My Photo

Core topic

« Yay and ugh | Main | Oh. My. God! »



Chris Bray

This is a terrific post on an important topic. I'm in the Army now, called back from grad school and the Ready Reserve, and it's fascinating to watch the way the institution carries on internal discussions. PowerPoint habits are spreading through the whole institution, and the negative effects are remarkable. Just one story of many: During our pre-deployment training, an E-7 "taught" a class I was in on the subject of the Iraqi insurgency. And he just, you know, read through the slides; he couldn't answer questions, had no independent knowledge, provided nothing that we couldn't already see up on the screen. It was clear that he had just inherited the slides, because -- in October of 2003 -- he read straight through the slide that said that the insurgency in Iraq would die down as soon as Saddam Hussein was captured.

There is so, so very much of that stuff going on in the Army these days.



Outstanding post.
I posted this comment on Zenpundit's site and I expand some of it here.

Having been in several planning staffs (including OIF and OEF) for the last ten years, I don't think PP is the problem at all. Planning requires that you have to convey a LOT of information to different units in a concise and usable way. A brief might include some text (mostly bullets...but you can use the notes feature to expand on your points), imagery, maps, photos of suspects, graphics, weapon system video (WSV). Sometimes you have to brief via video teleconference (VTC) to people back in the US or downrange however the case might be. I don't know of any other program other than PP (widely used) that you can use to present this multimedia "productions". A Word document is just not usable when you are doing a step brief a planning or a coordination brief. Most smart officers know not to use PP as a crutch. For the most part, the PP presentation is an addendum to your text-form FRAGO, ATO or other types of order. PP is no substitute for actually talking to your players either face-to-face or on the horn. Tom Barnett's briefs are outstanding, but they are very broad informative/entertainment slides. Planning slides go into more detail and are not as "cute" or "clever" (depending on the audience and stage of the op). Some higher HQ staffs actually require very strict standardization which is kind of a pain in the ass but that's what staff work is all about. Like Mark from Zenpundit writes: "The visual is there to reinforce the concepts and expand upon them from another direction, not to echo them verbatim." One rule of thumb is "Don't read the slide to your audience unless you absoulutely have to...Expand on your on the visuals". PowerPoint is not the problem. Whatever failures of setbacks we've had in Iraq, they can't be attributed to planning a war using PowerPoint. I have not interviewed as many people as Ricks did to write his book, but based on my particular experience, I don't remember PowerPoint being the culprit of any particular failures in my unit. Failures is more a process than a single event anyway. Screwed up slides are usually a reflection of far more deeper problems. That being said, not all units operate in the same manner. Like Chris, I've had to suffer through irrelevant and outdated slides (mostly while still in CONUS). Once I got to the AOR the information was of course more relevant. A Sergeant First Class should know better than that, although I must say that my first pre-deployment training back in 04 kind of sucked compared to the one I received not to long ago.


I've worked in CPs from brigade through corps level for the last ten years, to include OIF. I echo Sonny's observations that PP isn't the problem (at least at those levels) - staff planning is much more detailed than what is presented in slides, and the slides are used to provide overview and help meetings "flow". Nonetheless, we've all seen way too many slides such as the one presented - slides that badly capture nebulous concepts or complex processes.

PP isn't a cause, it's a symptom of something larger. Where I would suggest there is a problem is in what Ricks quoted Marine Corps General Matthis as noting: computer work (to include generating PP slides) is by nature isolating, and we're in a fight that requires the highest levels of interpersonal contact and synergy.


Here's an excerpt of the final report of the Columbia [Space Shuttle] Accident Investigation Board via Edward Tufte, a Yale professor that specializes in information presentation:

"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 are 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 the investigation, the Board was suprised to receive slides from NASA officials in place of technical papers. The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic technical communication at NASA."

Read the whole essay - it's a sharp critique of PowerPoint as a tool to convey critical information.



Like currahee said, PP is not the cause, but a symptom. In your illustration the NASA personnel involved showed a lack of discpline and leadership that was reflected in the PP slides. Like I've said before, you can have the snazziest tools and the shiniest machine, but there is no substitute for face-to-face or interpersonal communication. The ones who detected the problem you have conveyed a sense of urgency to the senior management. Simply sending your slides up the chain doesn't cover your ass. You have to tell the boss if there is impending danger. Did PP exarcebate the problem in the NASA case? Maybe. But PP or no PP the organization already had a leadership a communication problem. PP just exposed it.

Chris Bray

Just remembered an afternoon, a few months ago, when I watched a lieutenant colonel tell a major how to prepare a briefing for a general officer. They went back and forth on how many slides to present:

"I'd like to do fourteen slides."

"Nah, that's too many slides -- I'd keep it at seven or eight."

The discussion was entirely about the number of slides the general would be willing to look at, with no parallel discussion of how much information needed to be conveyed.

PowerPoint Ranger

Some PowerPoint humor and anecdotes...


Allow me pile on--it ain't PP's fault. It is used in briefings to convey the key points of a large amount of information succinctly. Now, if you love PP as GEN Franks did, you wind up with 255 slide presentations that take six hours to brief (been there, done that). In OSD, on the other hand, the SECDEF despised PP and wanted narrative memos (info or action) limited to one page, space and a half between lines, 13 pitch font, with signatures. You could attach whatever you wanted to behind it, with the understanding SECDEF would never read it.
Lastly, I understand completely where the LTC was coming from: "I have x amount of time; I know from experience GO/FO Blank will spend y amount of time on each slide; therefore x/y equals no more than z slides". Haven't we all been there, as well?

Jerry Weissman

Bravo, Kingdaddy! Very good post on Death by PowerPoint. Your essential theme that the deficiencies arise “when used as a replacement for…documents” in the military has an analogue in the investment community: When companies go public, they create a formal document for investors known as an S-1, a highly-detailed tome required and overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission. But no investor worth his or her salt will make an investment decision based on an S-1 alone. They evaluate potential investments by viewing the principle officers of the offering company in an IPO roadshow. Yes, that roadshow is a PowerPoint presentation, but every CEO and CFO worth his or her salt knows that it is their discussion and analysis of the company that seals the deal. Would that the military could take a lesson from the high stakes world of Wall Street.

However, there are no bravos for the spate of comments on your blog from the detractors who blame PowerPoint for poor communication in the military and everywhere else in the universe. That is like blaming the Montblanc pen company for illegibility and illiteracy. Sorry, but poor presentations are due to user error, not the software.



I think every military guy that has commented so far will agree that PP is not the problem and made that clear in their comments. Whatever errors in planning happened during phases I through IV of OIF back in 03-04 can't be all attributed to PP. Anyway, a slide is just a slide, you don't win wars with "elegant" slides. Plans also have a tendency to change once you hit the ground, regardless of how much care you took building slides for the operation. I wish poor PP presentations were the only problem we faced in Iraq during those years.


That thing about substuting PP slides for orders makes me think...perhaps somebody (Rumsfield) wanted deniability for the lack of planning. Perhaps it indicated that he was that unbelieving/uncomprehending of the problems.


Rob Tsai

Great post Tom!

Powerpoint is the much maligned (and often rightly so) corporate tool of people who value style over substance. Distilling plans into bullet points is a skill that, left in the wrong hands, glosses over and disguises the very details that are necessary for any plan to "make sense".

I reviewed this book on my blog as well, and also quoted Arms and Influence:



Looks good! Very useful, good stuff. Good resources here. Thanks much!


patel jalpa

i want unix power point slide
i want to many ppt slide.
plz reply now
thank u

The comments to this entry are closed.