Why the Pentagon Needs a War on PowerPoint

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter became the latest top Pentagon official to recognize the threat posed by the indiscriminate and ingrained use of PowerPoint, when he banned his commanders from using it during a summit in Kuwait. According to his spokesman, it was so that they could have thoughtful analysis and discussions, instead of fixed briefings.

He should go further and ban PowerPoint throughout the defense department. It will boost the quality of analysis and briefings, among others, as officers will no longer be able duck behind indecipherable, mumbo-jumbo slides to bury inconvenient facts or their own lack of understanding of the issue at hand.

It will also boost morale, as legions of PowerPoint rangers will be free again to redirect their energy to more substantive work. Major General H.R. McMaster once likened PowerPoint to an internal enemy that creates “the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.” General James Mattis was more blunt, “PowerPoint makes us stupid.”

In his departing speech at West Point in 2011, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was terrified by the thought of promising young officers getting trapped in windowless cubicles and reformatting slides in the prime of their professional lives. In his memoir, he lamented the hold PowerPoint has over the military, calling it “the bane of my existence in Pentagon meetings.” At CIA, Gates was remarkably able to ban slides from briefings, except for maps and charts; at Defense he didn’t even succeed in cutting down the number of slides.

That’s because PowerPoint was never meant to substitute thoughtful key summaries or technical papers. Its slides are oversimplified, displaying information in a binary manner. Bullet points are generic and omit relationships, so there’s no room to consider the complexities underlying any issue. PowerPoint lets users sprinkle bulleted ideas on slides instead of writing down on paper a coherent progression of thoughts.

Even its creator, Bob Gaskin, said that a PowerPoint presentation was supposed to be a quick summary or highlight of something longer and better thought out.

In three decades, PowerPoint has conquered the world. While the military might be carrying the PowerPoint-addict torch, it is by no means racing alone. The program is installed in over one billion PCs globally. An estimated 350 PowerPoint presentations are given every second worldwide, which is more than 30 million daily. If this is correct, and if we assume each presentation lasts an hour and has an audience of 15, that’s 450 million hours of people’s time we are wasting.

We learn through dialogue and eye-to-eye contact. Discussions foster this. But PowerPoint is designed to skip this mental digestion process.

It is one of the few computer programs with its own highlight reel. Who could ever forget the searing sight of the NSA slides made public in the wake of Edward Snowden leaks? Promoting an intelligence-gathering program called Prism, the slides personified some of PowerPoint’s deadliest sins: An endless scroll of bullet points, words and vector arts, all of them distracting, confusing, uninformative.

Perhaps the most infamous military PowerPoint slide was the mishmash of graphics that supposedly conveyed the United States’ Afghan strategy back in 2009. General McChrystal immortalized the mess when he said understanding the slide would lead to winning the war (neither occurred, alas).


Get Carter: No More Slides

Yales Edward Tufte has contended that NASA’s overreliance on the presentation tool contributed to the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. NASA engineers prepared everything in PowerPoint slides, instead of written reports. As complex technical information disappeared behind bullet points, the safety warnings never came across to the executives staring at the slides.

We learn through dialogue and eye-to-eye contact. Discussions foster this. But PowerPoint is designed to skip this mental digestion process. Instead, it works as a one-way information stream from the presenter to the audience – hence the zombie-like look of those listening.

Another problem with PowerPoint is that slides are projected onto a screen while the presenter speaks. So the audience has to read and listen at the same time. Since the brain can’t multitask like that, the deflected attention causes it to switch off.

I don’t dispute the virtues of PowerPoint when it comes to assisting businesses to improve their sales pitch or for children to express themselves. But instead of being used as a stepping-stone for a wider self-expression or dynamic engagement, it has become a crutch.

There is a growing effort to challenge the PowerPoint hegemony. Forums like TED drill into their presenters to tell a story rather than give a presentation during the precious 18 minutes with the audience. Prezi, a web-based presentation tool, enables users to zoom in and out of 3D slides. Amazon and LinkedIn have banned PowerPoint presentations from their meetings altogether.

Still, like a roach in the basement, PowerPoint persists. Perhaps one reason for its remarkable staying power is its ease, allowing every Luddite from grandmothers to graduate students to use it. But I think the answer is more sinister: PowerPoint thrives because of how easy it allows us to impose our views on others. With the slides, we can talk to the audience without listening to them. So to solve the PowerPoint problem, we first need to become less self-involved.

One of the most brilliant speakers I know is an old college professor of mine from Boston. Whether there were 100 students huddled in a large hall or ten squished into a seminar room, they hung on his every word. His eyes would sparkle as he talked; his voice grew intense. He was completely present, no laptop by his side or glazed eyeballs in his audience.

Two decades later, I can still vividly recall nearly everything he said. I can’t say the same about the PowerPoint presentations I sat through last year.

General McMaster is right: If we don’t know what we want to say, no tool will help us say it.


[Photo source: Magnus Fröderberg, via Flickr Commons]



  1. Mike M. 18 March, 2015 at 13:12 Reply

    Well that would be a glorious day wouldn’t it, I know from my time in Intel, it was always Death by Powerpoint, nobody had time to read any analysis, they always wanted powerpoint slides for the senior leadership

    I think slides are fine for talking points for a meeting or conference presentation, but the whole world shouldn’t revolved around them.

    Powerpoint should not be the final product for anything as it often is, with intel reporting

  2. Ryan B. 18 March, 2015 at 14:21 Reply

    I will agree that powerpoint is overused, but getting rid of it entirely is an overreaction. Your illustration about a brilliant college professor as a contrast to powerpoint presentations is naive at best. The nature and necessity of military briefings is vastly different from the needs of the collegiate classroom. Precious few military presenters are even approaching brilliance, let alone achieving it. The vast majority need simple tools like powerpoint to help them convey their points. I categorically reject the assertion that a powerpoint ban will “boost the quality of analysis and briefings, among others, as officers will no longer be able duck behind indecipherable, mumbo-jumbo slides to bury inconvenient facts or their own lack of understanding of the issue at hand.” That statement is nothing more than a smear against military officers. I’ve seen first hand the tremendous amount of work that goes into mission analysis, and powerpoint slides represent only the tip of the iceberg. Maybe getting rid of powerpoint works for Amazon and LinkedIn, or maybe it doesn’t. If there were some substantive feedback on that matter, it might count as a valid supporting argument for the premise that getting rid of powerpoint is a good idea. Oh, and that Afghanistan Stability / COIN Dynamics slide that you use as an example of how bad powerpoint is? It wasn’t meant to be understood or interpreted in detail by the audience to whom it was briefed. Its purpose was to portray, through the volume of information on the slide, the extreme complexity of the problem facing Coalition forces in Afghanistan. The fact that McChrystal cracked a joke about it means that it worked. The answer to powerpoint overload lies in our leadership. If our bosses don’t ask for different products, then they’ll keep getting powerpoint. A straightforward ban with no corresponding guidance on how to then present materials in a easily digestible format will lead to more confusion, not less. As we like to say where I work: don’t bring me a problem with no solution. So what exactly is the solution Ms. Park? As you summed up with a quote from GEN McMaster: If we don’t know what we want to say, no tool will help us say it. This is the only thing I really agree with in your article, but I see its meaning differently I suppose. To me, it means that we need to educate ourselves on how to use our tools, not throw away the tools because we can’t use them properly.

    • Chris Miller 18 March, 2015 at 15:02 Reply

      Are you serious? Berating the shortcomings of PowerPoint dependence is ‘a smear against military officers.’? Do you work for Microsoft?

      Getting rid of PowerPoint will not affect the quality or value of analysis at all. Those operations will be performed in the same way. For the majority of the existence of the U.S. military, there was no such thing as PowerPoint. We fought the Civil War, won two World Wars, fought Vietnam, and any other number of conflicts in between without PowerPoint. Grant, Pershing, Ike, Westmoreland, et al managed to mount large, complicated combat campaigns without PPT. You should learn to shake your dependence on one particular tool.

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