I recently came across an interesting article in the Small Wars Journal, in which military commander Ben Zweibelson expresses his belief that because the “military has become addicted to the benefits of PowerPoint,” decision-makers have become blinded to “the many negative impacts on organizational learning, creativity, and critical thinking” of slide-driven briefings.
There are a number of reasons why Zweibelson believes that PowerPoint negatively impacts decision-making:
- PowerPoint-driven briefings focus on the “What” versus the “Why”
- PowerPoint-driven briefings kill productivity
- PowerPoint-driven briefings emphasize quantity over quality
What vs Why
Zweibelson uses a bicycle metaphor to make this point. PowerPoint-driven briefings focus on each individual part of the bicycle—the seat, the gears, the wheels, the tires, the spokes, the handlebars. Information is categorized into small, isolated packets.
Because of its linear nature, PowerPoint encourages decision-makers to focus on data, rather than how that data could and should be interrelated, even though interrelationships are critical to effective decision-making.
Ideally, decision-making should focus on why. In other words, the bicycle needs to be assembled and consideration given to where or why (or if) it should be ridden. The interrelationships of the various parts should be the primary consideration when people sit down to make decisions.
Instead, Zweibelson writes that PowerPoint presentations are used to standardize briefings into “uniform and repetitive procedures that codify organizational perspective into ‘group think.’ We follow the slides, and conform to the slide requirements. Next slide, please.”
Zweibelson points out that modern military briefings (and indeed the vast majority of presentations to all decision-making groups) consist of densely packed slides. More often than not, the person conducting the briefing reads from the slides while offering little additional information of value.
He recommends that decision-makers ask the presenter to turn off the slide projector as soon as this situation manifests itself. “If the presenter is unable to articulate their thoughts or convey much of anything,” Zweibelson writes, “you might determine that the slideshow is the actual briefer, while the human has become the willing presentation aid.”
We’ve all witnessed the same issue with printed presentation decks.
When everyone gets together, the conversation focuses on the “what” in the deck, not “why” it’s important to the organization. If you want to change this, put the decks away; they should never form the basis for any meeting.
Painstakingly (and painfully!) plodding through decks may very well be the ultimate productivity sin of the 21st century.
Quantity over Quality
In any presentation—whether briefing a group of decision-makers or delivering a keynote to 1,000 or more—there is always more information than time.
The challenge is to apply critical thinking skills to bring precisely the right information to create understanding and facilitate effective decision-making. However, as Zweibelson points out, PowerPoint-driven briefings always attempt to cram “ten pounds of dirt into a five pound bag,” which “does little to improve organizational learning” or facilitate effective decision-making.
Zweibelson makes some interesting recommendations to enhance critical thinking, improve productivity and facilitate decision-making:
- Presenters should be limited to a maximum of three slides, yet the length of the meeting should be maintained. Group discussion will identify critical issues that require attention.
- The projector should be turned off and presentation decks should be put away.
- Other briefing aids should be encouraged and staff should be challenged to conduct briefings with no PowerPoint whatsoever.
- And, in a radical departure, he even recommends removing chairs and tables. “We become programmed to behave in certain ways because we are conditioned to sit and be silent while a briefer spoon-feeds us information while the same information is projected,” he writes. “Why? What happens when everyone is no longer seated for a briefing?”
Whether the group is seated or not, the net effect of turning off the projector and putting away the deck is clear: Better decision-making that enhances productivity by focusing on the quality of the “why” rather than the quantity of the “what.”