Ban PPT? The military is not alone on this.
This week Foreign Policy magazine examines the problem of PPT in the military. The New York Times covered this issue in 2010, but apparently we’re not making any traction. In fact, columnist Richard Russell, professor of national security affairs and an advisor to U.S. Central Command, recommends banning PPT as a core element of military education, blaming it for a multitude of sins:
- “The routine use of PPT bullets relieves officers from the intellectual burden of actually writing full sentences and complete paragraphs and stringing them to create actual substantive research and analysis.”
- “Cynical observers suspect that the military tries to cram the equivalent of an encyclopedia volume onto each and every slide as part and parcel of a “shock and awe” strategy to overwhelm the audience with so many factoids that on one is able to articulate a single insightful or critical question.”
Those of us in Corporate America have been guilty of similar tactics. When I see a deck that’s overloaded with information and bulleted text, I realize that one of two things is taking place. Either the team that created it hasn’t been trained on how to create a presentation, or the team isn’t confident about what it is that they want to convey. As a result, they put way more information into a presentation than we could possibly digest, much less retain. It is the equivalent of ordering a meal at a restaurant and having the waiter bring out a bushel of vegetables, a cow or fish, and other random ingredients and saying, “Here, you do the work! Bon Apetit!”
I’m not advocating that we go so far to ban PPT entirely (as other companies and yes, even a political party in Switzerland have suggested). Instead, let’s accept this software for what it is capable of, and not use it as a receptacle for all of our ideas, factoids and ClipArt files. PPT works when it supports your message and reinforces what you’re saying. It works best when it is accompanied by a well-written document. This document should be able to “stand on its own” by providing context and supporting data, alongside charts and or graphs.
Let’s do the hard work of editing and prioritizing for our audience before we even open up a PPT file. This often means having some difficult conversations with colleagues and managers; what’s our priority, what should go into the PPT? What belongs in a separate document? Making choices about what information to include has political consequences. Yet by failing to do so, we’re avoiding and postponing important decisions. That’s why bad PPT is sometimes a symptom of a bigger problem.
While no one has yet to calculate the cost of decline in productivity that bad PPT has caused, the stakes for our military are arguably much higher. Professor Russell quotes a report from NASA’s Columbia Accident Investigation Board, “It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation.”