What’s in the President’s briefing book anyway?

Nancy Duarte

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Nancy Duarte

When I met with the CIA for very the first time to discuss presentation training, I was alarmed at how prevalent PowerPoint was in their culture. Apparently the analysts create reports in PowerPoint and then from those briefings, a subset of pages are pulled out and included in the President’s briefing book each morning. Oh my! At the time of this conversation, GW was still in office, so of course I asked, “Do you think PowerPoint could be blamed for the confusions about WMDs?” Their answer is off the record.

I first heard about the military’s overuse of PowerPoint from my brother-in-law, a former Lieutenant in the Navy. While visiting him in Maryland, he and I had a long discussion about what he could do to make his slides clearer. The poor guy was hungry for advice. He told me that career advancements go to the people with the best slides. Gak.

So it’s no surprise to see today’s article in the NYT. (Thanks, Guy Kawasaki.) Looks like PowerPoint is the enemy again. Positioning PowerPoint as evil first surfaced when Edward Tufte blamed the space shuttle disaster on PowerPoint. The app isn’t the enemy, but I have to agree with General James N. Mattis that “PowerPoint makes us stupid.”

Writing thoughtfully crafted correspondence and communication takes time. More time than people care enough to spend. Writing thoughtfully takes time, and several refinement cycles. But we’ve become a first-draft culture. Write an e-mail. Send. Write a blog post. Publish. Write a presentation. Present. The art of crafting something well is reticent in communications. Bullets are a cop-out. Here’s the most frightening paragraph from the article:

No one is suggesting that PowerPoint is to blame for mistakes in the current wars, but the program did become notorious during the prelude to the invasion of Iraq. As recounted in the book “Fiasco” by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin Press, 2006), Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, who led the allied ground forces in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, grew frustrated when he could not get Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander at the time of American forces in the Persian Gulf region, to issue orders that stated explicitly how he wanted the invasion conducted, and why. Instead, General Franks just passed on to General McKiernan the vague PowerPoint slides that he had already shown to Donald H. Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time.

Click here to read the full article

It’s fine to use PowerPoint to create documents. But if you are creating a document, fill it in. Really fill it in. Pack it in. Fill the page with every detail and use fully formed sentences. We have adopted a half-breed form of communication. Pages of bulleted lists without nouns or verbs. These half-breeds are not a documents or presentations. My friend Garr Reynolds calls these slideuments.

No wonder there’s confusion. How many battles have been lost in your organization because of poor communication?

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