Powerpoint Doesn’t Equal Command

Senior U.S. military commanders have come to the conclusion that Powerpoint represents an internal threat to successful warfighting.  As reported by Elizabeth Bumiller in an article in the New York Times, senior officers have been banning the use of Microsoft’s famous presentation software in military operations because, counter-intuitively, the use of bullet points does not lead to understanding.

This false sense of concreteness has been noted before.  After all, as Seth Godin reminded us today, he wrote a book about this seven years ago.  So why the time lag between smart people noticing the issue and smart people fixing it?  Simple: the military culture is a slow-changing animal.  After all, I can tell you from experience that we have spent countless hours perfecting these mammoth bullet-pointed briefings designed to provide information to our teams.  Problem is they don’t.  And they don’t for a reason that I haven’t seen pointed out yet.  These well-tuned forays into PowerPoint warfare fail to yield results because they are repetitive, recycled and non-interactive.

Let me explain further.  Take the team briefing conducted by a warship about to enter a harbour.  Usually held just before the event, it is designed to provide detailed situational awareness and coordinating instructions to the entire team.  It covers everything from navigation hazards to use of mooring lines.  It zigzags from current weather conditions to self-defence.  It may even include what hat to wear.  It seems to be complete; it certainly provides information.  But it fails to engage anyone but the person giving the presentation.  Let’s get out the good old bullets and see why:

  • Repetition – They’ve seen it before.  These briefings follow the same format every time in order to cover all of the bases.  Meaning the card board cut-outs we’ll call the audience are not the least bit interested.  This becomes even more dangerously true if you are operating in and out of your home port.  After all, don’t most accidents happen within something like 2 km of your house?  Repetition breeds complacency
  • Recycled – Because the presentation is always the same, even its preparation by the briefer can fall into the complacency trap.  This one is tricky – most people in an operational military setting don’t have enough time in the day to re-create the wheel over and over again.  But they certainly need to be aware of the dangers involved.
  • Non-interactive – This briefing can’t help but be one way because of the first two factors.  We love to think it’s interactive; we even ask questions afterward in a rehearsed fashion in order to confirm the critical information points have made it out to the team.  Please don’t confuse confirmation questions with engagement; they may answer enthusiastically but, trust me, they are nowhere near engaged!

The only interactive slide in most presentations

Don’t get me wrong – computer-based presentations have their place in broadcasting information.  Just don’t confuse PowerPoint with exercising command.


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