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 daily Powerpoint presentations  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 making the radical point, that the very act of reading a newspaper is often ultimately of greater significance than the information contained within the newspaper itself.

In the same way, Microsoft’s Powerpoint, has become infamous, as much for its effects as a medium, as for its ability to communicate a message.

Powerpoint was invented by Robert Gaskins, a visionary entrepreneur, who in the mid-1980s realized that the huge but largely invisible market for preparing business slides was a perfect match for the coming generation of graphics-oriented computers.

As a sales tool, Powerpoint, gives the presenter the ‘power’ to make their argument 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, and an unrelenting hail of bullet points, that has made PowerPoint notorious for its unique ability to reduce audiences to catatonic states of mind-numbing boredom.


But these days Powerpoint is no longer used simply as a sales tool, but anywhere that one person needs to address others in a formal setting.

This includes organisations like NASA, and the US military. Where Powerpoint’s inability to deal with complexity and it’s rigid hierarchy have meant that ‘Death by Powerpoint’ is no longer simply a metaphor.

Whether it 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, the amount of time spent creating PowerPoint presentations, has made it a running joke among many members of the US Military.

But apart from the time wasted, and behind all the jokes about PowerPoint Rangers, there have been some very serious concerns among senior staff that the program itself 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 brings the illusion of order to a confused world.

““PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said in a speech at a military conference in North Carolina. (The speech was delivered without PowerPoint.)

And 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.”

But this is to miss the point. The real strength of Powepoint is as a propaganda tool… as journalist Elisabeth Bumiller puts it, quoting one Senior US Military, Powerpoint is ” 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.

Edward 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. I love the image of chickens hypnotizing chickens which came from reading the article. Time to give ourselves a shake to see if we have accomplished the task of realizing we are being hypnotized.


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