Does PowerPoint make us stupid? Or were we dumb to begin with?

Is PowerPoint the Enemy of Productivity?
By

Dave Johnson May 3rd, 2010 @ 5:00 am

PowerPoint slide decks are a central tool of the business world, but they simultaneously manage to over-simplify and obfuscate critical issues. That’s the allegation of senior leader in the US military, who believe the Armed Services have grown over-dependent on bullet point slide decks and are often paralyzed by them.

The  New York Times recently reported on the military’s obsession with PowerPoint and how some, like General Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, think that PowerPoint now does more harm than good.

He’s not alone. The Marine Corp’s General James N. Mattis says “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” And Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster says this about PowerPoint: “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

It’s easy to see why senior leaders are concerned about PowerPoint. Not only does PowerPoint’s bullet-laden approach oversimplify issues that are inherently complex and interrelated, but it’s also easy to obfuscate important truths in dense spaghetti swirls diagrams, like the one at the top of this post. About that very slide, General McChrystal declared: “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”

via blogs.bnet.com

I can’t help but agree with a great deal of the sentiment expressed in this post – PowerPoint most definitely is overused in pretty much every organization for which I’ve worked. 

Almost weekly I crack the joke of “If it’s not in PowerPoint, it’s not real.” But I personally know that is my reality, so I operate within it.  

I also think that part of this issue stems from everyone assuming they should and do know how to successfully utilize PowerPoint… that it’s as simple as typing a Word document or filling in an Excel spreadsheet. It’s as though within the Microsoft Office Suite there really is only one way to do things, when with PowerPoint that couldn’t be further from the truth.

It’s a very, very unique skill to be able to communicate well via such a one-dimensional medium and express complex problems in simple terms. And since 98% of us don’t have infographics designers at our beck and call to give us a better alternative, being good at communicating through that medicore medium is most times our only option.

Even more difficult is simplifying concepts that, at their core, may be 200 page analyses and turn them into 10 slides. That has nothing to do with making us less intelligent, and everything to do with identifying what’s REALLY the important information and exactly what executives need to know… down to the last bullet point… to make an informed, intelligent and correct decision solely with the information we provide them.

That’s exactly what many of us in Corporate America are paid a great deal to do.

Regardless of whether or not we believe Google really does provide the best search options, or whether 9 to 5 really are the best core hours during which we should work… that’s our reality. So, we chart our own course and succeed within that reality. 

Some of the more daring of you reading this post may be thinking “how status quo of her” not challenging the way things have always been done. But while young, I’m still experienced enough to know that proposing and influencing a change in the IT budget to fund the investment in new presentation software and/or online presentation tool training across the organization would be the definition of a huge waste of my talent and my time. Instead, I do my best to kick ass in what is our reality – with the crappy tools we’ve been given.

So, as we and our employees continue to hone our PowerPoint communication abilities, once again, let’s never underestimate how rare of a skill that really is.

For some examples showcasing what people have done (well) with PowerPoint, visit http://www.noteandpoint.com. For examples of what not to do, check out 98.5% of what is posted on http://www.slideshare.net. 

2 thoughts on “Does PowerPoint make us stupid? Or were we dumb to begin with?

  1. Sarah Kennedy Ellis says:

    Well, my friend, I’m quite jealous of you. 🙂 Prezi is a great tool. If I had more indians/fewer chiefs with disillusionments of their own PowerPointing capabilities, and a less virtual security obsessed legal team, I might be able to follow suit. But, alas.

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