28 April 2010

Defeating The Enemy

There was a great article in the NY Times yesterday, titled We Have Met The Enemy, and He Is PowerPoint. It recaps all the familiar criticisms of bad briefing charts - they're too complex, too simplistic, too confusing, too obtuse... Regular readers may recall a little film noir spoof I wrote titled Death By Bullets, which was my own little salvo in the war against bad PowerPoint.

But as they say, it is a poor workman who blames his tools, and I've long believed that Microsoft's presentation software isn't the problem (although the default template settings they use are inexcusable). But the truth is, all those terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad briefings out there do not represent a software problem. They don't represent a technology problem. For that matter, they don't even represent a communication problem.

Ladies and gentlemen, bad briefings are a leadership problem and a thinking problem.

Senior leaders should never accept an endless parade of dense, impossible-to-read charts. They should refuse to sit through briefings like that. But not only do they receive and accept such briefings, they deliver them too. It makes me crazy to think about it.

Nobody likes that approach. Nobody thinks it's effective. And apparently nobody thinks there's an alternative.

Thank goodness for rare leaders like Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations according to the aforementioned article. Now, I think he would have been better off banning BAD PowerPoint, but it's a start.

Look, it's possible to create a clear, coherent, cogent presentation using just about any type of software (Apple's KeyNote can be just as bad as PPT). It just requires a little extra thought, a little creativity and a little practice.

A little study wouldn't hurt either. Do your homework. Learn how to give a good presentation. I recommend starting with Garr Reynolds' Presentation Zen and watching some of the TED presentations.

Good luck, and remember the #1 rule of PowerPoint: First, Do No Harm.


Glen B. Alleman said...

Buy, read, put into practice Cliff Atkinson's Beyond Bullet Points.
Learn how to construction useful and powerful briefings.

Dick Field said...

Hah! I was just about ready to send you a link on this. I WILL be posting a link to "Death by Bullets" on the GovExec site. If nothing else, we can jolt the readership with the "violent artwork"! (heh-heh)

Glen B. Alleman said...

Dan and Dick,
Just one more point. the slide is actually a "mind map" done by PA Consulting - a very good firm.

Without knowing what was requested, it'd be hard to be critical of the outcome.

We make similar maps for complex topics - autonomous landing systems for UAV's ConOps for example are D-sized maps with just about as much density.

Simpler diagrams fail completely to show the interdependence between, air, ground, space, and sea based C4I activities.

The Dan Ward said...

@Glen -

You're correct - this diagram is a mindmap. Mindmaps are great tools for exploring, documenting and understanding complex things. But they don't translate well when presented in a PPT presentation. So, making it might have been a good exercise to go through, but presenting it strikes me as absurdly futile.

To answer your last line, I contend that this diagram completely failed to show anything at all (other than "This stuff is complex & intertwined"). A simpler diagram could have communicated that message much more clearly and effectively.