Bullet points

The sensation of ‘death by PowerPoint’ is a familiar one to many in the working world, so readers may well feel sympathy for retired US Marine TX Hammes.

In a 2000-word essay published in the Armed Forces Journal, Hammes declares war on Microsoft’s presentation software, which he claims is “actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making”.

“Before PowerPoint,” he argues, “staffs prepared succinct two- or three-page summaries of key issues. The decision-maker would read a paper, have time to think it over and then convene a meeting with either the full staff or just the experts involved to discuss the key points of the paper. In contrast, today, a decisionmaker sits through a 20- minute PowerPoint presentation followed by five minutes of discussion and then is expected to make a decision.”

The most damaging aspect of PowerPoint presentations, Hammes contends, “is the reduction of complex issues to bullet points. Obviously, bullets are not the same as complete sentences, which require developing coherent thoughts.”

PowerPoint is, according to Hammes, “the antithesis of thinking”.

“Time is wasted on which pictures to put on the slides, how to build complex illustrations and what bullets should be included. I have even heard conversations about what font to use and what colours,” he says.

‘Slide-ology’, he argues, has become a ‘cult’ at the Pentagon because of its perceived efficiency over analogue [paper] decisionmaking aids. The rule of thumb, Hammes says, citing a Pentagon friend, is one slide per minute of presentation, which floods the audience with information they have no hope of absorbing.

“As if this weren’t sufficient to block the transfer of information, some ‘PowerPoint Ranger’ invented quad charts,” he goes on. “For those unfamiliar with a quad chart, it is simply a PowerPoint slide divided into four equal quadrants and then a full slide is placed in each quadrant. If the briefer clicks on any of the four slides, it can become a full-sized slide. Why this is a good idea escapes me.”

While PowerPoint might be an overused tool, it is fair to say that in many cases the fault lies with the user. Still, there seems to be plenty left to say on the matter. The Armed Forces Journal is now running its second annual essay contest inviting submissions of 1,500 words on how PowerPoint has affected their career.

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