Business Brains

Is PowerPoint dumbing down our decisions?

Posting in Energy

In a hail of bullets, PowerPoint is reducing the quality of decision-making and interaction -- and even has the military concerned

Last year at a conference in Florida, I saw John Hagel, a leading thinker on the impact of social networking on business, kick off his keynote speech with a proclamation: he would deliver the talk without the use of PowerPoint. The entire auditorium erupted into applause.

May as well face it, we're addicted to PowerPoint. And there's been some interesting debate as of late about the effects of the presentation tool on our ability to convey ideas and messages. Lately, U.S. military leaders have even been growing concerned that complex topics are being oversimplified into a bullet point format. One observer even notes that "the process of spending hours each day adding more bells and whistles in PowerPoint presentations has become such an accepted part of military culture that many in the military use the term 'PowerPoint Ranger.'"

Retired Marine Colonel T.X. Hammes wrote in a recent essay that while the military spends billions teaching and training its members how to think, it then waters down their thinking with a PowerPoint culture. " As he puts it:

"PowerPoint is not a neutral tool — it is actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making. It has fundamentally changed our culture by altering the expectations of who makes decisions, what decisions they make and how they make them."

Decisions used to be carefully thought out and vetted by commanders and their staffs. Now, key points are distilled into 20-to-60 slides. "Bullets are not the same as complete sentences, which require developing coherent thoughts. Instead of forcing officers to learn the art of summarizing complex issues into coherent arguments, staff work now places a premium on slide building," Hammes states.

He also points out that PowerPoint has changed the culture of decision-making. Officers used to work through two to four decisions a day. But now within a PowerPoint culture,  "key decision-makers’ days are now broken down into one-hour and even 30-minute segments that are allocated for briefs. Of particular concern, many of these briefs are decision briefs. Thus senior decision-makers are making more decisions with less preparation and less time for thought."

This applies to the decision-making capabilities of business organizations as well. How many decisions are based on topline information in PowerPoint slides, versus more in-depth insights? How much energy and resources are being put into perfecting PowerPoint graphics?

Seth Godin, a noted author on the evolving business, has a better idea than PowerPoint: It's a thing called a "yellow legal pad," on which you can actually map out thoughts using a small, cylindrical device called a "pen."

Use of the pen and paper helps to increase interaction between meeting participants -- a level of interaction lost in the age of PowerPoint. As Godin explains:

"When you're in a small meeting (you and one or two other people) it's awkward to use a laptop or Powerpoint, because it destroys the intimacy of the discussion. Basically, it says, 'I'm going to talk to the screen and you can watch, okay?' The alternative is to use a thick pen or marker and a legal pad."

Using a pen and pad helps keep the conversation moving, while creating a written record of what's being discussed. "The act of writing is a verb, it's the process of putting it on the page that underlines what you've said, that highlights the moment," Godin emphasizes.

PowerPoint is an important tool for conveying information quickly and effectively. The use of eye-catching graphics also helps hold peoples' attention. But a smart approach may be to be more deliberate and selective about where PowerPoint presentations get employed, versus more straight-on, interactive communication to get points across.

Share this

Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure