Avoiding death by powerpoint
27 Jan 2014|

A PowerPoint slide prepared for the Pentagon. Pay attention - there'll be a test later.Many of you will head back tomorrow from holidays and into lecture halls and conference rooms after this Australia Day holiday weekend. In preparation, please take a moment to arm yourself some simple tools to subvert PowerPoint. These few weapons will help ward off the bullet-point boredom that clicks through the slides from daydreams to distraction to ennui to the comatose state that is death-by-PowerPoint.

The PowerPoint trap is the promise to bypass prose and yet turn pap into points of purpose or even principles to steer by. No thinking required, just follow the dot points. PowerPoint doesn’t just avoid prose. It can also reduce great prose to pap. See Peter Norvig’s classic reduction of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to a slide presentation.

The military is especially afflicted by the PowerPoint syndrome—perhaps the men and women in uniform really do have higher pain thresholds. When I occasionally speak/lecture/bore with purpose to military audiences, my three opening jests in descending order are:

  1. The mantra known to all one-star officers and above—the Army sleeps under the stars, the Navy navigates by the stars and the Air Force pick their hotel by the stars.
  2. What’s the difference between a Jumbo jet and a fighter pilot? When you turn off the Jumbo, the whining stops. (What is it about the Air Force?)
  3. PowerPoint may be a new high in our civilisation and a wonder of the age, but as a simple wordsmith I’m unworthy of its blessings, and will forsake the power of pointing and just talk like an old fashioned human. No PowerPoint today!

The first two are weak jests and the abjuring PowerPoint line isn’t even a jest at all, but it always seems to get the loudest response. Maybe what I hear as laughter is just a roar of relief.

Note that of the three points I’ve just made, only one has any relationship at all to the putative topic. This is a hint at the direction our subversive approach will take. To deconstruct a PowerPoint death march is to apply basic questions about the strength and relationships of the various arguments being flashed up on the screen. PowerPoint doesn’t lend itself to attack by Hegel’s dialectics.

Usually, you don’t have the time in a presentation to decide big questions of truth. Content yourself with checking the logic trail. Quick and simple tools are needed. Take the dot points on their own terms. Accept that PowerPoint is very good at displaying lists. The weakness enters when those lists are supposed to construct a logic chain. Your job is to test the strength of the links in the chain; do the dots add up to a real point?

Here are the four weapons to apply as those bullet points fly. Sorry for presenting these in point form but, as acknowledged, this is a good way to do lists. Here are the tests you apply:

  • Relevance
  • Do the points agree or disagree?
  • Aha! A veto (trump) point
  • Outlier points

‘Relevance’ is the simplest test. Is this dot point relevant to the topic? It’s surprising how often the answer can sound like ‘No’.

‘Agree or disagree’ is where the fun starts. Do the dot points actually relate to each other in some sort of harmonious way? Do they pull in the same direction? If the points are supposed to be building a logic chain, then there must be some level of agreement or coherence between the points. If, however, points are at odds with each other or could be in conflict—heading towards disagree country—then you’ve started to disrupt the direction of the death march.

A veto or trump point (the Joker card) is one that’s so powerful or important it can negate or subsume all the other arguments being presented.

An Outlier point is one that has some relevance to the topic but resides in a different part of the forest.

Now, demonstration time. Our single slide comes from Margaret Thatcher, who had a great fondness for numbering points and, in her later written works, could spray out a blizzard of dot points. Mrs T. would’ve been a fiend for PowerPoint. This is from her book ‘The Path to Power’ and gives the lessons she drew for Britain from the debacle of the Suez crisis:

  1. We should not get into a military operation unless we were determined and able to finish it
  2. We should never again find ourselves on the opposite side to the United States in a major international crisis affecting British interests
  3. We should ensure that our actions were in accord with international law
  4. He who hesitates is lost.

Three of the tests are useful. Points 1 and 4 could disagree as much as they agree. The nod to US power is a trump point that can outweigh all others. And in this set, international law is an outlier—it’s obviously relevant but resides in different territory to the equations of war and peace and alliance that drive points 1, 2 and 4.

The simplicity of the tests means they can be fired at the same speed as the slides dash by. You’ll have to make a judgement about the character of the speaker if you decide to share your conclusions about the strength or weakness of the logic chain being PowerPointed. The person with the microphone and the device to point and click may be gratified that you paid such close attention. Or they may detect blasphemy in your challenge and run the slide show all over again as punishment for the sins of heresy and lese-majeste.

Don’t underestimate the power of this elegant weapon or its potential for recoil. But at least it will keep you awake. Enjoy.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image credit: PA Consulting, via Wired.

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