When Bullets Kill Critical Thinkers

Don't Render Yourself Defenseless with Powerpoint®

May 14, 2010

Visual literacy is commonly defined as "the ability to see, understand, and create visual representations." It is our skill to communicate graphically. The old adage "A picture is worth a thousand words" should be updated to "A GOOD picture is worth a thousand words; a BAD picture renders us speechless." A recent example of visual illiteracy was captured by NBC's Richard Engel in the form of a PowerPoint slide shown at a top military briefing last summer.

This slide of a system dynamics diagram, along with a photo capturing the bemused expression of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, has been widely circulated on the Web. While the diagram is probably an accurate depiction of a very complex system, it becomes illegible and irrelevant when reduced to the size of a PowerPoint slide. Read the original New York Times article.

The brunt of the online barbs and chatter is our current, universal addiction to Microsoft PowerPoint®. The NYT article reveals that PowerPoint is so engrained in our American military culture that it has produced an unofficial job title — "PowerPoint Ranger" — for junior officers who prepare slide presentations and storyboards. The military isn't the only junkie; NASA was criticized for conclusions drawn from a set of 28 PowerPoint slides meant to assess the risk of the 2003 spaceflight of shuttle Columbia. Obviously, the conclusions drawn were disastrous.

The corporate world is just as much a victim of this disease. PowerPoint slide sets are a staple of conferences, board meetings, training sessions, and just about every gathering of two or more people. Back when Lou Gerstner began his reign at IBM, he was greeted by a court of business unit leaders armed with slide sets, fondly nicknamed by the IBMers as "foils". Gerstner shut down the projector and coined the phrase, "Let's just talk about your business".

So the next time you prepare for a presentation, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are fewer words in a larger font really helping you convey your meaning?
  • Are you diluting your message by shrinking key figures and tables to make them fit into the "convenient" slide format?
  • Are you bullet‐izing complex issues into lists or are you focusing on the business goals?
  • Should you create a handout of data or graphics to better emphasize the results of your analysis?
  • Will the leaders in the room receive enough information to be able to make critical decisions on complex matters?

The villain isn't PowerPoint. We have met the enemy, and he is us. Make the software application work for you, not you for it. Our pictures should be worth a thousand words, and we shouldn't be afraid to talk in complete sentences.