Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Don't blame Powerpoint - Blame the Slidemakers for Poor Writing

A U.S. general recently heaped the blame for idiotic speeches on Powerpoint, the innocuous slidemaking tool that's part of Microsoft's popular Office software package. He said, "Powerpoint makes us stupid." (Here's the full article at the New York Times).

Sorry General Jerk, you do that all by yourself.

Powerpoint is a tool, not unlike a pencil, or even the laptop in which it resides. It is intellectually neutral. Its value is entirely dependent upon the information plunked into it by - OMG - a person.

The person who makes the powerpoint slides can be bright or moronic. He can be an effective and intelligent communicator, or a simpleton who misses the point. The slides he makes can be mind-numbingly rote, or inspiring and illuminating. I'm thinking now of that all programming rule, garbage in, garbage out. GIGO.

Ergo, you can't blame powerpoint for meaningless lists of bullets that overlook synergistic connections between each point. Nor can you blame powerpoint for a "bowl of spaghetti" flowchart that leaves the graphically-challenged flummoxed. You can only blame lazy, sloppy thinking and poor communication skills.

That's why the U.S. army needs me. No, I'm not enlisting, but I think, as a writer, I can teach General J a thing or two about how powerpoint - and good communication - works.

 #1 - Give a shit about what you are writing. If your aim is to put people to sleep for 45 minutes and collect your fee, write blah blah bullets. If you actually want to communicate, you have to care.

#2 - Respect your audience. If you think they are as dumb as all that, skip the  presentation and serve milk and cookies. Save your simplistic presentation for the generals, and give your audience a cogent, well-thought out, clearly organized and dramatically inspired presentation. You can even use powerpoint, if you use it properly.

#3 Can the jargon. The euphemisms. The PC blather. We all know when you are saying nothing. We are tired of it. Say what you mean, and mean what you say, in as few words as possible. Then go home.

#4 General J - you can't take stuff out of context and not look like an arsehole. That bowl of spaghetti graph? From my admittedly quick read of the NYT article, it was intended to show graphically the complexity of the Army's situation. “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General J  said, missing the point that the slide was supposed to be incomprehensibly complex.

#5 If you  are too busy or too communication-impaired to do a good job at your presentation, hire a writer.

It sounds like, in the final analysis, that Powerpoint is not the U.S. army's real problem. Rather, it is a culture that seeks routinized ways to handle information, people and situations, then applies those methods at every opportunity even when all sense is lost. If your top staff is spending all its time making meaningless slides for meaningless presentations so they can check of the "Done" box on their tasks lists, yup, you've got a problem. But it ain't powerpoint- it's empty-headed orders.

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