TM&Th blog
Jean-luc Doumont
We have met the enemy, or have we?

Several participants of past workshops on oral presentations
pointed me to an April 26 article from the New York Times,
boldly titled “We have met the enemy and he is PowerPoint,”

about how military officials now regard PowerPoint as no less
than an internal threat. Such criticism will certainly resonate
among meeting goers and conference attendees worldwide,
sentenced to what is now referred to as death by PowerPoint.
The article does trigger two observations in my mind, though.

First, and as evidenced by the comments left by NYT readers,
the raging PowerPoint debate is largely about who is to blame
for the millions of awful slides out there: the tool or the users?
Information visualization guru Edward Tufte vehemently defends
the former view in his booklet The cognitive style of PowerPoint.
Like Gen. James N. Mattis, he believes that PowerPoint (the tool)
is making us stupid. I take a more moderate view in my response
to his booklet (namely “The cognitive style of PowerPoint: slides
are not all evil” in Technical Communication 52:1, 64-70, 2005
While I am not a PowerPoint user myself, I train people who are,
and I would rather focus my energy on recommending solutions
for more effective slides than on arguing about responsibilities.
The spaghetti diagram that opens the NYT article (shown below)
is inappropriate as a projected slide, no doubt, but this issue
has little or nothing to do with PowerPoint itself if you ask me.

PowerPoint diagram

Second, and upon reading the NYT article, I was struck yet again
by a journalistic style I never could figure out, let alone condone.
The article is made up of 22 paragraphs, 19 of which comprise
one or two sentences only (with the remaining three paragraphs
indulging in just three sentences each). How can an author hope
to make cogent points with such underdeveloped paragraphs?
(One goes thus: “President Obama was shown PowerPoint slides,
mostly maps and charts, in the White House Situation Room
during the Afghan strategy review last fall.” Oh really? So what?)
In a mere 1000 words, the article manages to mention or quote
over a dozen different people, too, thus adding to the impression
of tedious linearity so reminiscent of… PowerPoint slideshows.

Whether it be with presentation slides during a military briefing
or with shallow paragraphs in an article of the New York Times,
a long chain of items is simply suboptimal: it may well pretend
to have chopped down a complex issue into manageable bites,
but it will not make a coherent, meaningful, memorable whole
like a hierarchical tree can. Tools come and go, they may help
or hurt our cognitive processes, and we grow more or less used
to them, but they do not change the ultimate needs or capacities
of the human brain. This is the tool we must learn to use better.

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Fri 21 May 2010   Philippe Vandenbroeck made the following comment:
Jean-luc, I also picked up the controversy around the spaghetti diagram.
In fact, in the past we have developed some of these ourselves
( I agree with you that appro-
priate visual strategies are needed to reveal the complexity embedded
in such a diagram in a step-by-step fashion. However, what irks me
in the article is the meddling of two lines of argument: on the one hand
Powerpoint is castigated for ‘dumbing down’ communication by reducing
an argument to an interminable list of bullet points. On the other hand
there is an issue of undigestible complexity in causal loop diagrams
such as the one shown. Two different problems that ask for different
solution strategies. Indeed, not very impressive as a piece of journalism,
this article.