We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint

This the headline to the central story in today’s New York Times. The story is about the overuse of PowerPoint by the US military, especially in Afghanistan. It centers around a particular PowerPoint slide (shown below) attempting to portray the complexity of US strategy in the region.

The article discusses that a Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraq city of Tal Afar.

Leading on from this,  you may be aware, that next weeks UK event the Embedded Masterclass has also banned PowerPoint from its technical presentations. To quote from the website:

This year we have asked the presenters of the 40 min Technical Presentations to ‘abandon Power Point’ . Instead they will have a white board, a flip chart and hand-outs and of course – their wit and charm ! We want to bring a bit of life back into these kinds of events and raise the standards. We are hoping this will lead to a better and more inter-active presentation. It is already causing the presenters to think more carefully about what they intend to present and how it will be structured.

I understand the sentiment, but I’m sorry but No; PowerPoint is just a tool. Banning (or abandoning) PowerPoint is not addressing the root problem.

For anyone who wants to do a professional job of presenting then there are great reference materials out there (e.g. Presentation Zen, silde:ology, beyond bullet points, etc.).

In reality many poor presentations are due to a lack of a proper review process prior to the event(admittedly some people just can’t present). All presentations should be backed up by a hand-out technical paper and not just a print-out of the slides (eliminating the need for lots of technical detail on a slides). Finally, being someone who has to regularly present  5 days of detailed technical training on embedded systems, white boards and flip charts just aren’t big enough for a large audience (unless you can write REALLY BIG).

To combat this problem of free form notes to a large audience, at Feabhas we have been using a really cool tool called PaperShow to augment the slides. Ideally we’d use two projectors, but this isn’t typically practical. Alternatively you could go back to the “good old days” on OHPs, foils and pens.

As I’ll be at the Cambridge event (as we’re running an Embedded Linux training class) I’m really interested in how it actually works and my concerns will hopefully be proven wrong. Hopefully see you there…

Niall Cooling

Director at Feabhas Limited
Co-Founder and Director of Feabhas since 1995.
Niall has been designing and programming embedded systems for over 30 years. He has worked in different sectors, including aerospace, telecomms, government and banking.
His current interest lie in IoT Security and Agile for Embedded Systems.
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About Niall Cooling

Co-Founder and Director of Feabhas since 1995. Niall has been designing and programming embedded systems for over 30 years. He has worked in different sectors, including aerospace, telecomms, government and banking. His current interest lie in IoT Security and Agile for Embedded Systems.
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3 Responses to We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint

  1. Andrew Neil says:

    I totally agree!

    I think the Embedded Masterclass blanket ban on PowerPoint is stupid.

    Particularly in this field where good, clear diagrams are often key to understanding.

    It's a bit like banning 'C' because some people (maybe a lot of people) write bad code in 'C'...

    I guess It's just a lazy option: rather than actually making efforts to ensure that only *good* use is made of PowerPoinr - or any other tool, for that matter.

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  2. Jim Cooling says:

    Completely agree with Niall and Andrew (Neil).

    I began my technical education in 1958. In the following years I sat through many mind-numbing lessons and presentations which used a variety of techniques: chalk and talk (worse, talk without chalk), OHPs, 35mm slides, flip charts, white boards and latterly, electronic projection. Common to these of presentations were some or all of the following:
    Lack of preparation.
    Lack of knowledge of the subject.
    Poor communication skills.
    Poor time management.
    Poorly organized material.
    Inappropriate material.

    The conclusion is really quite simple; it's not the fault of the medium.

    And finally, a view from the other side of the desk. My instructing career began in 1966 with the RAF (I don't claim to be good, just been around for a long time) and have used ALL of the techniques listed above. For me, PowerPoint-type methods used in conjunction with whiteboards and flip charts have proved to be the best of the bunch.

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  3. MartinC says:

    Powerpoint could, with imagination be used just as effectively as Keynote, for example in Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth". If it's not, don't blame Powerpoint.

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