The Powerpoint Death March

Today’s (4.27.10) New York Times is led by a wonderful flow chart showing who-knows-what from the military in conjunction with the war against terror or narcotics or Taliban. The ensuing article bemoans the impact of Powerpoint (or Keynote for the fanbois) on the junior officer corps, who spend most of their time developing story decks on everything from microgrants to ground engagements.

I can relate. The volume of Powerpoint requests propelled by a lemming-like desire to reduce complexity down to a batch of bullet points is staggering. Some of the officers quoted in the Times are putting more than a tenth of their working day into decks. Me and my team? If we were to score ourselves “red, yellow or green” on the task, we’d be solidly Green on Powerpoint. Our Harvey Balls would be complete.

Edward Tufte’s essay: “The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within” is well worth a $7 look at how the structure and syntax of a deck influences the reality of the situation trying to be encapsulated and communicated. This “observer effect” of the process influencing reality is beautifully captured by Tufte (who received a White House appointment last month).

Need to tame a problem of staggering global complexity? Add another slide. Need to lull an angry audience into complacency — consider a “boat” chart, a “waterfall”, or even a Venn diagram. McKinsey turned Powerpoint into a multi-billion dollar business, deploying an army of Indian Powerpointers to convert the MBA-guided insights of the global consultants into yet-another-deck ready on desks in the morning. The net result was a massive loss of the Firm’s intelligence as the narrators’ intelligence was lost to cryptic bullets and impenetrable bar charts after they moved on to run American Express or IBM.

The solution is just say “no.” I sat on the Google Global Marketing Advisory board a couple years ago and my counterpart at CocaCola stood up and presented a picture. A single slide. A PDF perhaps. But a picture of the forests AND the trees. “Good luck with that,” I told myself, bound to the presentation guidelines handed down from above.

Anyway, the Twits on Twitter are all a-tweeting this today, so here for your consideration is a link to the Times story that started it all.