From: Rohit Khare (email@example.com)
Date: Wed Apr 26 2000 - 17:23:54 PDT
Wall Street Journal
April 26, 2000
What's Your Point, Lieutenant? Please, Just Cut To The Pie Charts
By Greg Jaffe, Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
WASHINGTON-Earlier this year, Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, issued an unusual order to U.S. military bases around the
His message: enough with the bells and whistles-just get to the point. It
seems that e-mailed military briefings larded with electronic "slides" of
booming tanks and spinning pie charts were gobbling up so much of the
Defense Department's classified bandwidth that they were slowing
more-critical communications between headquarters and units in the field.
"The chairman basically told everyone that we don't need Venetian-blind
effects or fancy backdrops. All we need is the information," says one
senior Defense Department official.
Gen. Shelton's order is only the Pentagon's most recent assault on a growing
electronic menace: the PowerPoint briefing. Sure, business executives
complain about the seemingly endless PowerPoint presentations put on by
overeager middle managers in darkened boardrooms across America. But in the
military, the Microsoft program, which helps users create computer-based
graphics and sound effects, has become one of the most dreaded facts of
life. And it's even shouldering the blame for at least some of the armed
Congressional support for new weapons programs isn't as strong as expected?
Army Secretary Louis Caldera suggests that PowerPoint presentations are
alienating lawmakers. "People are not listening to us, because they are
spending so much time trying to understand these incredibly complex slides,"
Too many bright, young junior officers are leaving the military for the
private sector? A recent survey of captains at Fort Benning, Ga., cites the
"ubiquity of the PowerPoint Army" as a prime reason for their disaffection.
"The idea behind most of these briefings is for us to sit through 100 slides
with our eyes glazed over, and then to do what all military organizations
hope for ... to surrender to an overwhelming mass," says Navy Secretary
Old-fashioned slide briefings, designed to update generals on troop
movements, have been a staple of the military since World War II. But in
only a few short years PowerPoint has altered the landscape. Just as word
processing made it easier to produce long, meandering memos, the spread of
PowerPoint has unleashed a blizzard of jazzy but often incoherent visuals.
Instead of drawing up a dozen slides on a legal pad and running them over to
the graphics department, captains and colonels now can create hundreds of
slides in a few hours without ever leaving their desks. If the spirit moves
them they can build in gunfire sound effects and images that explode like
"There is an arms-race dimension to it," says Peter Feaver, a military
expert at Duke University and frequent PowerPoint briefer at various war
colleges. "If there are three briefings in a row, and you are the one with
the lowest production values, you look really lame." PowerPoint has become
such an ingrained part of the defense culture that it has seeped into the
military lexicon. "PowerPoint Ranger" is a derogatory term for a desk-bound
bureaucrat more adept at making slides than tossing grenades. There is even
a "PowerPoint Ranger Creed," a parody of the Marine Corp's famous
"This is my PowerPoint. There are many like it, but mine is [PowerPoint] 97
... I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its fonts,
its accessories and its formats ... My PowerPoint and myself are the
defenders of my country. We are the masters of our subject. We are the
saviors of my career." The parody is zapping around the Defense Department
as a PowerPoint slide complete with the sound of explosions and featuring an
animated John Wayne in Army Ranger garb wielding a laser pointer. How did a
piece of technology that was supposed to improve communication become a
barrier to it?
Some military sociologists say the endless presentations are a product of
the military's zero-defect culture, in which one mediocre review by a
superior can torpedo a career. "Young officers are worried that they might
leave something out of their briefing, and a supervisor might say something
about it. So they pack their presentations with every detail that they can
think off," says Charles Moskos, a military-culture expert at Northwestern
University, Evanston, Ill.
Others blame the problem on the absence of a formidable enemy. "We crave
something that explains who we are," says Ret. Army Col. Henry G. Cole.
"The PowerPoint game creates the illusion of control. All those moving
arrows and graphics become reality for a military that is trapped in this
permanent state of shadow-boxing an enemy that no longer exists."
Whatever the cause, a handful of senior Pentagon officials have decided to
attack the PowerPoint problem head-on. The Navy's Mr. Danzig announced late
last year that he was no longer willing to soldier through the slide shows.
He maintains that PowerPoint briefings are only necessary for two reasons:
If field conditions are changing rapidly or if the audience is "functionally
"In the Pentagon the second seems to be the underlying presumption," grouses
Mr. Danzig, who now asks to get all his briefings in written form. Mr.
Danzig's Army counterpart, Mr. Caldera, says he, too, would ban the
presentations if he thought he could get away with it. "For some of these
guys, taking away their PowerPoint would be like cutting off their hands,"
he says. Mr. Caldera's strategy is to interrupt the show with questions
when he gets bored.
Despite such countermeasures, PowerPoint is showing no signs of retreat.
Indeed, it seems to be spreading. James A. Calpin, an officer in the Naval
Reserves, just returned home from duty in Operation Northern Watch in
Turkey, where PowerPoint has just begun to surface in officer presentations.
"I was able to come in and spruce up their briefings, and they were just
wowed. People over there just loved it," he says.
A Required Language
Foreign armed services also are beginning to get in on the act. "You can't
speak with the U.S. military without knowing PowerPoint," says Margaret
Hayes, an instructor at National Defense University in Washington D.C., who
teaches Latin American military officers how to use the software.
Unfortunately, Ms. Hayes admits many foreign officers, including those
fluent in PowerPoint visuals, still struggle to understand their U.S.
counterparts' complicated slide presentations. "We've gotten away from
inviting our colleagues from the Department of Defense to brief our visiting
officers. Some of their presentations are a little bit too complex and too
inhibiting," she says.
All of which makes Duke University's Mr. Feaver wonder if the U.S. military
is misusing the technology. "If we really wanted to accomplish something we
shouldn't be teaching our allies how to use PowerPoint," he says. "We
should give it to the Iraqis. We'd never have to worry about them again."
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