Friday, January 08, 2010

Is there really a call to ban PowerPoint in the US military?

There have been a number of blog posts recently regarding a report issued on improving US military intelligence in the battlefields of Afghanistan. You can read or download the entire report in PDF format here. The text that is getting the most prominence in the presentation world is this quote from page 23 of the report:

“The format of intelligence products matters. Commanders who think PowerPoint storyboards and color-coded spreadsheets are adequate for describing the Afghan conflict and its complexities have some soul searching to do. Sufficient knowledge will not come from slides with little more text than a comic strip. Commanders must demand substantive written narratives and analyses from their intel shops and make the time to read them. There are no shortcuts. Microsoft Word, rather than PowerPoint, should be the tool of choice for intelligence professionals in a counterinsurgency.”

Many have taken this paragraph to suggest that the authors think that PowerPoint should be banned in the military. I invite you to look at what the authors say on page 16 of the report, the only other time they mention “PowerPoint” in the report. The paragraphs are too long to reproduce here, but what the authors conclude is that too many analysts are spending time focusing on producing pretty charts and visuals for the leadership level. Instead, they should be spending time figuring out what will help the troops on the ground and create the intel that the troops need to do their jobs.

This is not a call to ban PowerPoint. It is a call to stop wasting time on tasks that do not help the organization reach its objectives.

This is a classic strategic communications problem: not figuring out what the audience needs to hear. And it is one that presenters suffer from as well. Like the misguided analysts cited in the report, too many presenters create presentations of what they want to say instead of figuring out what really matters to the audience and how the information should best be delivered. Sometimes a presentation is not the best vehicle for communicating. Good presenters know when not to present and use a written report instead.

What are the lessons for presenters, military or not? First, spend time determining what really matters to your audience and why they want to hear from you. This means talking to them and listening to what they say. Second, let this audience focus drive your decisions about content and format. Your true goal should be to make sure the audience understands and acts on your message, so prepare a message that contains what they need to hear and deliver that message in a format that they will be able to use.

PowerPoint is only one communication vehicle and great presenters know that there is not one vehicle that fits every situation.


Blogger Chantal Bossé said...

I totally agree with you Dave. It's back to basics: audience needs and best medium to meet their needs (which is not always PowerPoint...)

2:58 PM  

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