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.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

9 thoughts on “The Powerpoint Death March”

  1. David

    Great thinkers / leaders often do an exceptional job of delivering a presentation based on their vision and story telling ability, and not a lot of charts. I agree.

    Of course, I also think it helps to be the CEO…

    Not being an exec, or a particularly compelling and charasmatic visionary for that matter, I often find myself trying take something complex, to which I’ve given a lot of thought, and creating what I think is a compelling story, backed with charts and graphs to take the audience on the journey with me. Armed with 10-20 charts that are often in 10 or 12 point font, I’m coached to reduce to a few bullet points. (5 charts, six bullets, six words per bullet, 16 pt font)

    But, when you get down to just a few bullet points, I wind up either de-scoping my message a lot, or winding up sounding really general – like “buy low, sell high” to explain principles of investment. (how much are we paying this guy??)

    Then, you get sent packing because the exec asks 54 questions, to which the answers used to be in your deck, but were either moved to backup, or tossed during a pre-review, and even if you can recite the answers off the top of your head, it’s just not always credible when it’s not captured in a pie or bar graph.

    Perhaps, it’s that 82% of all statistics are made up on the spot, and so execs have gotten wise to this? Of course, taking questionable data and putting it into a chart doesn’t really make it any more right, but there is the perception…

    At least I’m not making “foils” anymore…glad that died in the 90’s.

  2. “What’s the bigger waste of time — creating PowerPoint presentations, or watching them?” (From review of Office 2010 in today’s Boston Globe) One of the “improvements” of the new version is the ability to embed videos on slides. I foresee new levels of time wasted!

    And, worse, the PPT mania has trickled down to schools. Wonder if this one will make its way into future middle school reports on Africa?

  3. I think it is symptomatic of a culture that has a measurably diminished attention span, has been conditioned by 3 minute 30 second pop songs, 30 minute sitcoms, and 90 minute films to think in threes. Three points, three bullets, three thoughts. Should I go on about Johnny Can’t Read? We know he can’t write — but a picture tells a thousand words, spare me the details, get to the point … etc. etc.

    I miss the digressionary, rich, sentences of James Fenimore Cooper, arguably “the worst successful writer” until Tom Clancy hit the scene — sentences that never go anywhere, which curved back on themselves, seeking objects, subjects, and verbs like lost sailors in the fog. I rate fire up Word than Powerpoint .. but all said and done …

    Powerpoint has one thing going for it. It beats Excel for telling a story — and trust me, there isn’t a CPA, CFO, or bean counter in America who hasn’t tried to use Excel as their do-it-all-tool.

    The best powerpoint in history remains Dick Hardt’s OSCON talk.

  4. David,

    I like your thought on three.

    I think you left out the potentially detrimental impact of crackberries & iproducts in sapping the attention of meeting participants – maybe this also explains why you can’t say more than 3 things . Of course, that would make a fourth point, so that’s right out…

    I’m still waiting to hear “Got A.D.D? Yup, there’s an AP for that…”


  5. Can you imagine if someone had asked David Foster Wallace to PPT? Or Henry James?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: