)
After the inner details of my love-hate relationship with PowerPoint made their way to the front page of the New York Times, I received a Facebook message from Dave Karle, an executive communications manager at Microsoft and Iraq War veteran. Through months of Facebook chats, we discussed the “dos” and “don’ts” of PowerPoint, which Dave subsequently incorporated into the Modern Presentation Method (MPM).
Of course, if you read Wired.com’s Danger Room blog, you’d know that already.
Blaming PowerPoint for an inscrutable slide is like blaming Twitter for DMing pictures of your penis to unsuspecting followers. ”If the military used Keynote, rest assured, they’d find a way to misuse that as well,” says Army Cpt. Crispin Burke, a Danger Room pal who’s put together his share of PowerPoints and PowerPoint criticisms.
In fact, it’s because of Burke that Karle’s whole effort got under way. Karle saw Burke quoted in a New York Times article in April 2010 that castigated PowerPoint and sent him a Facebook message soliciting his critiques.
Burke recalls his advice to Karle on making PowerPoint less of a soul-killing monster: “A common graphics library…. Use the default template…. By standardizing certain products across organizations, we can eliminate much of the time wasted re-formatting slides.”
Through Burke’s online contacts, Karle found the pseudonymous Army officer known as Doctrine Man, who rails on his Facebook page in cartoon form against the undignified foibles of military bureaucracy.
“My advice to Dave was pretty basic,” Doctrine Man reflects. “Knowing that there is a bias against PowerPoint that is building momentum, you don’t market Modern Presenter as a tool for better PowerPoint, but as a method to improve our communications skills.” (Doctrine Man made the Xtra Normal parodying PowerPoint Rangers that appears at the top of this post; the “tool behind the tool” phrase is his, too.)
In December, Karle launched a blog called, simply enough, Modern Presenter, that synthesized his experience giving endless presentations for Microsoft with the feedback he got from Burke and Doctrine Man.
He offered his Method as a way for people to focus on the goals of their presentations, rather than getting hung up on the technology — which results in the tangle of boxes and arrows that give PowerPoint its bad reputation.
“Presenters learn how to define what their audience needs, the presenter’s needs, and how to build a great story framework,” he blogged. Simply put: Visualize what you’re trying to say; map it out in storyboards; add some cool visuals. Refine it. Keep it pretty short. And it doesn’t have to be a PowerPoint: Let the message define the medium. “Hopefully the [Microsoft] Office team is not on its way to find me right now,” he joked.
On the advice of Microsoft’s chief defense liaison, Tim Solms, Karle trekked from Redmond to talk to the doctrine writers in the Army about his Method. By March, he got a sit-down at the Combined Arms Center, whose chief of staff, Col. Dominic Pompelia, assigned Roberson in May to work with him on developing an Army version of modern presenter.
The updated Military Presentation Method is a series of templates, graphics libraries and best practices tips to stave off the overuse of PowerPoint. Karle and Roberson literally scanned hundreds of field artillery graphics and more than 6,000 NATO-approved map symbols to spare officers the time of hunting for them online or in share drives.
“It’s all the tenets — less is more, don’t use 1,100 slides when you can use 20,” Karle says. Officers come to him asking, “How can I do it better, how can I do it less, how can I do it faster?” That’s missing the point, he explains: “I switch it from tools and more toward outcomes…. OK, maybe that’s what I’ll show you here, but what I’ll really show you is how to give a world-class presentation.”
All this work is gratis. Karle figures it’ll pay for itself by generating happier MS Office customers. At least if the Military Presentation Method doesn’t become a rigid how-to pushed out by the Army brass that results in even more labored presentations.
Weak thinking and bureaucratic rigitidy–manifesting itself through PowerPoint slides–featured in a vignette during the District Stability Framework class I attended this week, hosted by USAID.
Military commanders in counterinsurgency environments often plan their campaign along various “Lines Of Operation” (LOOs): e.g., economic, social, security, and governance. Of course, this also means staffs feel pressure to show their unit’s efforts along each of the various LOOs on a PowerPoint slide by cramming each line with activities (see below). In the words of the Doctrine Man, “if you see “white space, fill it”.
Although doling out billions of dollars in aid to one of the world’s poorest nations is, well, cute, it doesn’t necessarily address the root causes of instability. After all, the Taliban are active in more districts than ever before, despite tens of billions of dollars in foreign aid from the international community. Not to mention, the massive influx of cash is a short-sighted endeavor which could easily backfire upon NATO’s withdrawal (and, of course, line the pockets of unscrupulous figures). Prioritizing stabilization activities through filling in the white space of a PowerPoint slide won’t make Afghanistan more stable: although, sadly, many commanders seem to think it will.
If we attempt to solve “C2 by PowerPoint” by eliminating PowerPoint, we’ll only attack the symptom. The disease, of course, is weak thinking.