Small Wars Journal

The TX Hammes PowerPoint Challenge (Essay Contest)

Fri, 07/24/2009 - 8:44am
Earlier this month, retired Marine Colonel TX Hammes wrote an article in Armed Forces Journal regarding the drawbacks of pervasive PowerPoint use in the military. He challenged readers to compete in an essay contest at AFJ, with a selection of books as the prize.

Col. Hammes' article has gotten quite a reception throughout the blogosphere, with a few sites (Red Team Journal by Adam Elkus, Building Peace by "Reach 364", The Best Defense by Thomas Ricks) posting their own replies.

In the hopes of spurring some conversation on the topic--I'm too into the whole instant gratification thing to wait for the winner to be announced in November--I'm posting my own reply to Col. Hammes.

In January 2009, a military-oriented site, "Company Command", asked current Army commanders and platoon leaders in Iraq what they spent most of their time doing. One officer, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, answered flat-out: "Making PowerPoint slides".

When pressed, the lieutenant continued:

"I'm dead serious, guys. The one thing I spend more time on than anything else here in combat is making PowerPoint slides. I have to make a storyboard [a PowerPoint slide] complete with digital pictures, diagrams and text summaries on just about anything that happens. Recon a water pump? Make a storyboard. Conduct a key leader engagement? Make a storyboard. Award a microgrant? Make a


This generated a great deal of discussion from a number of junior officers in Iraq, who weighed in on the hours they put in each day making PowerPoint slides for mission briefings, storyboards, training meetings and command and staff meetings.

PowerPoint iseverywhere--not only in the military, but also in the government and private sector. Used correctly, it is an effective communication tool that can be used to supplement speeches or detailed, written operations orders. For example, an air assault mission involving dozens of aircraft, artillery and hundreds of troops can be collaboratively planned and briefed among the aviators and ground troops using maps, diagrams and satellite imagery e-mailed back and forth among the various actors on PowerPoint slides in order to assist the planning process. The graphics used in PowerPoint replace the massive campaign maps and problematic acetate overlays which were used by armies for decades, allowing these documents to be easily produced and mass-distributed with the click of a mouse. Indeed, PowerPoint has been the 21st Century's solution to the age-old requirement for organizations to report information between various levels of bureaucracy—whether it be a sales pitch to board members, or an air crew mission briefing for a flight of Black Hawk helicopters.

But PowerPoint is only as smart as those who are using it. In the military, business and even in NASA, misuse of PowerPoint can cause confusion and frustration. In the hands of a poor communicator, PowerPoint can spread misinformation, leading to bad decision-making. But we will also look at the flip side of the coin: despite the pervasiveness of elaborate PowerPoint presentations within the military, we will also look at PowerPoint presentations that would be considered poor by conventional standards, but actually communicated a message far more effectively than many other presentations.

There are two notable drawbacks of the use of PowerPoint (and other such slide-producing software) in most organizations. For starters, emphasis on style over substance causes a great deal of frustration—particularly as the process of making increasingly elaborate presentations takes time away from more important tasks. Secondly, the bullet-point format of PowerPoint often serves to oversimplify complex topics. Although the ability to display graphics allows the presenter to depict information such as a complex series of troop movements on a map, it can also be used to "dumb down" the audience, substituting cartoons for in-depth analysis.

Slides, transparencies and other charts have been in use in the military, the classroom, and in the board room for decades. Typically, they are used to provide a brief outline of subject material, or to provide some focal point of reference for everyone to look at, such as a map of an objective. These products were originally meant to supplement a lecture, briefing, or written order, not to be the central point of one. However, as time has gone on and PowerPoint has become more ubiquitous, presentations of this sort have, in some cases, become the sole focus of the briefing. Moreover, as the graphical capabilities of PowerPoint increased, so did the expectation to produce more graphically sophisticated presentations. What started as a simple medium for black text on white background quickly evolved into an extravaganza of unit or corporate logos and backgrounds and colorful charts. Unfortunately, as the graphical capabilities of PowerPoint increased, it also took a great deal more time to construct a presentation with the appropriate amount of "bells and whistles".

Star Wars director George Lucas once said, correctly, that "a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing" (although, despite this advice, he still directed The Phantom Menace). Unfortunately, this piece of advice hasn't quite hit the circles of business, government or the military. In any of these fields, we find considerable emphasis being placed on adding more and more special effects to PowerPoint presentations. Stories abound in the military and business communities of PowerPoint presentations which are expected to look like elaborate Hollywood productions. Sales pitches may be filled with animation, elaborate motivational graphics and music. Military briefings may feature complex charts, or animated helicopters approaching and departing a landing zone and dropping off tiny Soldier icons.

Today, leaders in both business and the military may see dozens of PowerPoint briefings in a single day, and there is often competition to produce the most elaborate and extravagant PowerPoint presentation. Indeed, the process of spending hours each day adding more bells and whistles in PowerPoint presentations has become such an accepted part of military culture that many in the military use the term "PowerPoint Ranger", to describe someone who spends most of his or her time in front of a computer making PowerPoint slides. Some have even gone so far as to create mock badges, similar to the wings worn by paratroopers or aviators, which denote how many hours a person has logged in front of their computer on PowerPoint.

The respondents on CompanyCommand's site noted that, in some cases, time spent on PowerPoint cut into more important leader tasks, such as pre-combat inspections of equipment, mission rehearsals and interaction with Soldiers. While disseminating reports among units and headquarters has been an important part of military operations since armies communicated with signal flags and bugles, the key to effective communication is that reports are accurate, concise, and timely—that way, the message is understood, and subsequent decisions can be made based on the report. Ideally, timely, accurate and clear reporting helps to allow leaders at higher echelons in the military, government and in business to execute a far more efficient Observe-Orient-Decide-Act Loop, which is critical in any form of competition, from business to blitzkrieg.

Another issue brought up with the use of PowerPoint slides is the reliance on using cartoonish images to display complex information. The old adage holds true that a picture is worth a thousand words—indeed, complex troop movements can be better depicted on a moving map display than they can be through verbose operations orders. However, the flip side of the adage about a picture being worth a thousand words is that some issues are far too complex to be summed up in a thousand words.

Take "Phase IV" of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the reconstruction of Iraq. General Tommy Franks' headquarters produced a complicated-looking PowerPoint slide during the run-up to the invasion, which described the reconstruction of Iraq's services and government on the following PowerPoint slide.

Although the slide looks busy and complex, it's surprisingly sparse on the details of reconstructing an entire country after a massive invasion. (Although I need to caveat this by saying that this is not the only slide produced during the run-up to the invasion) Nevertheless, a slide like this, with nothing but pictures, arrows, lines and vague terms cannot accurately describe the process of turning a fractured dictatorship into a democracy.

Thomas Ricks, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of two books on the Iraq War, notes that the use of PowerPoint slides instead of written text permeated the US military during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Ricks noted in his book Fiasco, that General Tommy Franks' reliance on passing PowerPoint slides to his subordinates in order to plan the initial stages of the war, instead of explicit, written orders, caused much frustration among senior military officers. Ricks notes that military leaders such as General Robert McKiernan were often baffled as to how to interpret the slides. Ricks also interviewed Dr. Andrew Bacevich, who felt that substituting PowerPoint slides for formal, written orders was "the height of recklessness".

Over-reliance on PowerPoint's graphical features isn't the only aspect of viewgraph software that can cause miscommunication within the workplace. The "bullet-point" format of relaying information can also be a poor method of conveying complex information if used improperly. For example, in 2003, NASA engineers noted that a piece of material dislocated from the external fuel tank of the Space Shuttle Columbia, and struck the thermal-protective tile coating of the orbiter during its launch. Initial testing of the protective tile did not accurately reflect the fact that the Space Shuttle would be travelling several times the speed of sound. NASA engineers formed an emergency planning group, compiling a total of 28 slides, which documented the perceived extent of the damage to the Space Shuttle, as well as potential courses of action.

Dr. Edward Tufte of Yale University, an expert on information presentation who has participated in the accident investigation of both Space Shuttles, wrote extensively on the misuse of PowerPoint slides in NASA during the accident investigation board.

Tufte had considerable issues with one slide in particular, reproduced here.

The slide shows a huge contradiction between the title, in large font, and the actual text of the bullet-points, which is in small text. The title of the slide downplays the extent of the potential damage to the Space Shuttle ("indicates conservatism for tile penetration"), while the small text in the bullets however, indicate that the damage to the shuttle could potentially be significant, which it was ("Test results do show that [penetration and damage] is possible", "can cause significant damage", and "flight condition is significantly outside of test database"). Tufte notes that, as information was passed up the chain, important details were omitted—details which stressed the potential for extreme damage to the Columbia's wing, and ultimately, resulted in its destruction upon re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. Notes Tufte:

As information gets passed up an organization hierarchy, from people who do analysis to mid-level managers to high-level leadership, key explanations and supporting information is fil­tered out. In this context, it is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation. At many points during its investigation, the Board was sur­prised to receive similar presentation slides from NASA offi­cials in place of technical reports. The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical com­munication at NASA. [Emphasis added]

Despite the aforementioned examples of poor use of PowerPoint—namely, the oversimplification of text and graphics, and the emphasis on style over substance—there are some who have been able to communicate very effectively using the product, in some very surprising ways. One of the most famous PowerPoint presentations to come out of the Iraq War was made by the late Captain Travis Patriquin, a Special Forces Soldier who was serving in Anbar Province in Iraq during 2006. Patriquin played a part in developing some of the techniques which led to the success of "The Surge" of 2007—namely, the empowering of local sheiks and the development of local police forces and concerned local citizens groups, such as the Sons of Iraq.

Captain Patriquin produced an 18-slide PowerPoint presentation describing the effects of empowering the local population. In contrast with the extravagant animated presentations that are normally given in the military, Patriquin's features crudely-drawn stick figures (some of which are terrorists, who can be identified by the fact that they are holding decapitated stick figure heads), and uses language which parodies children's books. Patriquin features loads of tongue-in-cheek humor in the presentation as well; at one point noting that "Had we tried [arming concerned local citizens] earlier, Joe [the Soldier] would have a much more happy family, as he would have been home a lot more often". Patriquin also flings a smart-allecky remark at then-Ambassador Paul Bremer III, and the rest of the Coalition Provincial Authority regarding their disenfranchising of local sheiks.

The 18-slide presentation—looking for all the world like something out of a Jack Handey sketch—was distributed among a number of senior officers. Despite the near-Hollywood production values which go into many PowerPoint presentations, it was this presentation which caught the attention of senior officers. The ideas presented by Captain Pataquin helped to change the course of the Iraq War. The format and look of Patriquin's message wasn't what counted—it was what he said. For all the satire and adolescent humor contained in his presentation, it presented a much clearer message about The Surge of 2007 than nearly any other document.

PowerPoint in and of itself is not to blame for communication failures in the workplace or military. As a reader in Dr. Edward Tufte's blog points out, blaming PowerPoint for the Columbia disaster would be like blaming Microsoft Outlook for spurring people to donate money to non-existant Nigerian royalty. Rather, our over-reliance on slide-view software, over-filtering of information, and over-simplification of complex ideas into small bullet points and cartoons is to blame for our communication errors. Not all presentations need be complex and filled with special effects, nor do important ideas need to be transmitted via PowerPoint. After all, our counterinsurgency manual, FM 3-24, was, in part, written based off of notes taken on a beer napkin at a hamburger restaurant.



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Fri, 07/31/2009 - 11:29am

Another common misuse that many were guilty of - not just leaders - was the belief that "sending the slides" to someone amounted to conveying the information that the slides helped to clarify. With the exception of "storyboards," slides do not stand on their own. They only reinforce the speaker.

I stumbled upon a great example today. Look at <a href="… slide show</a>. I saw this at the bottom of a thread on a popular blog, but so as to not give the impression that I am knocking that particular blog, I just posted the link to the slides. If you can flip through those slides and glean any clue at all as to what the presentation was intended to convey, then you have a future in fortune telling. (Just to be clear, reading the blog post that they were attached to doesn't help to clarify them, either).

I cannot count the number of times that I was told, "I'll send you the slides" and I would get some mysterious, seemingly random, collection of pictures and bullets like that example. After receiving something like this, I would usually call the individual who forwarded it to me and ask, "okay, so what am I supposed to get out of this?" 99 times out of 100, that person had no clue because he was the fifth link in a chain that forwarded it. People often believed that they were passing along something useful by shooting out a mass email with "Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Re: Fwd:" in the subject line and an attached PPT presentation that resembled an acid trip more than a summary of information.

Mike Shekleton (not verified)

Mon, 07/27/2009 - 5:10pm

Ill both defend and attack PowerPoint. It took a concerted effort during grad school by a determined professor to deprogram me of my react to briefing battle drill, which had meant thinking in terms of a PowerPoint shell and then filling in the details. I was still able to use it for briefings in his class, but it was the exception and not the rule and consisted of using it solely as a visual platform just as Steve, Marilu, and others have written. I think the saying "PowerPoint deep" is indicative of the typical use of PowerPoint as Ive seen it in the Army.

I can remember the lamentations over PowerPoint that were voiced all the way back around 2000 during sensing sessions at CGSC; these concerns were voiced just as the captain attrition rate had doubled in the course of a few years and there was a concern that the Army bureaucracy had won over the Army profession in the battle for the heart and soul of the Army. While OIF and OEF have reprofessionalized the Army in many respects, I think that now is a perfect time try and gain control over the PowerPoint beast. While it may not seem like a huge deal, I wonder how many well thought officers have left the ranks because of a frustration over being pigeon-holed into the surface deep thinking that is typically pervasive with PowerPoint (and the leader that uses PowerPoint as a crutch over sentences and paragraphs). Given that PowerPoint runs so deep within Army culture, it may be tough to bite the hand that feeds us, but I think that COL(R) Hammes and others are correct in praising the virtues of sentences and paragraphs and offering an examination of PowerPoint.

With that introduction, Ill turn now to some of my experiences, which I think reinforces what others have been saying.

<b>The Good.</b> Ill have to second Rob on storyboards. I created a storyboard without any guidance to do so from higher for an incident involving the shooting of a non-combatant during a contact during OIF 2. It was a useful tool to help me piece together the days events. I remember sharing it with cadets a year ago while I was teaching at West Point, and after taking 5-10 minutes just to refigure out myself the events that occurred, I was able to use it to demonstrate to the cadets just how complex and confusing the battlefield could be.

I also found PPT to be a great medium to communicate simple mission orders during my OIF rotation. Using satellite imagery just as Rob described, I was able to use pre-made icons and create a concept of the operation sketch in a matter of minutes, brief the company leadership, and then disseminate the "order" within minutes via thumbdrives to the platoon leaders so they could create their own sketch without having to recreate any work (I guess youd have to use bulkier portable drives now).

<b>The Bad.</b> Ive seen PowerPoint used incorrectly as well (and been responsible for some PowerPoint malpractice, too) . I had an operations officer who brought a PowerPoint operations order for an airfield seizure from his time serving in Ranger Regiment to use as an OPORD template in our battalion. After pleading with him of the course of several hours about how ineffective the format was for the mission sets wed have, we eventually had to shoe horn in a multi-day operation into "template" for an operation of less than a few hours with a highly synchronized timeline (and builds to prove it). PowerPoint had corrupted his thought process to the point that a written order was somehow an inferior product.

<b>The Ugly.</b> Weve all sat through mandatory briefings where the content was guaranteed because the briefer read directly from the slides. The subject matter was covered, but the effectiveness of the briefing was another matter.

In the end, it will take a concerted effort by the senior leadership to enforce better PowerPoint discipline so that slides arent an end in and of themselves; instead, its the thought that goes into them and the fact that sometimes these thoughts are better communicated in another medium. Encouraging is the fact that I have several instructors in my ILE class at the Fort Belvoir campus that discourage the use of PowerPoint when appropriate so that it doesnt corrupt the thought process.


<i>These are the authors personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Army.</i>

dk (not verified)

Mon, 07/27/2009 - 3:27pm

In the future people will be saying "I remember the good old days when we had full on Power point." I recently heard the guidance "...reports must fit on one BlackBerry screen..."

Great discussion on a topic well worth discussing.

Reading through the posts, I recalled a point made by Field Marshall William Slim in his wonderful memoirs, Defeat into Victory, describing his experiences in the China-Burma-India Theater in WWII:

"I suppose dozens of operations orders have gone out in my name, but I never, throughout the war, actually wrote one myself. I always had someone who could do that better than I could. One part of the order I did, however, draft myself - the intention. It is usually the shortest of all paragraphs, but it is always the most important, because it states - or it should - just what the commander intends to achieve. It is the one overriding expression of will by which everything in the order and every action by every commander and soldier must be dominated. it should, therefore be worded by the commander himself."

The power-point discussion is, in my mind, really a discussion about undisciplined thinking and haphazard communications becoming habitual in the routine business of the services (and don't believe for a minute that the Army is the only institution with a power-point addiction! My beloved Navy is right there with you).

We would do well to take Field Marshall Slim's guidance and work it into our service higher level leadership courses and JPME curricula. If we can start with a small, but critically important, piece of the bigger problem and focus prospective commanders on the absolute necessity for careful drafting, in their own hand, of commander's intent, perhaps we can then start "planting the seeds" needed to develop an appreciation for critical thinking and clear expression as an antidote for our "power-point" mentality.

In any event, Slim's book is a marvelous read -well-written and brutally honest. One of the finest primers on higher-level leadership in wartime I have ever read.

All the best, JCHjr

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 07/25/2009 - 10:45pm

You know writing about this some more got me thinking about why people ask for information. I know there are a variety of reasons, but I wonder if in this case it may get back to a lack of understanding about what a unit or person may be doing in relation to a given problem and as such specific information (the what) can not be identified, the "how" becomes the most accepted way to "process" it - the when becomes "always" since there is no criteria for what is really important vs. what is not relevant or has no value.

So while we may always have to put up with some folks whose appetite for reporting can never be quenched - maybe the larger populations issue is just ignorance of what is important - if you don't know "what" is important, then everything is important and the burden is placed on the guy who would be closest to the action. I think we are also seeing some of this in terms of problems that should be addressed back in the generating force being pushed forward for the operating force to solve, this in turn increases the reporting requirements.

Put another way, the approach to tackling this problem may not lie in determining what to do about excessive and abusive reporting requirements, but maybe its in figuring out why we think we have to report everything.

Best, Rob

So, if there is an at least a partial answer to this problem, I'd say its in better educating, training and developing leaders across the board to understand and address the problems they are encountering during operations. Unfortunately that is a big problem (meaning scale) that also involves our own culture and bias (recognized or other).

Rob Thornton (not verified)

Sat, 07/25/2009 - 9:55pm

I agree with pretty much all of what you said. Ken wrote something about a year ago that seems a constant - I'll paraphrase - we are not a bunch who remains content with a balance - we tilt between extremes. There are lots of time where a 1 minute asia-cell or a 30 second FM shot on the A&L net is all that needs to be said just as there are times where a 1 slide with a picture and 3 sentences will cut it. The trick is realizing that there is more then one answer. Unfortunately, that is not usually how we do business.

I think your question is apt, but I'd shorten it to: "I guess a better question to have asked is, "how do we stop the madness?" "

Honestly, I don't think its something you can put an absolute end to. It seems too natural and too easy to abuse any type of reporting. You can emplace some safeguards via unit SOPs, but much of that is local command policy - like net discipline, staff and reporting procedures, etc. Swing it too far though and you are still taking the control out of the hands of subordinate leaders who may need solutions outside what a given echelon thinks is "the answer".

I think the issue here is leadership as issued through command guidance. Provide some examples where a given level of detail is appropriate, and let the subordinate commands come up with what works best given their conditions.

Everyday I spent about an hour putting my own thoughts into a written OPSUM in a WORD doc. It described the days events and the various and my thoughts on what the friendlies and enemy were doing. Where appropriate I might include a photo or a map. At the end of the week as part of a roll up I included a list of the various enemy actions we decided to track by category from both the U.S. reports and the Iraqis and then put my thoughts to it on what I thought it meant to operations in our AO. All told it probably took 10 hours a week. Add in an additional story board and you might get 14 hours. Add in meetings - some of which told me nothing of value, some of which told me somethings of value - although often not always what I wanted to hear, or expected to hear at that time - and I'm probably up to 24-30 hours with travel. Add in FM and cell phone calls - maybe I'm up to 36-40. The time to collect, think about and reflect on the information - hard to say since it happens at the different times.

This is not to illustrate my day/week, just to say that all of this is information management and had I not taken the time to do it, and think about the information in a way that I could place it, organize it, and either act on it, or get someone else to act on it, then I would have been less effective. It allowed me to also inform our various partners and promote a broader understanding which in turn led to us getting more support from both the higher IA echelons, and from our coalition partners, often from places that exceeded my intended distribution.

However, reporting, which is really how I think this needs to be seen, can get out of control and abused. That abuse is largely the product of leaders who don't want to think or listen - I just don't know how we can fix that. I took part in a discussion the other day that leads me to believe is a permanent condition, not a problem that can be fixed. As I said we might control it and mitigate its affects through vigilance, but even if we through out our computers, banned .ppt, etc. we'd find another way to abuse reporting - in our hearts I think there are some who will just never get past it.

Best, Rob


Sat, 07/25/2009 - 9:05pm

<p>I would only add to your final paragraph, "... and in what medium it should be communicated." One of the issues with storyboards is that they have become a standard means of conveying information - seemingly ALL information - even when an email or phone call is more than sufficient.</p>
<p>There certainly is some value to a storyboard in some situations, as you point out. The one-slide summary of a tactical operation that shows a wide-angle aerial shot of the location, a close-in more detailed shot, a photo of the cache of stuff captured and face shots of the guys captured, with a brief summary of the 5 Ws, EBDA, SIRs, etc, along with a sanitized unclass version for the public affairs folks - that's good stuff. </p>
<p>A 3-slide series of storyboards for an EoF incident in which there is no damage to friendly or civilian property/limb - not so much.</p>
<p>I guess a better question to have asked is, "how do we stop the madness with the latter example?" As I pointed out, most would agree that the latter is absurd. I think almost everyone would agree with everything that you wrote, above. Yet at the end of the day, the quandary faced by the Lieutenant quoted above (and countless CPTs/MAJs) will continue, to the detriment of the effectiveness of their organizations.</p>
<p>Tell me how this ends.</p>

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 07/25/2009 - 3:07pm

I dont think a defense of the storyboard is in order, instead I think an offense against abuse and excess is more appropriate. Now, nobody told me to "do" story-boards, rather they were what I would put together to share the results of some action - usually tactical that I could then send to others to either help the identify it/or avoid it - if it were the result of an enemy action or just something that went bad - or replicate it, or its effects if it was something that went well.

Usually it consisted of a Google map screen capture of the AO - since all I had was NIPR access, and some basic graphics (tactical type mission graphics) and maybe some digital photos. I would then add text where required if the image did not speak for itself. The "storyboard" then went up, down and out to those I thought needed to know and might benefit by the knowledge. As I was somewhat isolated and could not simply communicate to everyone at once, this was both effective and efficient - it kept me from having to conduct a movement to simply report. It added a visual to what might otherwise be a FM push - that by nature should be brief. I was also able to send it back to those getting ready to come over and back to the institutional side so they got a feel for the conditions and could figure out if there were any DOTMLPF and policy impacts associated. Not once did I ever feel like it was a waste of time, since others were now able to benefit from my experiences. These might include how an ambush went down, how we solved a common problem, how the enemy was hiding his caches, etc.

I was also able to benefit from the knowledge of others I might never know, and in some instances get wind of an enemy TTP before it made it to our AO, and discuss it with my IA counterparts. Again it was not done as a means of proving I was busy, but with the intent to share information. If it is abused, that is a "guns dont kill people, people kill people" comparison. I will note a couple of things that Ive also thought about communications more broadly that apply to any medium or software

-One - there are plenty of people who talk on a subject, but who the audience might be better off if they did not - just as there are some who never share what they know, but we might be better if they did. Knowing when to share info is almost as important as the information that is shared.

-Two - there are other things which are .ppt deep - for example weve seen organizations that are "web page deep", or bloggers who are "one subject deep" - the issue here is the value of the information, not so much the medium its communicated in.

-Three - I suppose there might be better ways to communicate, but as addictive as .ppt has proven to be, it and its ilk have some strong points. They dont require drawing skills - which require time and effort to develop, are not standardized and if we wanted to send them electronically then wed require a scanner - on that note I think if the drawer has adequate, why not just have them use markers on a map or photo and scan it in then paste the photo into the storyboard - then write text where required. On the other hand if .ppt is the chosen storyboard medium find out what is taking the time in putting them together. If its just the thought that goes into reconstructing the action so that it can be communicated - that time may be time well spent in reflecting - if its a technical matter, then lets figure out what the right technical aids are. The latter is particularly true about having some record of what is going down in the operating force and translating it to the generating force who have the responsibilities to develop the right capabilities. Unfortunately, the information never gets to where it needs to go.

-Finally while more folks should unplug and get outside to see what is really going on, digital communications is also an enabler. Saying well just cease to do it seems shortsighted. A well crafted letter, speech, order, sketch or email takes time as well, but poorly done can have serious consequences. I suppose we could just not do any of it and issue guidance like " go make something happen" but how effective is that? I suppose we could leave each unto his own, sort of promote hyper discovery learning - not something Id sign up for though.

Ultimately any technology is not a panacea, and the purpose of doing something is what matters. But since we tend to see things in "task to purpose" instead of aligning "purpose to task" there should be no surprises when we abuse anything. My thought, think before you speak, given an order, do a .ppt, take a photo, make a sketch, write an email or develop a story board. That way when we do take the time to do something, it makes for effective communications that have value. The software and the idea of a story board is probably not the real issue, its poor leader choices in determining what is of value, what should be communicated, and prioritizing that among the other things that require our attention

Best, Rob


Sat, 07/25/2009 - 9:48am

Is anyone out there willing to defend the storyboard? It seems like everyone agrees that most of our admin PPT requirements are stupid and a waste of time, but for some reason we keep doing it. Who is responsible for this? If we all agree that it makes no sense then why are we still doing it?

Slidesmanship has become one of those toils of staffdom that everyone just accepts as one of the unpleasantries of the job, like the stench that must be endured if you work at a paper mill. Why?

I recently spoke to one of my old commanders who was working at the Pentagon. He pointed out that, "that place is insane. There are <em>Generals</em> making PowerPoint slides." I thought he was exaggerating, but he emphasized that, seriously, he saw at least two 1-stars putting together slides. WTF is going on?

IntelTrooper (not verified)

Fri, 07/24/2009 - 10:11pm

That Gettysburg presentation was brilliant.

If I was General Petraeus I would immediately declare a moratorium on PP presentations. It's ridiculous that so much field grade and staff officer time is spent doing something like this. War (including small wars) was conducted before PP. By the way, I would also declare a moratorium on meetings that last more than 15 minutes. Generally speaking, meetings and time spent watching PP shows is time wasted. Throw the software away and get out into the field. Superiors want to know what's going on? Get out in the field with them.

Marilu Wood (not verified)

Fri, 07/24/2009 - 7:59pm

I have taught art history with slides for more years than I care to divulge. The image is important. The minute one puts text on a "slide" and puts it up on the board, attention is focused on the writing - nothing else matters, particularly the image. All one remembers is that text.

I have been in lectures where the leaders have only read their slides - what a waste of time.

Visuals are effective - if used correctly. But not as a substitute for substance.

PPT Sea Story:
Before I started the website, I provided the first two book chapters in work to multiple friends, professional cohorts, etc for critique. Given that I hate scrolling long documents, I decided to use 18 -20 point type, landscape style using PPT viewer, so that all you had to do was click, vice scroll to keep reading.

LOL, I got back a comment that I had too much info on the page and needed to make sentences into "bullets."

I still provide my "director's" long term decision making in severe crisis perspective comments (Da Vinci's Horse)in landscape, big type, click to read next page.

SWJED (not verified)

Fri, 07/24/2009 - 1:30pm

Editor's note: Gulliver, thanks for the catch - entry corrected - much appreciated.


Fri, 07/24/2009 - 12:28pm

Good piece, though I think you mean <strong>Andrew</strong> Bacevich, and he doesn't work at CNAS.

These PowerPoint backlashes pop up every so often, and I always have the same response. The problem is not the software but the way it is used. The biggest abuse, mentioned in the post, is treating the slides a communication media in themselves and cramming them with all kinds of cryptic information like the monstrosity "Achieving Representation" shown above. I see this kind of thing all the time in military presentations. No wonder it takes hours to do them.

I am a communication professor and taught public speaking for 10 years. We didn't have PowerPoint at that time; we had posters, overheads, and other "visual aids." But the simple rules for using those work just as well for PowerPoint. Slides should (a) support/reinforce what the speaker is saying (not replace it), (b) be simple enough to read & understand very quickly, and (c) not be distratcing or take the attention away from the speaker. There should also not be too many of them because this decreases their impact.

Capt. Patriquin's presentation was effective because it followed these guidelines. If people would follow them in general, we would not see the kinds of abuses Col. Hammes and you are rightly complaining about.

Erik (not verified)

Fri, 07/24/2009 - 9:38am

Can't tell you how much I agree with this whole discussion; we have become "power-point deep".

I'm a LTC in the Army with 19+ years in. I still remember the days when there were no computers in the Company Orderly room; hence no power point. I went thru the Harvard Graphics phase as well. I've watched the Army move away from written orders to "power point orders". I've watched as Officers stopped opening a word processor to draft an order and instead go straight to power point.

I currently work at the Pentagon and am involved in preparing briefs and papers for the Army Senior Leadership. I am amazed at the "Commanders Guidance" I get on this; "No more than 3 slides", "Info paper can only be 1 page", "EXSUM no more than 15 lines". As many have stated here, some of these issues are complex and don't lend themselves to "short" explinations.

I am also glad to see that there are senior leaders in the Army that have trouble interpreting power point slides. I was begining to think that I just didn't get it. It's nice to know I am not alone.