April 28, 2010

On PowerPoint rangers

NY Times:

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti.

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.

While the article succeeded in giving me a new appreciation of COMISAF's sense of humour, I think the slide in question is a poor example of the real problem here. The objection to PowerPoint is that it's a poor method for presenting complex, content-rich information, often leading you to stuff too much stuff into one slide or image. Now, as a slide this would seem a perfect example of that.

This graphic might work as a wallchart, though: I can't speak to the content in context, but I've certainly seen network diagrams of insurgent networks and the like which are so information-rich they needed that kind of wallspace to be displayed effectively, and yet were still useful. If you're attacking that network, and everyone agrees the graphic encapsulates the problem, and have that kind of schematic taking up a wall as a standing briefing and reference aid, that can be a good planning tool. As a slide it's still silly, of course, but that's separate from saying the graphic is silly.

The second more common version of this problem with PowerPoint is the reduction of any complex thought down to bullets and pictures, oversimplifying it and inhibiting comprehension. This example aside, it's often better to show the graph of the results than the bulletpoint summary of the results. Similarly, it's often better to write out your plan as a paper rather than just a slide deck.

In previous years I worked under two highly talented and respected senior officers who for me typified the extremes in this situation. I recall the first boiling down their entire plan for us for the coming months into one highly confusing slide he'd evidently constructed himself. It was such a baffling, tangled mess it made me briefly doubt the wisdom of the chain of command system. It wasn't that the slide was insufficiently complex, though: it was that it raised more questions than any one slide could ever answer and there was nowhere else to readily draw those answers from. (It looked a little like Gen. Franks' slide in this essay: as the writer states, the problem isn't the complexity, it's the vagueness that necessarily comes when presenting ones' directives or orders primarily in this format.)

Another leader, a previous commander of Task Force Kandahar, had a habit of putting scans of his own hand-drawn back-of-an-envelope schematics, clear, well-drawn and content-rich, as the lead graphics in written documents outlining the way ahead in much greater detail. Comprehension benefited from the graphic, but didn't depend on it. The method underscored his own clarity of thought and purpose quite effectively, I thought, combining the intimacy of someone explaining his plan to you on a napkin one-on-one with the power of electronic mass transmission.*

I guess what I'm saying is brilliant communicators are brilliant because they don't let the technology or others' expectations get in the way of their thoughts or their message. The generals who say they'd rather see the paper than the slide deck have a point, in that the writing process can be more conducive to finding flaws in one's argument or analysis than building a bullet list can be: in my experience, though, if you don't actively communicate in both modes effectively (briefing AND writing), using every tool at your disposal, no one will engage with your airtight written work, either. Sometimes you just need to make a pitch, too: the Times article asks whether we'd appreciate lawyers building slides instead of briefs -- but on the other side, would we want salespeople to only provide us with detailed essays on the product every time, or can a well-crafted brochure or website sometimes suffice? (Or for that matter, could we stand a court trial that was entirely conducted with written documents, and no verbal arguments?)

That said, if you go straight to the slide deck without having done the analytical work up front, yes, odds are whatever you present will be junk: good presentation skills can prevent you degrading whatever clarity of thought you possess, but they can't augment it. I think T.X. Hammes' summary is dead-on: "PowerPoint [used alone] can be highly effective if used purely to convey information — as in a classroom or general background brief. It is particularly good if strong pictures or charts accompany the discussion of the material. But it is poorly suited to be an effective decision aid."

*Both men had reputations as symbolic thinkers, and I'm sure their insights were equally deep (although that's a total assumption in the former's case as I to this day have no idea what he was on about). The difference was that the first officer let his insight be limited by the technology he was using, while the latter took a chance on a less familiar but more effective approach. I've often thought about how the first officer could have increased comprehension of that failed brief. I think the best answer to finding oneself reliant on a single incomprehensible diagram in this case would have been for him to take advantage of the fact that all the intended audience was in the room, and rather than present that monstrously baffling slide and then try to explain his way through it, instead use a big whiteboard and markers to build the argument from first principles in a more iterative fashion while he talked. The final diagram would have possibly been even more complex, but it would have brought the listeners closer to the actual thought process behind it.

Posted by BruceR at 10:31 AM