PowerPoint – From 1998 “Defending America”

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by Peter J. Nebergall, PhD
Note: PowerPoint Presentations still in the news as mentioned in the New York Times recent post.

In 1961, disgusted by the verbal excesses of his fellows, anthropologist Elman Service penned “Models in the Methodology of Mouthtalk.” In this paper, he railed against “conspicuous conceptualization,” his term for pompous presentation designed to impress and bamboozle, at the expense of explanation. He was right, but now we have PowerPoint.

MicroSoft PowerPoint, like its sister Corel Presentations, is just a tool, a means to create slick, convenient multimedia presentation. It is no better, and no worse, than the people who use it. The problem is just as it was in 1961 — “conspicuous conceptualization.”

It sounds basic, but a system promotes the behaviors it rewards. If simple, terse, “laconic” speech (remember the Spartans?) is rewarded, that’s what you’ll have. If, on the other hand, the Op for the day is “Never mind content; baffle ’em with bullshit,” that’s what you’ll get.

I read of the abuse of visual presentation, and my reaction is horror. Its easy, with the right images, to make almost anything look like the truth. We are not talking about a computer arcade here — this is not fantasyland — and where “flash” and BS trump content, we are well on the way to aping the Imperial Japanese general staff (or Benito Mussolini) and believing our own propaganda!

You do that, and your people die.

Its time to think about priorities. Who do you want to promote – – the BS artist with the pretty pictures, or the solid veteran with experience and good sense? So CHOOSE! There’s a time and a place for a visually-enhanced briefing, one that increases the likelihood of mission success. There’s also a time to turn the damn thing off and talk to your men.

I know a lot of people who’ll read this will say: “But you’re talking to those who make promotion decisions, not to me!”

Wrong. I’m talking to everybody. The over-reliance on big words, “hip” concepts, and BS presentation calculated to impress is a cultural problem. We all need to press for honesty, simplicity, and arrow-straight priorities.

And we don’t need PowerPoint to do that.