Death by Powerpoint

Death by Powerpoint

Summary: Implicated in 2 space shuttle disasters. Banned by a combat commander in Iraq. Making sense of our collected and stored information is hard enough. Does PowerPoint thinking make it harder?


Implicated in 2 space shuttle disasters. Banned by a combat commander in Iraq. Making sense of our collected and stored information is hard enough. Does PowerPoint thinking make it harder?

The New York Times quotes Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis: "PowerPoint makes us stupid." And Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the fight to secure the Iraqi city of Tal Afar, likened PowerPoint to an internal threat.

An Army platoon leader in Iraq, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, said he spent most of his time “Making PowerPoint slides.” When pressed, he said he was serious.

According to the book “Fiasco” by Thomas E. Ricks, Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who commanded American forces, did not issue explicit orders on how he wanted the invasion conducted, and why. Instead, General Franks just passed on the vague PowerPoint slides that he had shown to defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Edward Tufte, a Yale professor emeritus, and the author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information makes a deeper critique of PowerPoint in The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.

  • Cognitive style. Presenter-focused, not content or audience focused.
  • Low resolution. Little info per slide - so more slides are needed. Data graphics are weak: average of 12 numbers per graphic.
  • Bullets. Bullet lists can show only 3 logical flows: sequence; priority; or membership. Multivariate models with feedback and simultaneity can't be listed. This encourages lazy thinking, generic ideas and ignores critical relationships and assumptions.

The Gettysburg PowerPoint Tufte doesn't mention PowerPoint's impact on eloquence, but Peter Norvig's hilarious Gettysburg PowerPoint makes the case. Using the AutoContent Wizard and the "Company Meeting (Online)" template, he quickly created a garish and unmemorable hash of the most famous speech in US Presidential history.

As Doc Searls put it:

. . . the PowerPoint "Wizard" is this Nazi interrogator who says "Vee haff vays uff making you talk."

The shuttle disasters Richard Feynman, the late Nobel laureate and CalTech physicist, saw that "bulletized" thinking contributed to the Challenger disaster, where 7 crew members died and a multi-billion dollar craft destroyed due to an O-ring failure. The big problem was that NASA management wasn't really listening to the engineers - and breaking issues up into bullets helped them do that.

We looked at the summary of the report. Everything was behind little bullets, as usual. The top line says:

  • The lack of a good secondary seal in the field joint is most critical and ways to reduce joint rotation should be incorporated as soon as possible to reduce criticality.

And then, near the bottom, it says:

  • Analysis of existing data indicates that it is safe to continue flying existing design as long as all joints are leak checked* with a 200 psig stabilization . . .

I was struck by the contradiction: "If it's 'most critical,' how could it be 'safe to continue flying'? What's the logic of this?"

[What do you care what other people think? page 135]

The engineers who worked on the Challenger O-rings knew they weren't qualified for cold weather. But management didn't want to hear it and OK'd the launch despite the engineer's opposition.

As sometimes happens, disaster ensued.

In the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster, Prof. Tufte dissects the PowerPoint slides that buried important information - such as volume, mass and velocity - about the large piece of foam insulation that penetrated the Columbia's heat shield. Creating useful engineering reports in PowerPoint is difficult if not impossible.

The Storage Bits take PowerPoint - and Keynote, its prettier Mac cousin - are only tools, albeit very popular tools. Give a man a hammer and everything looks like a nail.

Update: PowerPoint is a hammer. It does some things well and others - such as presenting complex ideas - poorly, no matter how gifted the presenter. There are many ways to engage an audience with minimal text - watch Steve Jobs present - and 1 of the best is with a story. End update.

A critical issue is that PowerPoint is a tool for presentation, not discussion. In a multivariate world, we need more discussion, not less.

That lack of discussion exists in an organizational context that values hierarchy and control. A business plan is written, a presentation given to management - who will not read the plan - and the plan is approved without serious thought. Management's prerogatives have been honored.

Combine that with the all-too-human reluctance to think (see "dittoheads") and the popularity of PowerPoint is clear: it creates the illusion of participation without the sweaty bits. Getting into issues requires the hard work of questioning assumptions, examining evidence, determining values and accepting compromises.

That's discussion, not presentation.

Comments welcome, of course. The most stunning PowerPoint presentation I've seen was 53 slides on part numbers. Amazing!

Update: Check out Prezi for a creative alternative to PP/KN. I don't like their business model, but they have a lot of great ideas. End update.

Topics: Collaboration, Microsoft, Software

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  • Don't blame the tool

    Emails and phone calls were also ignored by managment in the shuttle disaster. Should we ban email and phones?

    The problem wasn't the tool used, or how it was presented, the problem was that management wasn't listening to the engineers.
    • Hiding behind a PowerPoint slide. (nt)

      John Zern
    • Tufte, for one, doesn't agree

      Yes, there are poor presenters, muddled messages and sloppy analyses.

      But PowerPoint makes it easy to be all 3. If people wrote paragraphs
      instead of bullets they would have to reason out their conclusions.

      msg_id=0002PP&topic_id=1&topic= for more.

      R Harris
    • Reread the story

      Power Point was designed to present an idea. It
      was never intended for discussion. But a lot of
      well educated idiots used it for discussions.

      It is a tool, a tool of very narrow use. Used
      properly its very good. Used improperly it's a

      If you can't get someone to use the claw end to
      pull nails instead of pounding them all the way
      in; then you have no choice but to ban that
      person from using a hammer. Which is what was
      finally done in Iraq.
    • And who makes PowerPoint?

      DOH!.... lol... :D

      Another [b]epic fail[/b] from you know who...
      ubiquitous one
      • Epic fail by you?

        Many companies make presentation software. The comments in this post refer to the use of the type of software in general by using the most well-known brand name.
        • PowerPoint by far is the largest

          And the DoD isn't targeting any other presentation software. Notice the title of this article specifically points out PowerPoint.
          ubiquitous one
  • Challenger or Columbia?

    You have a paragraph titled "The Columbia shuttle disaster" and then refer to the Challenger disaster. Then at the end you refer to Columbia again....Might want to proofread this before posting.

    Richard Feynman was dead by the time the Columbia disaster happened.
    • Fixed!


      Thanks for catching that. Challenger was in 1986 and Columbia was in
      2003. While PowerPoint per se was not implicated in the Challenger
      disaster, Feynman noted several times the use of bullets.

      R Harris
      • speaking of "Bulletized Thinking"...

        The best institutes of higher education in this country have LONG been waging a losing battle against "bulletized thinking". But real liberal arts colleges, such as Reed College, have been quite persuasive and influential not only teaching against the danger, but even teaching its practical alternative, critical thinking.

        Even non liberal arts colleges, such as Caltech, have long been teaching better alternatives.

        So with both classes of institutions of higher learning fighting so hard against the delusion of belief in "bulletized thinking", why are we making so little headway?

        My explanation may sound too cynical, but bitter experience has convinced me that Scott Adams is basically right: we as a nation have allowed "mastodon dung" to occupy too many crucial places in the management structure of companies and institutions across the whole nation. But now that they occupy the key positions, they don't CARE whether "bulletized thinking" is leading them astray or not. They do not HAVE to care. Their security in those positions has so LITTLE to do with their performance.
  • Powerpoint hasn't killed me yet, but....

    quite often, Powerpoint presentations have put me into a deep
    coma. (And whizbang animations with twirly, zoomy stuff haven't
  • It's the presenter!

    As mentioned, it is NOT the tool - it is the person who created the presentation who is respsonsible. Are they trying to get INFORMATION out?

    Are they are trying to present facts or fluff?

    What is even more important than the slides are the spoken words that go along with it - or the fact sheets that are SUPPOSED to go along with the slides.

    If a Dilbert style PPT is given, and the spoken works or the text details are not supplied, then the whole effort has been wasted.

    I've had great sucess when using PPTs for history on the 8th Air Force since I ensured that the people HAD to think and ask questions - that way they learned and not just looked.
    • Agreed (nt)

      Agreed (nt)
    • Very true!

      Despite this article blaming the software you are correct in that it is the presenter. Thanks for the well thought out post. Now lets just hope others read it.
      Loverock Davidson
    • training for the tool, but little training for presentation

      Anybody who thinks a great tool makes a great worker is deluding themselves - but that is exactly what has happened with PowerPoint. We teach them how the tool works, but we don't teach the MUCH more difficult job of how to use it.

      The problem the military (and others) have, is they have very skilled slide technicians - but few have the training and experience in making effective presentations. It's like declaring a soldier who is highly proficient in weapons care an expert marksman. Sure, they know where the trigger is located and how it works, but can they hit the target (and avoid wounding their fellow soldiers)?

      An effective presenter knows the strengths and weaknesses of his/her tools and uses them appropriately. PowerPoint is only a tool. I too have seen PowerPoint misused - if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat your world as some kind of nail and the sole fix to any issue is to hit it - repeatedly.
      Jim Johnson
  • RE: Death by Powerpoint

    "the all-to-human reluctance to think"

    That is the funniest line in the whole thing you could possibly misspell, and you did it!
    • Fixed!


      R Harris
  • I was with you right up until the gratuitous slap at conservatives.

    <i>Combine that with the all-to-human reluctance to think (see ?dittoheads?) and the popularity of PowerPoint is clear: it creates the illusion of participation without the sweaty bits. Getting into issues requires the hard work of questioning assumptions, examining evidence, determining values and accepting compromises.</i>

    This is no more than saying that people who watch and agree with Obama's daily teleprompter musings or the rantings of Reid and Pelosi are reluctant to think if they don't go out and independently reach the same conclusions by doing their own research.

    That being said, the rest of your article raises an interesting point. Specifically, watching the daily "news" without actually doing research is no more than setting yourself up for disaster. Or reading blogs on what used to be technical news sites without doing independent research is going to lead people to technological disaster.

    Then again, maybe all it really means is that people gravitate to watching/reading that which agrees with their own position. I can tell you that I was a conservative long before anyone ever heard of Rush Limbaugh or Fox News.
    • RE:I was with you right up until the gratuitous slap at conservatives.

      ...I can tell you that I was a conservative long before anyone ever heard of Rush Limbaugh or Fox News...

      The Republicans I knew and talked politics with before Fox News and Limbaugh were men I respected even or especially when we disagreed which was most of the time. The Republicans I have come to know who were raised on Fox News and Limbaugh are a very different breed. They tend to so far right there is no possibility of them being wrong about anything, shrill, arrogantly contemptuous of anyone who holds opinions which falls outside of their ideology, extraordinarily rigid in their beliefs and opinions even in the face of unassailable evidence to the contrary. and these are their good points!!!
      • Amen, brother.

        I did not mention conservatives. I said dittoheads and that's what I

        Limbaugh is not a thinker. He is a talker and an entertainer. He channels
        anger, not ideas. And people who unthinkingly follow him are not
        conservatives. They are sheep.

        R Harris