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“Dumb-Dumb Bullets” and Information Processing

PowerPoint, a brand of presentation software attached to the Microsoft Office suite, is endemic to bureaucracies across America. Members of corporations, law enforcement agencies, government organizations, and the armed forces have all briefed using PowerPoint or sat through presentations. Most PowerPoint presentations are completely artless endeavors, with presenters reading off slides packed either with half-baked bullet point outlines or whole paragraphs. As T.X. Hammes noted in an Armed Forces Journal essay,

“The next major impact of slide-ology has been the pernicious growth in the amount of information portrayed on each slide. A friend with multiple tours in the Pentagon said a good rule of thumb in preparing a brief is to assume one slide per minute of briefing. Surprisingly, it seems to be true. Yet, even before the onslaught of the dreaded quad chart, I saw slides with up to 90 pieces of information. … While this slide was an aberration, charts with 20 items of information portrayed in complex graphics are all too common. This gives the audience an average of three seconds to see and absorb each item of information. As if this weren’t sufficient to block the transfer of information, some PowerPoint Ranger invented quad charts. For those unfamiliar with a quad chart, it is simply a Power Point slide divided into four equal quadrants and then a full slide is placed in each quadrant.”

      The problem with PowerPoint has less to do with technology and more with skewed societal expectations of information production. As “information consumers” (a problematic phrase in and of itself) we expect to be provided with more information and stimulation than ever before. Yet we also do not want to take the time to process all of it–we want a simplified and digestible outline. The clash between these two opposed desires causes media producers to cram visualizations with information, creating products that are best classified as a form of (unintentional) information-age Dadaism. Quantity, speed, and attractiveness of the visuals are the main concerns of the information producer, not the quality of the material presented.
       PowerPoint is a perfect example of the modern compromise between quantity and speed. Each slide can accommodate massive amounts of information, artfully contained in pie charts, tables, and graphs. Yet it also offers a seemingly endless array of means to simplify information, from the bullet-point format to the quad chart that Hammes disdainfully refers to. Again, the tension between the mass of information that must be transmitted and the desire for speed plays havoc with the quality and coherence of the material presented. Hammes correctly notes that we can’t blame it all on PowerPoint, which can be a useful tool for transmitting information in conjunction with other tools.
       As Carl Builder noted a long time ago, it is more important to develop a conceptual basis for what kind of information we need than how we should produce it. In the ten years since Builder wrote “Command Concepts,” the information glut facing decision makers has greatly increased, putting organizations under ever more severe strain. Both organizations and individuals need to carefully re-think how we process information, and how much information we really need to make decisions. Unfortunately, it’s more likely that organizations will respond to criticism of PowerPoint by replacing it with equally problematic competing presentation software.