Death by Powerpoint: The problem of PPT in the Federal Gov't

The extent of the government’s dependence on PPT has become so pervasive that we use the phrase “death by Powerpoint” regularly yet nothing ever changes. What's at the heart of this problem and what can we do about it?
By Carlo Viray
Technology

I’ve recently left the federal service and as I reflect back on my commitment and time I couldn’t help but recognize that so much of my “service” was actually spent crafting and refining Powerpoint decks. The extent of the government’s dependence on PPT has become so pervasive that we use the phrase “death by Powerpoint” regularly yet nothing ever changes. 


Powerpoint is a tool that enjoys widespread adoption across the federal government and state agencies — including the various branches of the US armed forces. Periodically, over the course of years, several prominent public figures and articles have criticized various aspects of this common arrangement.


In a 2010 article for Foreign Policy, writer David Kenner reported the comments of Col. Lawrence Sellin who said that Powerpoint was being over-relied upon as “the operative tool for conducting war”. The writer argued that the widespread use of the software had led to a culture in which it was acceptable to engage in “endless tinkering” of slides to appease “cognitively challenged generals” in lieu of engaging in more serious thinking about the military’s preparedness for war.


I empathize with this endless tinkering since that’s exactly what I was doing for a large part of my job with the countless briefings and presentations. 


Another 2014 article by War on the Rocks referenced a “famous and scathing essay” from T.X. Hamme in 2009 continuing this idea of the “art of slide-ology.” However, what hit home for me more was the fact that Powerpoint is being used as a means to make decisions when it shouldn’t.


When those in government take aim at software, cybersecurity is the common reason. But criticism about the use of Powerpoint in government seems to center mostly around its impact upon critical thinking, decreased quality of information, and decision-making.


Again, I don’t think Powerpoint is bad, on the contrary, I actually think there is a more optimistic picture. We just need to understand why Powerpoint has become so entrenched in government working cultures, the negative impacts of Powerpoint’s use today, and then understand the alternatives. Overdependence on Powerpoint takes time away from critical thinking yet has been prioritized as a decision-making tool. The good news is that these days communicators have many more options that can achieve the right outcome. 



Why Is Federal Government So In Love With Powerpoint?


Why are federal agencies so fond of Powerpoint? People offer different reasons, but a commonality seems to be the fact that so much of day-to-day work in government involves analysis and preparation — activities that seem like Powerpoint’s classic use cases. However, this analysis can then be used to make heavy-duty judgment calls by high-ranking officials during wartime scenarios.


Additionally, many working in the federal government operate continuously in information-heavy environments. Continuous professional development is a pronounced feature of many federal government roles. Federal employees are routinely requested to share best practices with state employees at the local level or with colleagues working in different arms of government. These are all tools for which Powerpoint seems ideally suited—until one remembers that there are alternatives (and newer modes of communication that expand the pool of options).


Even in the military, workers are often civilians. Powerpoint has become embedded in the fabric of our daily work and corporate life. It’s what many of us default to whenever we require a tool to help us “show” something (photos, knowledge) to others. Familiarity is therefore a powerful motivator and it’s not surprising that this solution has become so embedded. It’s natural to ask why one should go through a complex learning curve when you already know how to use a (great) program that “just works.”



The Negative Impacts of Powerpoint Today


While I was on active duty I noticed that almost every single role, position, and job within the military required individuals to spend time creating Powerpoint decks. In fact, junior officers are sometimes referred to as Powerpoint Rangers. Acquisitions, contracting, finance, intelligence, training, personnel management, anything and everything, you name it, there is definitely a .ppt file somewhere in someone’s drive. What was mind blowing though is that everyone knows they spend so much time (and wasted time at that) putting together Powerpoint slides but nothing has ever changed. It has become a way of life that we just accept, no matter how painful.


Spending cycles to make the perfect Powerpoint deck take away from what actually matters: critical thinking, analysis, and quality of information. If I can sum up the points from T.X. Hamme on the detriments of the “art of slide-ology” it would be time and context. We spend too much time trying to make the Powerpoint look pretty rather than focusing on content. And when we do focus on content we are either lacking the context necessary because things are cut short into bullets or we are cramming a slide with more information than can be digested in a presentation, thereby degrading the quality of the information. 


What’s concerning is that decisions are being made on that poor quality information. We’ve now assumed that a quick, informed decision can be made using bullet points, but we often end up needing to go back, update the deck, and spend more cycles because the decision-maker felt like they didn’t have enough information. Or, worse, they committed to a quick decision based on bullet points and watered down information. The last thing we want to do is contribute to negative outcomes or severe consequences so we should look to other ways to bring the context and information necessary to inform better decision-making.


And none of this insight is new. For over a decade, we have been aware of the problems that over dependence on PPT causes. I mean, how many of these articles have you read? It’s been 11 years since the New York Times first published We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Powerpoint in which they wrote:


“PRESIDENT OBAMA WAS SHOWN POWERPOINT SLIDES, MOSTLY MAPS AND CHARTS, IN THE WHITE HOUSE SITUATION ROOM DURING THE AFGHAN STRATEGY REVIEW LAST FALL. COMMANDERS SAY THAT THE SLIDES IMPART LESS INFORMATION THAN A FIVE-PAGE PAPER CAN HOLD, AND THAT THEY RELIEVE THE BRIEFER OF THE NEED TO POLISH WRITING TO CONVEY AN ANALYTIC, PERSUASIVE POINT. IMAGINE LAWYERS PRESENTING ARGUMENTS BEFORE THE SUPREME COURT IN SLIDES INSTEAD OF LEGAL BRIEFS.”


At Rise8, we think that much of Powerpoint’s misuse could be avoided if people thought about whether it’s the tool best matched to their communication objectives. Using a simple document editor to draft a report can change the mindset users bring to the decision making process.


A little-considered danger in using Powerpoint as an intelligence tool is that because the medium highly visual, it drifts into the discipline of design. Visual design is a great power and with great power comes great responsibility.


For example, using a wrong visual hierarchy can make some information seem more important than other information and this is a big deal when we’re asking, for example, a General to look at this information and make a judgment call on the battlefield. This can make the phrase “death by Powerpoint” far more accurate than it was ever intended.


Powerpoint makes it too easy to build new slides off templates and apply formatting that made sense in one context to a situation where it’s inappropriate. In this way, #Powerpoint can make users feel as though they are visual designers when they simply don’t have the technical training to be communicating complex information using visuals. Even just using the wrong color or text size can communicate in such a way that decision makers make the wrong calls, especially when the pressure is on. The greatest danger of this is that these effects are subconscious and even the most intelligent people can fall victim.


There’s also a feeling when creating a Powerpoint that the author needs to create a large collection of slides. Two-slide Powerpoints are rarely seen either in government or outside of it. Of course, brevity is a key objective to aim for in communication inside the DoD. Moving away from Powerpoints towards simpler tools can help federal communicators say what they have to say without getting sidetracked into wondering whether the length of the delivery format was sufficient. 



When Yes, When No. Here’s A Quick Breakdown.


While Powerpoint is a great tool, many agencies can take a leaf from Amazon’s book and reconsider the context in which it is used. 


The key to determining whether you should be using Powerpoint or not is understanding how you need to communicate information.


Our top line recommendation is to reserve Powerpoint only for situations in which you are going to be presenting information orally with the addition of visual aids. After all, this is the purpose for which Powerpoint was originally conceived. And even then, the slides should support the oral presentation rather than be a wall of text the presenter reads from. 


Adhering to this simple principle could cut down on the vast majority of Powerpoint overuse (and fatigue). An easy rule of thumb is that if a document is mostly words, it should be a document. If it’s mostly graphics, it should be a slide deck (after first considering whether graphics are being used too much for this information in the first place).


If we start considering these things in the decisions we make, we can gradually change this culture in the government and start the process of evolving away from death-by-Powerpoint.

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