PowerPoint considered militarily harmful

Writing in the Armed Forces Journal, retired Marine T.X. Hammes excoriates PowerPoint and its impact on decision-making in the military:
Our personnel clearly understand the lack of clarity and depth inherent in the half-formed thoughts of the bullet format. In an apparent effort to overcome the obvious deficiency of bullets, some briefers put entire paragraphs on each briefing slide. (Of course, they still include the bullet point in front of each paragraph.) Some briefs consist of a series of slides with paragraphs on them. In short, people are attempting to provide the audience with complete, coherent thoughts while adhering to the PowerPoint format. While writing full paragraphs does force the briefer to think through his position more clearly, this effort is doomed to failure. People need time to think about, even perhaps reread, material about complex issues. Instead, they are under pressure to finish reading the slides before the boss apparently does. Compounding the problem, the briefer often reads these slides aloud while the audience is trying to read the other information on the slide. Since most people read at least twice as fast as most people can talk, he is wasting half of his listeners' time and simultaneously reducing comprehension of the material. The alternative, letting the audience read the slide themselves, is also ineffective. Instead of reading for comprehension, everyone races through the slide to be sure they are finished before the senior person at the brief. Thus even presenting full paragraphs on each slide cannot overcome the fundamental weakness of PowerPoint as a tool for presenting complex issues.

The next major impact of slide-ology has been the pernicious growth in the amount of information portrayed on each slide. A friend with multiple tours in the Pentagon said a good rule of thumb in preparing a brief is to assume one slide per minute of briefing. Surprisingly, it seems to be true. Yet, even before the onslaught of the dreaded quad chart, I saw slides with up to 90 pieces of information. Presumably, some thought went into the bullets, charts, pictures and emblems portrayed on that slide, yet the vast majority of the information was completely wasted. The briefer never spoke about most of the information, and the slide was on screen for a little more than a minute. While this slide was an aberration, charts with 20 items of information portrayed in complex graphics are all too common. This gives the audience an average of three seconds to see and absorb each item of information. As if this weren't sufficient to block the transfer of information, some PowerPoint Ranger invented quad charts. For those unfamiliar with a quad chart, it is simply a Power Point slide divided into four equal quadrants and then a full slide is placed in each quadrant. If the briefer clicks on any of the four slides, it can become a full-sized slide. Why this is a good idea escapes me.

Essay: Dumb-dumb bullets (Thanks, Bill!)


  1. I’ve never seen more Powerpoint than the couple years I worked in research for the military.

  2. Powerpoint can be a great aid for a really competent public speaker.

    Unfortunately, having a PPT presentation does not automatically transform you into a competent public speaker.

  3. Great points by the military man.

    I agree with Nosehat (11.41pm) that PPT is an excellent aid – but you need to learn to be a good presenter BEFORE learning how to use PPT.

    It’s the structure of the program that’s pernicious – it positively encourages shallow (rather than concise) thinking/expression and enables far too much useless stuff to be thrown in.

    Microsoft’s panapoly of gimmicky and ugly effects just get in the way, encouraging dullards to think they’re being creative and producing presentations that fail miserably as crisp, effective aids to communication.

  4. I thought that they were planning to use PowerPoint as a weapon. Deploy it in Afghanistan and the Taliban will be gone in a month; half of them won over to our way of life by the festive seasonal templates and the other half dead from boredom.

  5. In *.ppt’s defence, as I work with it a lot, well presented information which has been culled of data extraneous to the key intention of the presenter will always go across easily and simply.

    Key points:
    – Don’t try to explain anything too subtle and complex.
    – Remember that the audience can only retain and concentrate on a small subset of information – 7 pieces at a time, I recall
    – Provide a map through complex information, a guide or diagram, that you keep returning to, highlighting the area you’re focusssing on (this forms a structure to hang ideas on)
    – Simplify concepts without allowing key information to go by the wayside
    – Make it fast, and easy. Test it on other people.
    – Use imagery (one thousand words per) – and good imagery, not just shit that you chuck in to use imagery. If you don’t understand image, ask someone who does – an artist, for instance.
    – Use familiar formats, keep people … oh bla bla

    It’s an excellent tool if used appropriately – it should create a metastructure of thought to hang ideas and argument on.

    and the military! hoho they’re so famously good with words! hoho and so succinct! haha! I can easily imagine the incompetence with which your average junior officer would stare at powerpoint and then just say “fuck it” and jam all the words onto a paragraph, which is its own little meme as it is copied from memo to .ppt to note to document!

    Oh, what a good day – full of belly laughs!

  6. This really isn’t Powerpoint’s fault (or something isolated to the military). This is just bad presenters.

    Everyone should be required to take a public speaking class and this should be part of the curriculum.

  7. What’s happening here is that the ppt presentations are being used to document the talk for posterity, rather than an article or “white paper.”

  8. I personally hate lectures. Powerpoint is not the problem, it’s lectures, in which Powerpoint and all it’s various ancestors and siblings are used. This is probably because I read about one standard deviation faster than the average (I didn’t train myself to do this, I read the entire text of the novelisation of Mad Max III – 600 pages of pulp paperback – in 12 hours at the age of 12 and read my first novel at the age of nine – the neverending story). So, for me, not only is the freakin powerpoint page irritating, so is the pace of the speaker. I generally can absorb as much information as a 45 minute lecture in about 10 minutes reading, and I can generally regurgitate it with 99% accuracy (if I was paying attention) up to 2 hours later in a test.

    The science of learning still hasn’t quite grasped that the audience is heteregenous. Some people learn best by seeing pictures, some by hearing words, some by reading, and some by touching things and fiddling with them. If they would first before the lesson even starts establish the learning orientation of the students then all this hit and miss education would be history. But eventually it will be history, the more intensively they inspect the learning process with the help of digital technology and as more esoteric ideas filter through to the mainstream.

  9. Somehow, this sounds more like a headline out of the Onion: “Military says bullets are stupid, don’t work.” There’s hope for us yet!

  10. Edwin Tufte has already discussed the problems of powerpoint and decision making in his book, “Beautiful Evidence”. Specifically, he discusses how powerpoint negatively affected NASA decisions during the Columbia disaster.

    Also, we knew some military guys who were proud of their proficiency with Powerpoint. They called themselves “PowerPoint Rangers”. They also revered the military guys they called, “PowerPoint Jedi”, who could use all kinds of pointless animations and sound effects.

  11. Try taking that Swedish army officer test while absorbing a dozen full paragraph ppt slides (while under fire(

    Seriously – one of those tests was a great illustration of the need to absorb and retain information under pressure. That’s what should be the focus – how to communicate information THAT CAN BE UNDERSTOOD AND RETAINED. And most slides fail.

  12. One common mistake – so common that I’m astonished not to see it discussed more widely – is confusing the PowerPoint slide deck with the presentation, or even with the report. I don’t know how many slide decks I’ve had spoilt by bosses who insist on adding words, sentences, entire paragraphs to the slides.

    Underlying this problem appears to be a deep fear of being taken out of context. The boss always wants the text on every slide to say everything about the topic, lest the slide be pulled from the deck and use separately. This thinking is where four-box and six-box slides come from: if you have a slide that has to say something risky, make sure that its context is attached.

    And yes, I know what I’m doing. I’ve at least once done a well-received half hour talk, without once needing to look at my notes, and using a slide deck that had a grand total of twelve words in it (and five of those were on the title slide).
    Of course, in that presentation, the pictures told half the story.

  13. @12 yep – bosses always always want to mess with it, for all the various reasons.

  14. Powerpoint does have a useful purpose: when I give presentation, I use powerpoint to show charts, tables, and pictures. That’s it. Everything else is spoken or provided in handouts. Unless I’m displaying a data table that only needs certain sections pointed out, I limit myself to 12 words per slide — any more and you’ve turned a presentation into a group speed-reading exercise.

    Perhaps the best article on this subject is that written by Edward Tufte after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster (and later revised after the publication of the CAIB report and the Return to Flight report):


    The Columbia Accident Investigation Board and the Return to Flight Task Group both went even further, saying that powerpoint was so pervasive that “it appears that many young engineers do not understand the need for, or know how to prepare, formal engineering documents such as reports, white papers, or analysis”

    Perhaps the real shame is that there is a master of the effective use of powerpoint-style presentation in our midst, and although everyone has seen his presentations, few outside the marking world try to emulate him. That master is: Steve Jobs. Apple’s product presentations are a PERFECT example of how to effectively use a slide deck to enhance, not replace, a presentation.

  15. I have felt the pain, and I think the solution is to make new software and maybe new hardware too.

    I spent the last year on a huge supply chain software consulting project for a non-U.S. manufacturer. 100-200 people involved and MS Office (PPT and XLS) are the standard. Obviously, the incompatibility of color palettes between Excel 2003 and 2007 is criminal. I need to say that badly. And, it is really hard to show all the data you need to with PPT or especially Excel (which gets very overworked in this environment – even huge diagrams, and big XML mapping activities.) Always zooming, scrolling back and forth, hiding columns, squinting at tiny letters, etc.

    But there are other problems if you think about it. The image projected by standard office projectors is TOO SMALL. And, today’s laptops can handle high resolution and advanced graphics with on-the fly calculations, both of which are very useful in explaining things but are not used at all in MS Office.

    So the cure I think is to build new software, not try to use Powerpoint for everything.

    The problem with hardware solutions is, nobody buys the stuff and it costs money. You need a common platform. So I think a double-width projector image would be an excellent start, and a cheap way to link two or three projectors together maybe by USB would be nice, but I’m not holding my breath.

    Now how about some new data visualization software, maybe open source, would be a good idea.
    And it would be very cool if someone could come up with an animation toolbox that could provide new tools for presentation and be easy to use. Maybe the military presentation of the anecdote would probably be much more intelligible as an animated cartoon with sound track, or with maybe a real time pivotable 3D data cube that shows patterns in the data. Or a timeline concept you can animate and see different tasks on different time lines, like a moving Gantt chart. There must be tons of things that can be done but they aren’t, because of the momentum of MS bloatware. I think we have run the course of that (symbolized I must say again, by MS’ lack of interest in making color compatibility possible between Office versions.)

    Let’s let the next generation of presentation software be created by people who know something about information design. I vote the business community, or the open source business software community, raise money to hire the tops in the field, people like Edward R. Tufte and maybe the guys at processing.org for example, and think about what we need.

    Check out this link to get the juices flowing (just the first two pictures):
    And look here, this is very complex *click the left side blocks.
    Powerpoint is just a quaint laughable thing when you start explaining complex things. A partially automatic design tool with a bit of AI about how to make useful presentations might be a really excellent thing to have.

  16. I tend to disagree with the article. PP itself does not negate the ability to ALSO manufacture a 2 page report and distribute it. And in the days of reports, something tells me there was ALSO a clarification briefing before discussion, which almost certainly included slides on paperboard, or transparencies, albeit possibly hand-drawn ones. Laziness, on the other hand, may account for the lack of full information disclosure. But PP just shifted the slide making to a computational format.

  17. I think the article makes it quite clear that it is PP’s bullet-point format that is at fault here — the medium, not the messenger.

    Although, admittedly, a poor messenger amplifies the problem greatly. And this does not preclude using PP without the bullets.

    (Did no-one else raise a smile at the idea of the military eschewing the “bullet format”? Perhaps they will switch to using lasers…)

  18. It took until #16 and #17 to make a snarky comment about the military’s newfound derision of bullets?

    The cognitive dissonance formulating this must have been amazing.

  19. The presenter makes some powerful points there. Nothing makes me nod off faster, even if the lights remain on.

  20. I think it’s a font problem–‘Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran’ just doesn’t have the same impact in Comic Sans.

  21. @ #14 Zan: Yes, at NASA, we refer to this practice as ‘Engineering by PowerPoint’, and not with a smile on our faces…

  22. @ #7 WalterBillington:

    Key points:
    – Don’t try to explain anything too subtle and complex.

    I think that this is exactly the problem that the military (and NASA) are trying to address: the attitude that nothing too subtle or complex should be presented at a presentation.

    That’s exactly why PP is bad in these situations. It encourages people to think in terms of simple bullets. If an idea is too complex for one slide, just don’t include it at all.

    But when working out whether to go with the hawks pushing to carpet bomb Fallujah or with those suggesting that electricity and water should be provided is a hard, nuanced decision, and the presentations given by the generals’ advisors should not take the attitude of dumbing it down and of not explaining “anything too subtle and complex.”

  23. Yes, Powerpoint can be a helpful aid to a presentation or talk. Unfortunately, most of the presentations or talks I’ve been in have been aids to the Powerpoint.

    There’s a strong underlying belief in corporate office that, if you don’t use Powerpoint, you won’t be take seriously. Additionally, Powerpoint tends to BE the report. How many meeting have you sat in, staring at slide after slide of bullet-points, following-along with a paper copy of the slides…and that’s the report!

  24. I think most folks are missing a major additional use of Powerpoint files – in most of the briefing-sized meetings I attend, the speaker’s slide files are distributed (either electronically or on paper) to serve as notes for the audience to refer back on key points.

    Paragraphs and bulging info-packed layups make more sense in that context: the talk is best considered an initial introduction to the information in the powerpoint stack; the main use of the stack is not for presentation during the talk, it is simply (un)structured information delivered in a big ol’ blob, less formally than a full write-up but more reliably than individualized handwritten notes or word-of-mouth.

    I still dislike PowerPoint and its ilk for most briefings. The best current-research science talk I ever heard (was back in 1995 and) used no viewfoils, slides, or PowerPoint at all — just two photographic plates taped together in an old viewfoil envelope and set on a viewgraph projector. The speaker, Neil Sheeley, was talking about temperature evolution of the plasma inside a solar flare. The two plates were actual UV spectra collected during and just after a flare, and he used them as a lawyer might use a physical exhibit in a courtroom trial, rather than as a crutch for propping up his talk.

  25. #14 finally references Tufte’s famous article on the perils of PowerPoint. I wonder whether an examination of Colonel John Boyd”s briefings might give some military people ideas about how to use PowerPoint effectively.

    Not that anybody in the military has ever paid attention to Col John Boyd.

  26. Reminds me of the Dilbert cartoon: (wish I could find a link)

    [Boss]: “I edited your document for clarity and sent it out.”
    [Dilbert]: “Wow. It’s amazing how clear it is when you take out all of the accuracy and relevance.”
    [Boss]: “I stopped listening after ‘Wow.'”
    [Dilbert]: “I’ll get busy spending the rest of my career fixing this.”

    Also known as “some facts are simply too long to fit on the seven words per five bullets allowed on a management slide”.

  27. An Australian group finished a study two years ago confirming the “death by powerpoint” phenomenon which I presented to the ‘leadership’ at Baker Hughes, my former employer, to no avail.

    I guess one shouldn’t expect innovation from a company that lives off of dinosaur juice.

  28. I have seen now that quad charts are giving way to “penta-charts”. If four is good, five must be better!

  29. For what it’s worth, I’d consider PowerPoint to be intellectually harmfull, at least when it’s in the hands of most of the people who insist on using it.

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