Death by Powerpoint

A part from being sujected to constant attack from the Taliban the US Military is also subjected to daily Powerpoint presentations. Photo Credit: Bryan Denton for The New York Times
Many senior US Military figures are concerned that the, sometimes daily, Powerpoint presentations that all levels of the service are forced to sit through, are curbing discussion, critical thinking and informed decision-making.
Photo Credit: Bryan Denton for The New York Times

When Marshall McLuhan, famously declared that “the medium is the message”, he was not simply referring to the fact that the medium in which information is presented often affects it’s meaning, he was also making the far more radical point, that the medium in itself, is often far more meaningful and significant than the message it appears to convey.

For McLuhan, the very act of reading a newspaper is ultimately of greater significance than the information contained within that newspaper.

Similarly, Microsoft’s infamous presentation software, Powerpoint, is a medium that has found it’s niche in contemporary society, as much for  it’s ability to help one person dominate, and “sell” to a passive audience, as much for it’s ability to send information.

When it comes to understanding the real meaning of Powerpoint, perhaps the obvious clue is in the name.

As a sales tool, Powerpoint, gives the presenter the “power” to make their “points”, in the form of bullet points. These are often linked less by internal logic or narrative coherence, than by the illusion of hierarchical structure created by the program.

And it is this combination of the lack of a coherent narrative to follow, and an unrelenting hail of bullet points, that has made PowerPoint notorious for it’s unique ability to reduce audiences to catatonic states of mind-numbed boredom.


The man responsible for bringing Powerpoint into the world is actually a very nice chap called Robert Gaskins, who on the twentieth anniversary of the launch of his program wrote this piece called “Back to Basics” where he tried to rein in the excesses of over exuberant Powerpointers around the world by placing his invention in it’s historical framework.

Digital media guru Seth Godin has also criticised bad use of Powerpoint and made some useful suggestions in this blog piece here. However, he is still fundamentally thinking about the program as a sales tool…  as Seth puts it in his best Web2.0 accent: “If you believe in your idea, sell it. Make your point as hard as you can… Your audience will thank you for it, because deep down, we all want to be sold.”

Which is all well and good when the purpose of the presentation is to sell.

But these days Powerpoint is no longer simply as used a sales tool, since it is now used everywhere and anywhere that one person needs to address and impart information to others. Including life and death situations faced by organisations like NASA, and the US military. And here Powerpoint’s inability to deal with complexity and it’s rigid hierarchy have meant that “Death by Powerpoint” is not simply a metaphor.

The amount of time spent creating PowerPoint presentations, has made it a running joke among members of the US Military. Since it ties up a large number of junior officers, (who are actually referred to as PowerPoint Rangers) in the daily preparation of slides, at all levels of the service, whether these be for a high level Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing of his men in a remote valley in Afghanistan.

But apart from the time wasted, and behind all the jokes about PowerPoint Rangers, are some very serious concerns among senior staff that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making.

In an article by in the New York Times entitled “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint”, journalist Elisabeth Bumiller describes how the program has become deeply embedded in a military culture that has come to rely on PowerPoint’s hierarchical ordering of a confused world.

““PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.)

Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat. “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said…“Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

In General McMaster’s view, PowerPoint’s worst offense is not a chart like the spaghetti graphic, which was first uncovered by NBC’s Richard Engel, but rigid lists of bullet points (in, say, a presentation on a conflict’s causes) that take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces. “If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise,” General McMaster said.”

Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff This unclassified document from the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff shows the U.S. military's plan for "Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics – Security."
This Powerpoint slide became world-famous when Richard Engel posted it on NBC’s World News Blog under the title “So what is the actual surge strategy?”

Crucially, Elisabeth Bumiller concludes her piece with what certain Senior staff in the US Military see as the real strength of Powerpoint…  as a propaganda tool: ” handy when the goal is not imparting information, but the opposite, as in briefings for reporters…. The news media sessions often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake… Those types of PowerPoint presentations, are known as “hypnotizing chickens.””

Perhaps the most infamous example of the US Military “hypnotizing chickens” was when General Colin Powell, then acting as As Secretary of State for the Bush administration, made his pitch to the United Nations Assembly for war in the Middle East, (“Go up there and sell it” Vice President Dick Cheney is reported to have said to him beforehand) with a highly imaginative presentation of the “evidence” for the existence weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

"Hypnotizing Chickens" Part of Colin powell's highly imaginative presentation "proving" the existence of weapons of mass detruction in Iraq.
“Hypnotizing Chickens” Part of Colin powell’s highly imaginative presentation “proving” the existence of weapons of mass detruction in Iraq.

But perhaps PowerPoint’s failings as medium for the clear communication of information (rather than just a pitch tool) have been outlined most vividly by Yale political scientist Edward Tufte.

Tufte is the world’s leading thinker in the visual display of information.

Since the publication of “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”, in 1982 , Tufte has occupied a unique position in the worlds of statistics and graphic design, by championing the importance of good information design, and differentiating clearly between style and content. He has single-handedly created the modern scientific discipline of information graphics and the representation of data, and has been described by the New York Times as “The Leonardo da Vinci of data.”

In the wake of the tragic 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, Tufte published an article in Wired magazine entitled: “PowerPoint Is Evil” and followed this up with a more scholarly, less dramatically titled pamphlet, “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint,”

Here Tufte argued that the program encourages “faux-analytical” thinking that favors the slickly produced “sales pitch” over the sober exchange of information.

“Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that promised to make us beautiful but didn’t. Instead the drug had frequent, serious side effects: It induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication. These side effects would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall.

Yet slideware -computer programs for presentations… is everywhere: in corporate America, in government bureaucracies, even in our schools. Several hundred million copies of Microsoft PowerPoint are churning out trillions of slides each year. Slideware may help speakers outline their talks, but convenience for the speaker can be punishing to both content and audience. The standard PowerPoint presentation elevates format over content, betraying an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.”

In “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” Tufte’s analysis reveals that Powerpoint has a number of specific design faults which render it incapable of communicating certain types of information.

Firstly, Tufte says, it is designed to guide and to reassure the presenter, rather than to communicate with the audience. Secondly, the outliner function causes ideas to be arranged in an unnecessarily deep hierarchy, itself subverted by the need to restate the hierarchy on every slide. (What’s more, the audience is forced to follow the presenter’s thinking in lockstep linear progression through this hierarchy – whereas with handouts, readers could browse and relate items at the same time). And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it has a natural tendency to oversimplify thinking, with ideas being squashed into bulleted lists, and stories with beginning, middle, and end being turned into a collection of disparate bullet points.

A central part of this analysis was the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster which Tufte demonstrates, was caused, in part, by the use of Powerpoint.

The Columbia Space Shuttle was destroyed on February 1, 2003 while attempting to re-entering the atmosphere after a 16-day scientific mission. A hole was punctured in the leading edge on one of Columbia’s wings, made of a carbon composite. The hole had formed when a piece of insulating foam from the external fuel tank peeled off during the launch and struck the shuttle’s wing. During the intense heat of re-entry, hot gases penetrated the interior of the wing, destroying the support structure and causing the rest of the shuttle to break apart.

The seven crew members who died aboard the Columbus were: Rick Husband, Commander; William C. McCool, Pilot; Michael P. Anderson, Payload Commander; David M. Brown, Mission Specialist 1; Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist 2; Laurel Clark, Mission Specialist 4; and Ilan Ramon, Payload Specialist 1.
Death by Powerpoint? The seven crew members who died aboard the Columbus following an over reliance on Powerpoint for communicating critical information. They were: Rick Husband, Commander; William C. McCool, Pilot; Michael P. Anderson, Payload Commander; David M. Brown, Mission Specialist 1; Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist 2; Laurel Clark, Mission Specialist 4; and Ilan Ramon, Payload Specialist 1.

Exhibit A in Tufte’s analysis is a PowerPoint slide which you can see here, and which had been presented to NASA senior managers in January 2003, while the space shuttle Columbia was in space and they were trying to understand the risk posed by the damage caused by the piece of insulating foam to the shuttle wings.

Unfortunately, as you can see from Tufte’s analysis, the critical piece of information is buried so deeply in the rigid PowerPoint format as to be useless.

“It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation,” the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded, citing Tufte’s work, and strongly criticized the culture within NASA in which, it said, “the endemic use of PowerPoint” had been substituted for rigorous technical analysis.

It is now more than twenty-five years since Powerpoint was first launched as a presentation aid. It is installed on over one billion computers around the world, and it’s use is no longer confined to the sales pitch. It is used everywhere from church services to military briefings, from hospitals and now, increasingly, in schools.

And you don’t have to be a NASA scientist to see that that’s a really dumb idea.

One thought on “Death by Powerpoint

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  1. PowerPoint is being used increasingly in Irish Primary Schools. As a teacher educator, I use it too so perhaps I am to blame! Public commitment for next term’s lectures – invite some participants ( say 3) to record aspects of interest to them in narrative/visual/alternative format. These become the lecture notes to be uploaded to the virtual learning environment.


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