Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Death by PowerPoint and Hypnotizing Chickens

The New York Times has an article by Elisabeth Bumiller, with a terrific spaghetti-like graphic on the military's overuse and overreliance on PowerPoint (PPT) presentations, at the expense of careful, thoughtful analysis. In the article, the leader of the American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General McChrystal, is quoted as saying: “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” with his audience erupting in laughter.

From the Pentagon to Iraq and Afghanistan, from the boardrooms to the classrooms, PowerPoint presentations have become the props that are used for presentations. In the article, General Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, states: “PowerPoint makes us stupid.”

Military commanders note that a typical PPT relays less information than a five-page paper can hold, and the presenter does not need to carefully write to deliver an analytic point. PPTs are sometimes referred to as "hypnotizing chickens" since they dull the audience into a stupor.

Frankly, the time wasted by military and corporate analysts in preparing such talks could be put into much better use and the same goes for their seated audiences. The time would be better spent by crafting more thorough analyses and writing up the results. Presentations could then be given, with the articles disseminated, in a discussion-like setting with a white or blackboard or paperboard to highlight dynamically the relevant points. We have become, to our detriment, a visual society that craves animation and images, at the expense of thorough analysis and evidential support.

When giving the majority of my presentations
(and I have a pile coming up to give internationally) I use latex beamer rather than PowerPoint. In this way, I can include mathematical expressions, and more thorough analyses. Every presentation that I give at a conference, workshop, or seminar is based on 1 or more refereed journal articles so the results are verified.

As for teaching, despite carefully prepared slides, nothing beats the give and take of doing numerous examples on the board and interacting with the students, through Q&A, to make sure that they understand the material.

Life, whether in the classroom or at war, is not two-dimensional as PowerPoint slides are, which can dull and deaden our minds and, frankly, waste precious time.