Standing up to Ash Carter’s PowerPoint Jihad

February 26, 2015

I rise in favor of the well-crafted PowerPoint brief and, to borrow from William F. Buckley, to “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’”

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

Our brand new Secretary of Defense Dr. Ashton Carter made quite a splash the other day when news of his aversion to senior commanders’ use of PowerPoint presentations caused wild celebrations throughout the Pentagon. Legions of majors and lieutenant commanders were brought to tears of joy at the prospect of never again having to worry about timed transitions, thought bubbles, and the inevitable “What it the bumper sticker?” question. As a political conservative, it is my job to cast a wary eye at the new and trendy in order to preserve the goodness, the structure, and the order of the proven and the durable. In this spirit, I rise in favor of the well-crafted PowerPoint brief and, to borrow from William F. Buckley, to “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’”

First, let us get one thing very clear. I am not a very good PowerPoint maker. For me, PowerPoint is like watercolor painting. Sure, I can do it and so can any five year old, but you will not like the final result. So if you end up in a room with a deck that I made, please understand that I don’t like my slides either.

But let us consider why PowerPoint exists in the first place. PowerPoint is a tool born of the computer age for displaying information. We used to draw stuff on acetate and project it on a white screen, and for some odd reason, we found this unsatisfying. PowerPoint allowed us to convey larger amounts of information in shorter periods of time. These impulses were good and wholesome, and their realization in a handy-computer program unlocked a lot of productivity in what were previously very unproductive people.

[widgets_on_pages id=2]

Since I have risen in praise of a “well-crafted” PowerPoint, let us define what that is. For this, I will fall back on the old chestnut first applied to the definition of obscenity, and that is, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” Come on, even you dyed-in-the-wool haters know damn well you have sat in on a particularly well-done, persuasive PowerPoint and come away nodding your head, better informed, and full of useful information. Since this “you know it when you see it” definition is likely to leave some unsatisfied, a few common elements of the successful brief are 1) a competent briefer who knows the subject well; 2) a modest number of slides (I suggest no more than one slide for every five minutes the meeting will last); 3) no more written information on the slides than is necessary to reinforce the most important aspects of the narrative; 4) plenty of “white space” and pictures; and 5) the use of charts and graphs to visualize data in ways in which the audience may not have thought about such data before. To restate, no words but the most important take-aways should go on slides.

Most importantly though, the meteoric rise of PowerPoint was fueled not only by its utility in displaying a wide range of information and formats, but also by the pitiful state of writing ability resident in the officer corps of the U.S. military. Perhaps there is a chicken/egg quality to this debate, with some holding that PowerPoint has killed writing skills. I see it differently. I see PowerPoint as having filled the gap created by the decline in our collective ability to write competent, information-based point papers and backgrounders suitable for executive consumption.

I hope Secretary Carter realizes the Pandora’s Box he has opened. His “PowerPoint Jihad” will let slip upon the Department of Defense all manner of offense to logic, rhetoric, and argument. To put it another way, the skills required to put together a competent PowerPoint brief are considerably less than the skills required to put together a competent background paper or staff summary. Mr. Gates’ “efficiencies” drills already created staffing nightmares throughout the Pentagon, and now these already understaffed bureaus and directorates will find themselves having to actually write competently, informatively, and succinctly. Those of you saying, “A-ha! Over time, these skills will return to the workforce and we will all be better for it” have not done much poking around the education system of this grand country. Our youth have indeed mastered the brevity of social media, but the cost has been their ability to write well-formed sentences and paragraphs. Action officers dancing in the aisles today at soon not having to slave all day over a PowerPoint—something most of them can do with some skill—will find the act of creating executive level written material excruciatingly difficult. Additionally, the aforementioned executives are going to have to get a whole lot more tolerant of bad logic and writing, with tolerance for shoddy work not having been one of the attributes associated with their rise to current positions.

In summary, there is baby and there is bath water, and the key is knowing which is which. Dr. Carter has admirably challenged his bureaucracy to develop more tools and methods for communicating information to him, and there is goodness in this quest. Ultimately though, we will find that holding the line on improving the quality of PowerPoint briefs will be considerably easier than teaching an entire bureaucracy to write.

 

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC and the Assistant Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower.

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at warontherocks.com/subscribe!

22 thoughts on “Standing up to Ash Carter’s PowerPoint Jihad

  1. Nice strawman.

    From the article:

    “‘The Secretary wanted *today’s meeting* to be driven by thoughtful analysis and discussion, not fixed briefings,’ Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an email to Military Times.” [emphasis added]

    “Kirby said it is not a general ban on PowerPoints throughout the Defense Department”

  2. I worked as a senior official in DoD for three years, and my experience was that whether it was PowerPoint or Memorandum, the problem is that briefing officers of all ranks are incapable of thinking coherently or clearly, and as a result, their presentations, whether they were Death by PowerPoint, or incomprehensible Memoranda, were unfocused, illogical, and in many cases, a total waste of my time. We need to teach people how to think, write, speak, and argue persuasively, or it will continue to be so.

    1. Yes. Good point. Again we are targeting a tool instead of the root of the problem, which is the inability of leaders to critically think and analyze data, and coherently disseminate the key information. We do this with nearly everything, i.e. target the wrong problem.

  3. As a veteran powerpoint ranger from both the US Army and Fortune 500, I must point out the other utility of powerpoint, which is that is serves as an indisputable record of a decision-maker’s approval. In other words, if I put something on a slide, and the senior person in the room does not object to it during the briefing, this serves effectively as that person’s approval or at least tacit agreement.

    You can disagree with the morality of this tactic, but don’t doubt that it one of the few ways that a staffer can get a decision from a leader.

  4. A good military exercise is to imagine operating with the failure of one or more components, because such things happen in real life. If the projector dies, can you give a functional brief without your Powerpoint slides?

  5. I hope Carter continues selective prohibition. One pernicious aspect of Ppt is the ability to ask a subordinate to build your brief while you do “more important things.” We all know this is the prevailing tactic. The problem is, it prevents Mr. McGrath’s first requirement for “well crafted” ppt. “1) a competent briefer who knows the subject well;”
    Building your own brief forces you to prioritize and condense the material yourself, helping you to learn the subject. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a competent briefer, but it sure helps.

  6. A briefing is supposed to be a brief synopsis of something larger; the fact that briefings have become ends unto themselves is and indictment of legions of senior officers and officials who themselves are incapable or unwilling to perform the critical thinking necessary to execute the mission.

  7. The problem I’ve found with most PP presentations is that they forget what the operative word is about these presentations–BRIEF. The other major problem is that people never get to the point quick enough in their “briefs” and add too many superfluous slides. It’s just not that hard: (1) What is the issue/problem, (2) What are the options/decisions, (3) What are the costs/risks, and (4) What do you want from me? It shouldn’t take you more than about 5-6 slides to convey these thoughts to senior leadership. Don’t insult their intelligence and don’t waste their time. Get to the point and get the decision you need to move forward. The goal should be one slide to convey all thoughts and allows the receiver to access the information in multiple ways. According to Edward Tufte who has given many lectures on the art of PP presentations, one of the “holy grails” of slide presentation was produced in 1869 by Charles Joseph Minard in describing Napoleon’s failed 1812-1813 Russian Campaign. This slide or map is filled with visual and statistical analysis that allows for multiple viewpoints by multiple viewers. Essentially the presenter doesn’t need to say anything and just let the slide speak for itself. That should be the goal of all PP presentations.

  8. Another aspect of good PP presentations is to determine right up front whether the brief is a Decision/Action presentation or an Information presentation. The Decision/Action brief is pretty straight forward but so is the Information brief. The information brief only requires 2 elements; (1) What is the information you want to convey to me?, and (2) why is it important for me to know about it? The ultimate focus of an Information presentation is to answer one question: So what? If you can’t get to the point quickly and answer this simple question then you have failed with your presentation.

  9. The Secretary’s decision is just as ill-thought out as the briefings he receives. Mr. Secretary, it’s the message, not the medium. Banning the medium without getting officers to change the way they deliver the message is pointless. This decision is analogous to banning the telephone because you’ve had many conversations that did not provide you with the information you needed. The president has chosen someone who fits in well with the Defense establishment. Par for the course.

  10. Good piece, Bryan. Eliminating PP won’t produce well written prose or better briefings. We should focus on the message, not the medium. A thoughtful blend of training and education is the path to better written and spoken communication.

  11. There’s a larger problem- when we have to create a whitepaper, then slides for the whitepaper, then ghost-write an email for the boss things have progressed pretty far downhill. Sadly this sequence of events is all to standard.

  12. Ash Carter’s thinking is as muddled as any bad powerpoint briefing. The issue should be better thinking and more clarity in briefings and discussions, not banning a tool. How about banning pencils since most people write poorly?

  13. PowerPoint is merely the clearest possible expression of the stupidity of the presenter. Consequently people hate it because it shows how stupid they are (and how stupid everyone around them is for sitting through a bad presentation and not saying anything).

    I love interrupting bad presentations to point out faults in logic rather than minutiae as I have discovered that public embarrassment is the best possible means to correct an individual’s bad habits.

  14. The best advice given to me about Powerpoint briefing is that the more senior the audience, the fewer the slides; e.g., to the brief the SecDef, use one slide that is a cartoon that clarifies the concept that the briefer is delivering, verbally. Lengthier presentations are merely data for staffers who will interpret it in their own fashion for the boss. When I read that a certain general officer went to the President with a power point briefing under his arm, I concluded that he was a poor communicator for a senior official.

  15. Nice article. Nice ban, though. Reminds me of my days at the Naval War College in the old National Security Decision Making seminar where they actually tried to teach students how to use PowerPoint. Only problem was that most of the “professors” made the worst presentations I’ve seen in almost 20 years of active duty and ten years of white collar corporate life! (And, btw, I use “professor” loosely, seeing as how the “professors” were mostly there for “follow-on” tours after having recently been students themselves.)