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 memoirs, 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 DoD, 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 in 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.

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).

Yale scholar 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.

This post originally appeared in Cicero Magazine, March 18, 2015.