It’s not often that military leaders become Internet celebrities: but US General Stanley A. McChrystal managed that feat last year.
The General, who leads the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul. The idea was to portray the complex interlinkings of US military strategy – and complex it certainly was.
“When we understand that slide, we will have won the war,” he said, to widespread laughter. This briefing has since found its way onto many a website and social networking site as an example of PowerPoint getting out of its depth.
Other military leaders, paradoxically, criticise PowerPoint for not being complex enough. General McMaster, another US commander in the same theatre of war, has attacked the tool for over-simplifying issues.
“Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable,” he said, concerned that bullet points tended to miss or understate the economic, political and ethnic dynamics of a scenario.
And retired US Marine Colonel Thomas Hammes has spoken out against what he calls “fuzzy” bullet points. For example, a bullet that says “Accelerate the introduction of new weapons” says nothing about who should do the accelerating (or indeed, why it should be done).
Faced with this withering fire from the military, should PowerPoint wave the white flag? Is it inherently unsuitable for complex situations?
I would say not: and that the fault lies not with the PowerPoint, but in the presenters.
PowerPoint has two very good points going for it: its ability to make complex matters simpler and more understandable but drilling down to the fundamentals. And its enormous range and flexibility.
Yes, “fuzzy” bullet points are not a good idea; but PowerPoint can have unfuzzy ones – or even no bullets at all. The swirling lines of the slide that so bemused General McChrystal didn’t have any. Admittedly, the swathes of interconnected lines on that slide looked more like a Jackson Pollock painting than any kind of useful presentation. But again, that’s down to the shortsightedness of whoever put it together. A little more thought beforehand would have saved him from going down that route (and the laughter of the audience).
A little creativity is needed to make the most of PowerPoint (which may be somewhat lacking in the people who put together military presentations). It shouldn’t be something that restricts but something that liberates.
Perhaps an analogy or two from the military world might help. Most campaigns are not thrown together hastily but carefully planned (at least, I hope they are). In the same way, a presentation should be thought through.
The other point is that PowerPoint has a huge array of possibilities: audio, video, graphs, charts and so on. Yes, some problems may not be “bullet-izable”; but a presenter who uses only bullet points would be like a general who used only tanks without infantry, artillery, air support and all the other back-up available to him.
And that really would be asking for defeat.
By David Vickery
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Interesting and informative