Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Power of PowerPoint

When this PowerPoint slide meant to illustrate the complexity of the war in Afghanistan was first shown to a room full of American and Allied Commanders, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal quipped, "When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war." Everyone laughed. According to a NYTimes article, this slide has become emblematic of how the U.S. Military has become PowerPoint obsessed. Now there is a brewing backlash within the U.S. Military against PowerPoint:
“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.” (Source)

I love that line coming from a General--"Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable." No kidding. If, as the old adage goes, "To a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail," then we must beware of how tools like PowerPoint can overly determine our perception of reality.

This is why I sometimes worry about tools in church land like NCD (Natural Church Development). I think it's a great place to start (and I look forward to doing it at COTM), but does it oversimplify the complexity of parish life? I would like to hear from churches that have done two or three cycles of NCD and see if they feel they have run into the limitations of the NCD paradigm, yet.

Back to PowerPoint. There have been several essays in military science journals about the epistemology of PowerPoint--that is, how one thinks with PowerPoint. This one by Starbuck (Capt. Crispin Burke) responded to an earlier essay by retired Marine Colonel TX Hammes. The title of the Hammes essay, Dumb-dumb bullets: As a decision-making aid, PowerPoint is a poor tool, pretty much says it all about how some people feel in the military. What seems to bother people the most is "fuzzy" bullet points that lack actual information. Indeed, PowerPoint is more about persuasion than data.
Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters.

The news media sessions often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake. Those types of PowerPoint presentations, Dr. Hammes said, are known as “hypnotizing chickens.” (source)

It is sobering to consider that one of the significant causes of the Shuttle Columbia disaster, according to the Accident Review Board report, was the improper use of PowerPoint by NASA. "The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA" (source). One slide in particular (prepared by Boeing--sorry dad) earned the ire of the Accident Review Board:
  • The vaguely quantitative words "significant" and"significantly" are used 5 times on this slide, with de facto meanings ranging from "detectable in largely irrelevant calibration case study" to "an amount of damage so that everyone dies" to "a difference of 640-fold." None of these 5 usages appears to refer to the technical meaning of "statistical significance."
  • This vague pronoun reference "it" alludes to damage to the protective tiles,which caused the destruction of the Columbia. The slide weakens important material with ambiquous language (sentence fragments, passive voice,multiple meanings of "significant"). The 3 reports were created by engineers for high-level NASA officials who were deciding whether the threat of wing damage required further investigation before the Columbia attempted return. The officials were satisfied that the reports indicated that the Columbia was not in danger,and no attempts to further examine the threat were made. The slides were part of an oral presentation and also were circulated as e-mail attachments.

Basically, as these slides were passed up the chain of command, people glossed over them and took the tone to mean, "don't worry," rather than, "everyone might die." According to the ARB's Report sidebar titled "Engineering by Viewgraph," a more accurate title for the slide would have been "Review of Test Data Indicates Irrelevance of Two Models."

Of course, no one is likely to die in the Diocese of Toronto because of inappropriate PowerPoint use. For one thing, I don't see a lot of use of PowerPoint in the Diocese of Toronto. Some, but not much. Generally people prefer simple paper handouts (which are often too long to actually read in the meeting, anyway). In fact, the only white board I've seen in the whole building (Dio. Toronto HQ), is the Archbishop's Office. I'm a visual guy, so I really appreciated when I was in a meeting with him once and he started using it as our group brainstormed.

So what is PowerPoint good for? TX Hammes explains:
PowerPoint is not entirely negative. It can be useful in situations it was designed to support — primarily, information briefs rather than decision briefs. For instance, it is an excellent vehicle for instructors. It provides a simple, effective way to share high-impact photos, charts, graphs, film clips and humor that illustrate a lecturer’s points. Here, the bullet can function as designed by providing a brief, simple outline of the speaker’s material that facilitates note-taking and even (one hopes) student retention. Yet even in a classroom setting, it is not appropriate for developing a deep understanding of most subjects. For that, additional reading is required. There is a reason students cannot submit a thesis in PowerPoint format. (Source)

By extension, I think PowerPoint works reasonably well for some sermons. Especially sermons that need some kind of visual element. For instance, I used PowerPoint when I preached about how church architecture shapes liturgical experience. But most of the time I'm looking for as much of a relational moment as possible, so I would rather have people looking at me than a projection screen.

Still, I thought this whole debate about the use of PowerPoint in organizational decision making is worth thinking about.



rev_heather said...

Also a visual person, so when I don't have something more interesting than a talking head to watch (for example, during a sermon), I end up either losing focus completely or having to doodle and/or take notes to follow the flow. I have only once experienced visuals during a sermon, and it wasn't powerpoint. A member of the congregation had set up a series of five flipcharts, and drew the reading and images of the sermon as the preacher spoke. Very effective. I'm not sure about bullet notes for preaching, but effective visual images could really heighten the experience for me.

Chuck said...

No offense taken, as that was post merger, from one of the acquired outfits.