All 5 books, Edward Tufte paperback $180
All 5 clothbound books, autographed by ET $280
Visual Display of Quantitative Information
Envisioning Information
Visual Explanations
Beautiful Evidence
Seeing With Fresh Eyes
catalog + shopping cart
Edward Tufte e-books
Immediate download to any computer:
Visual and Statistical Thinking $5
The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint $5
Seeing Around + Feynman Diagrams $5
Data Analysis for Politics and Policy $9
catalog + shopping cart
New ET Book
Seeing with Fresh Eyes:
Meaning, Space, Data, Truth
catalog + shopping cart
Analyzing/Presenting Data/Information
All 5 books + 4-hour ET online video course, keyed to the 5 books.
PowerPoint and Military Intelligence

Apparently it is common practice in the US Navy to provide the daily AM combat intelligence briefings via PowerPoint - prepared the night before by the intelligence watch officer. This practice is decried in the July Naval Institute Proceedings (Network Centric Warefare - MacKrell)as a) tedious process and b) difficult/impossible to keep current.

I cannot imagine a worse device to transmit combat intelligence given PowerPoint's low resolution and low bandwidth.

-- Nick Rees (email)

See for the famous "PowerPoint Ranger Creed" (click on "The Power Point Ranger's Creed" under the heading "PPRanger Links and Fun" to download)

[link updated February 2005]

-- Edward Tufte

In June, Slate ran an article on how the widespread use Powerpoint in the military has almost eliminated the paper trail. Future historians will be left with almost nothing of value from this period to analyze.

A representative quote and the story link are below:

"Almost all Air Force documents today, for example, are presented as PowerPoint briefings. They are almost never printed and rarely stored. When they are saved, they are often unaccompanied by any text. As a result, in many cases, the briefings are incomprehensible." -- Fred Kaplan , Slate June 4, 2003 The End of History: How email is wrecking our national archive

-- Jim Landis (email)

When I first starting working at a Department of Defense program as a graphic designer (about a year ago), I walked in with the attitude that PowerPoint was a defective communication tool. (I've never liked it, after being involved in live event production in which powerpoint slides were the means of communicating.) However, I was quickly informed that PP is the "coin of the realm" and therefore I had to use it. Here are some issues I've encountered in the last year of battling PP.

1. Briefings are often not created by the actual person who will deliver the brief. Subject Matter Experts are tasked with developing content, which then is briefed to a military officer who then is tasked with briefing up the chain of command.

2. When briefing up the chain, information must be put in "words a colonel can understand." And when a colonel briefs a general, the brief must be put in "words the general can understand." This is usually referred to in terms of elevations: from 10,000 feet, or the 50,000-foot view, etc. I've been told to "keep it out of the weeds" -- limit detail, only make general statements.

3. The expectation is that the handout is also simply a printed copy of the briefing slides themselves, so that while the PP slides are being projected on screen, the participants in the meeting are simultaneously reading the printed versions. The projection is used for debate reference once everyone reads the printed slide.

4. Since PP is often used for a "decision brief" only the words that will be approved are to be included in the slide.

Changing these cultural expectations from below seems highly unlikely. The only way I found so far to get around limiting the amount of content is to use the "notes" feature of PP. When I'm tasked with compiling briefing slides, I will attempt to get written explanations from the SMEs that can be dropped into the notes pages. That way more content is embedded into the PP file itself and when it is sent along for read-aheads and such, the explanations are available. The note pages can also be used for the printouts.

If anyone has any other suggestions for how to improve this process, please comment.

-- Ronald Chaney (email)

Page 75 of Thomas Ricks's book 'Fiasco' has the following:

McKiernan had another, smaller, but nagging, issue: He couldn't get Franks to issue clear orders that explicitly stated what he wanted done, how he wanted to do it, and why. Rather, Franks passed along PowerPoint briefing slides that he had shown to Rumsfeld. "It's quite frustrating the way this works, but the way we do things nowadays is combatant commanders brief their products in PowerPoint up in Washington to OSD and Secretary of Defense... In lieu of an order, or a frag [fragmentary] order, or plan, you get a set of PowerPoint slides... [T]hat is frustrating, because nobody wants to plan against PowerPoint slides."
That reliance on slides rather than formal written orders seemed to some military professionals to capture the essence of Rumsfeld's amateurish approach to war planning. "Here may be the clearest manifestation of OSD's contempt for the accumulated wisdom of the military profession and of the assumption among forward thinkers that technology - above all information technology - has rendered obsolete the conventions tradtionally governing the preparation and conduct of war," commented retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, a former commander of an armoured cavalry regiment. "To imagine that PowerPoint slides can substitute for such means is really the height of recklessness." It was like telling an automobile mechanic to use a manufacturer's glossy sales borchure to figure out how to repair an engine.

-- Martin Tod (email)

FX-based, a blog written by an Army captain, demonstrates the rare excellent use of bullet points in Random (and Very Personal) Observations and Some Tips for Operating in "Developing" Countries. The 'corporate' bullet points contrast well with his sanguine observations.

-- Niels Olson (email)

"US National Space Policy": Bullet Points . . . in Space

The U.S. government has recently released a "National Space Policy" outlining its goals for commercial and governmental space exploration. The ten-page document linked to this story on the BBC's website consists almost entirely of bullet points. Apparently governmental officials have lost all ability to communicate in an orderly sequence of paragraphs. Either that or someone just exported their PowerPoint slides into MS Word and then made a pdf of the whole thing.

-- John Jones (email)

Having served in the Air Force for 12 years (1989 - 2001), I saw the PowerPoint transformation. I can still remember my senior year at the Air Force Academy when during an engineering presentation my team got a "C" because we used an overhead projector with slides and ink pens while another team used a pre powerpoint presentation tool. The instructor commented to our team the are presentation was not "Professional". Remember this was back in the day when hard drives were no bigger then 100 MB and I was still running dual floppy disk drives. Try running presentation software like that!

As a junior office it became clear that powerpoint had a life of its own. For some humor try Don't laugh, but has a lieutenant, your goal was who could come up with best powerpoint presentation to wow your commanders.

Like any organization the Air Force at one time (probably still does) had a standard way to get the word out to the chain of command. It was called the "Tongue and Quill" Unfortunately in the "hurry up, I need it now" world of the military, actually composing a letter of any degree has become old school. Commanders have come to expect powerpoint and the brief snippets of information. As mentioned previously in this forum, no paper copies exist and if one does it simply is the print out of the slides.

If NASA is any indication of how decisions are made, it is a bit troubling to think that the military and our intelligence services have also fallen into the same trap. It is a shame that PowerPoint, because of people's fear of public speaking, has become a crutch for speaker's to the overall detriment of decision making. History says that lead in the water contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire and what's not to say that PowerPoint will be ours!

-- Alex Summers (email)

I came across this Powerpoint slide, which is kind of a dashboard showing the Index of Civil Conflict. I thought it was actually pretty good because it not only shows the state of 14 current variables, but it also puts them in the context of time, so you can see if things are improving or degrading.

Without getting into the politics of it, I'd appreciate your comments.

-- mike combs (email)

RE the CENTCOM slide (index of Civil Conflict):

One can't help notice how poor is the design of this slide from the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).

It may take awhile to realize the colored shapes arrayed horizontally near the bottom have nothing to do with the colored graph; they just use the same colors and so visually equate Chaos to "Critical" and Routine to "Peace" - which is not at all what the slide is communicating. The colored shapes are the key to the aptly named "bullet" points. Note they have different shapes as well as different colors - two dimensions to communicate one piece of information. They should be colored coded or "shape coded," but to be both is overkill. The order in which the bullet points are displayed, along with shape and color, confuses the reader with respect to importance. Which is more important: Routine levels of hostile rhetoric, or irregular sectarian attacks and assassinations?

Also, why are some bullet points "Reads" while others are "Indicators?" The words "Key" and "Additional" already imply two categories of importance, but Reads vs. Indicators makes us wonder if they are drawn from two different "buckets" of information - if so, fine, but wouldn't it then be appropriate to look at the most important points -the Key points- from each?

Finally, there is the blue, black, and red blurb at the bottom about urban areas experiencing ethnic cleansing, etc. Is this a Read, an Indicator, or some uncategorized item? What information is being conveyed by the color of this item? Is this item the main point of the slide?

What is the point of the slide?

One wonders... Is the chaos of Iraq contributing to the confusion of CENTCOM's organization and display of information? Or is chaotic organization and display of information contributing to the chaos on the ground? Brett

-- brett shults (email)

PowerPoint and Military Intelligence

ET's comments: Here are some preliminary comments on the slide "Iraq: I&W of Civil Conflict." My previous one-word critique ('lousy") wasn't very thoughtful, and here's another try at an analysis.

It appears that "I&W" means "Indications and Warnings." Replacing the acronym in the slide title does pep up meaning to outsiders: "Iraq: Indications and Warnings of Civil Conflict," but maybe it wouldn't fit on the slide.

Only this single slide was leaked (by the military? by DoD?), and so maybe some of the analytical problems are better handled on accompanying slides. Maybe.

Doing competent political analysis, epidemiology, nation-building, and war planning (all of which they're trying to do) in a chaotic situation is impossible, and not much good social science and epidemiology can be expected in chaos and from a military entangled in Iraq. In real-time chaotic situations, the data-collection is going to be sloppy because people have more important things to do. (Recall, for example, the gross errors in counts of 9/11 deaths, as the count went from 6,000 to 2,800 in a few weeks.) And what's taking place is in profoundly different cultures and in different languages from those of the non-local military in Iraq. But sloppy data does not justify analytical sloppiness in reporting. In fact, sloppy data requires greater analytical precision of thought.

The slide reports performance data--a list of phrases, with each phrase accompanied by a measure of performance. This is what the tables in the sports section, mutual fund page, and weather page of newspapers do very well. Those designs are much better for reporting performance data than the slide format here. In sports and stock market tables, each phrase is accompanied by multiple measures of performance, often over varying time-periods. All that won't fit on the slide; this suggests that we should use better reporting method than PP, instead of abbreviating the evidence to fit the slide. As the millions of readers of sports tables each day demonstrate, people can easily manage large tables of information. Thus those being briefed in the military should ask: Why are our presentations operating at 2% of the data richness of routine tables found in the sports section? Let the viewers read and explore through a range of material; different eyes will search for different things in the evidence. The metaphor should be the cognitive style of the sports section (or weather or financial newspaper pages) not the cognitive style of PowerPoint.

There is no cloud of uncertainty or error history associated with the editorializing color. At times, such color codings suggest an excess of certainty.

The Iraq slide above provides some relevant but thin and overly short-run time-comparisons: 2 arrows on the left showing "change since last week," and the "Index of Civil Conflict (Assessed)", which sort of compares "Pre- Samarra" with "Last week" and "Current". And there's a potent time-comparison in words: ". . . violence at all-time high, spreading geographically."

To get more time comparisons on the 14 "Reads" and "Additional Indicators," 14 sparkline time-line histories for the last year (week by week, if available) would be useful as a overall but detailed summary. This would reduce the snapshot tone of the 14 reads and indicators. In our thread Sparklines: theory and practice, there are (at the top of the thread) data tables with sparklines that report daily and longterm financial data; one such table shows 14,000 numbers, many of them accurate to only 2 digits (not much for financial data) under the philosophy of "Try to be approximately right rather than exactly wrong." The short-run weekly jitters and non-reports need to be smoothed out to see (and compare with)the long-run trends. Weekly data cooperate with the notorious recency bias, whereby way too much weight is given to the most recent piece of data, just because it is recent. These weekly reports should be in the context of longer run information to reduce the chances that analysis will be dancing around only with today's news.

The list style, surely one damn thing after another here, is merely descriptive and thus preliminary to policy analysis. That analysis might have been done on the other slides or maybe this report is merely meant as a scorecard. If it is a scorecard, it is grossly impoverished compared to sports, weather, and financial tables.

The current fashion (it, too, shall pass) in government is the stoplight style (green, yellow, red), which tends to dequantify data. With categories of this sort, there's always a concern with how the breaks among categories are chosen and with the meanings of the categories. It will often be better to provide some evidence or numbers, and then a separate editorial-judgmental color about the number.

The slide contains odd uses of the color-words: for example, a green dot indicating "routine" next to the exciting phrase "unorganized spontaneous mass civil conflict". Shouldn't "routine unorganized spontaneous mass civil conflict" be red-critical? After Hiroshima, would Nagasaki get the routine green dot for nothing different than what happened three days earlier? It looks like weekly wiggles get too much attention, and longrun levels of seriousness too little attention on this slide, as chaos becomes routine week by week and bit by bit. Monthly rather then the sketchy weekly reports might be better for policy analysis. Or at least provide a monthly aggregations over a period of many months (even the entire war) in a scorecard along with the weekly incidents.

The leaking of the slide makes a point about the differences between the government's secret analysis and the public reports by the Administration, a common theme of the insider books on Iraq policy-making (most recently Colin Powell's book). At some time, "reality must take precedence over public relations," as Richard Feynman remarked about the shuttle Challenger accident.

A good many comments by our contributors are on-point but are not taken into account here.

Our thread PowerPoint does rocket science--and better techniques for technical papers has many contributions that are relevant to the Iraq slide. In particular, note the measurements, definitions, and comparisons to standards in the customer scorecard in the "Report of the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority" (near the end of the long thread).

Finally, the over-riding metaphor of all this--"the war on terror"--is a big conceptual problem. Once it's a war, then it almost necessarily invokes large-scale military action and searching for a locale (some place, any place, Iraq) for large-scale military action. But terrorists are more like the Mafia or gangs than they are like armies. Perhaps a better metaphor is that terrorism is largely a law-enforcement problem (requiring focused and clandestine local action, informants, endless detective work, detailed knowledge of the local languages and cultures).

Among the grand truths about human behavior, surely the principles of "the unintended consequences of purposive social action" and "it's more complicated than that" are among the top five. Sometimes unintended consequences are largely virtuous or benign (as in market allocation of goods and services if externalities are mitigated) and sometimes the unintended consequences are appalling. That's because it's more complicated than that.

-- Edward Tufte

More on the CENTCOM "I&W" slide. The creator of the text seems to be taking counterproductive steps to make it more readable: making it black (a dark grey would be less harsh), bold (without any non-bold material in the context for it to be bold with respect to), and big (crowding into the white space that should typically be available for text of its size).

The last is a sin I notice with increasing frequency in the design of blogs, that hope to cram more information into the limited area of a single computer screen by squeezing out the space between adjacent letters, adjacent words, and adjacent lines. But the typographers who designed those type faces knew what they were doing when they specified those default spaces in the beginning. They were not insensitive to the drive to maximise readable text per square inch; in fact they were specifying exactly the white space that <i>would</i> so maximise that readability.

As I become a more educated reader of typography (thanks partly this site), I find I notice this behaviour by self-publishers more and more, and find it harder to tolerate.

-- Derek Cotter (email)

I just recently left the Army after 9 years as an officer, the last 7 or so on staff. That is just entirely too much time to have spent doing PowerPoint. I will say that powerpoint is overused but it is hard to make broad generalizations about the "military" with regards to PowerPoint. The utilization of it in a particular command is a function of the commander's preferences.

The last unit I was in had a commander who thought that PowerPoint was the end all and be all of graphical communications. Having been a follower of ET's work, I cringed every time he said to put together a briefing knowing that it would be wholely inadequate for the task. As a result of his obsession with PowerPoint, he was twisted by it into a perpetual pitch mode whereby concepts for different operations were reduced down to a series of slides that left gaping holes apparent to anyone doing a cursory analysis.

In light of the transition to the highly quantified world of "Effects-based Operations", the military is in dire need of a software suite capable of facilitating the graphical analysis of all of this accumulated data. I know I struggled with it while I was in Afghanistan. Much like Col (ret) MacGregor implored the Army to "Break the Phalanx", it now needs to "Break the Slide Master."

-- Rider Rodriguez (email)

The "change since next week" indicators are especially problematic, because of the careless and imprecise use of language in the category names. For instance, look at the category called "ISF refuse to take orders from central government, mass desertion" -- quite a few words, by the way, to communicate very little. Next to it is an arrow pointing downwards. Does the arrow indicate a value, i.e., that these matters are getting worse and that there are more "mass desertions" this week than last? Or does the arrow indicate quantity, i. e. that there are fewer mass desertions this week than last? The yellow rectangle next to the arrow is of no help, since it is said to indicate "Irregular" -- whatever that means: temporally irregular -- that is, changing frequently -- or spatially irregular -- that is, varying from place to place?

Arrows only appear next to two of the categories, which may mean that the other categories have experienced no change, or that there is no data to indicate whether there has been change -- again, it's impossible to tell. And if there were arrows next to the other categories, their meaning couldn't be very clear either, because of problems I've just mentioned. If an upwards-pointing arrow were placed next to "Police ineffectual," would that mean that the police are getting more or less ineffectual? And what in the world does the single word "Governance" mean? The colored shape next to that word is supposed to mean "significant." So there is significant governance in Iraq? Or significant problems in governance in Iraq? If the latter, then why isn't the category called "Problems with governance?" -- not that that would be much clearer, since we couldn't begin to know what those problems are and how they could be differentiated from the other problems on this slide, many of which seem to deal with "governance."

I don;t know whether Iraq itself is a quagmire, but this slide surely is.

-- Alan Jacobs (email)

Government PowerPoint is a gift that keeps giving and giving. Imagine the PP from the Department of Education!

-- Edward Tufte

I saw this on a recent article on US soldiers training the Iraqi army...

"Some of the American officers even faulted their own lack of understanding of the task. "If I had to do it again, I know I'd do it completely different," reported Maj. Mike Sullivan, who advised an Iraqi army battalion in 2004. "I went there with the wrong attitude and I thought I understood Iraq and the history because I had seen PowerPoint slides, but I really didn't.""

I think this example sums up perfectly the subject of "PowerPoint and Military Intelligence"!

-- Sean O'Lochlainn (email)

This thread began with a note of a criticism of the use of Powerpoint in the military that was published in the Naval Institute Proceedings. The latest issue (Dec. 2006) of the Proceedings contains another critical article. In the article, "Time for a First-rate Staff College", Lt. Col. Brian Hanley, USAF, argues that "Our current Joint Forces Staff College receives failing grades. We need to replace it with one possessing true intellectual heft, serious students, and a top-notch faculty." Among his particular criticisms, he notes that hiring of faculty at the College "takes no note of academic achievement or teaching ability-- which may explain why the curriculum is built around off-the-shelf PowerPoint slide shows." A picture of a Powerpoint slide is accompaied by a caption which reads, in part, "Although the military as a whole relies heavily on Powerpoint presentations for conveying information, it's ubiquity at the Joint Forces Staff College takes no account of traditional standards of teaching ability or academic achievement".

-- Gregory Mayer (email)

Granted, our involvement in Iraq is a morass. But to spend so much directed criticism focused on PowerPoint and Military Intelligence is a bit like railing against the current state of learning in our nation by focusing on "Ruled Notebook Paper and American Education." The veracity and clarity of one's words or "slides" are the central issue, not the brand of paper or software. Having been deployed as a hospital commander in Iraq, I had to present information to my own commander in some fashion. I could meet with him, call him, write him a note, send him an email, attach a Word document, and brief him using information from a digital projector. The brand of paper, the email or word processing software...the software for projecting the end are only mediums. It is not so much the software itself as the far too common abandonment of one's responsibility to communicate with clarity, brevity and veracity. This requires personal effort in avoiding an over reliance on the many "template" functions common to PowerPoint, Word, Outlook, and even "ruled notebook paper." The discussion of effective communication is germane. Settling into a comfortable academic exchange centered on PowerPoint and Military Intelligence is easy. A more challenging and worthy expenditure of effort would be to dissect the barriers to effective communication that sustain poverty, intolerance, national hubris and an utter failure of one people to hear the suffering of another. Why not a new thread, "Barriers to conveyance of information between societies in an age of globalization?" I know...too difficult. But much more interesting.

-- William H. Barth, Jr., MD (email)

As someone who remembers watching US military briefings during the VN war, I can confidently state that PowerPoint is not a necessary requirement for producing obfuscated piles of meaningless crap.

There is a story in the biography of John Paul Vann by Neil Sheehan in which Vann's map of precincts in his district is returned by central command for having too few precincts colored in "white" (our side) and too many red (them) and pink (in issue). How's that for graphical information.

-- victor yodaiken (email)

The key examples in this thread both involve PP pitches to top-level decision-makers in which PP's cognitive style collaborates with the thin analysis.

In the CENTCOM pitch, my critique is concerned with the sophomoric analysis involved in making serious decisions about Iraq. This stupidity could be conveyed by any method-- although such stupidity is perhaps best concealed by PP's routine and inherent stupidity.

As George Orwell said "The English language becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts." Or in terms of PP: "PowerPoint becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of PoswerPoint makes it easier to have foolish thoughts." For a fuller accoount of these issues, see our thread on the causes of presentations here and, of course, the NASA/ PP thread here.

-- Edward Tufte

The National Security Archives has posted the PowerPoint slides used in 2002 briefings for President Bush, NSC, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others, for the run- up to the war. See the PP slides here:

"Here may be the clearest manifestation of OSD's [Office of Secretary of Defense] contempt for the accumulated wisdom of the military profession and of the assumption among forward thinkers that technology -- above all information technology -- has rendered obsolete the conventions traditionally governing the preparation and conduct of war. To imagine that PowerPoint slides can substitute for such means is really the height of recklessness." -----Retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich

See also the New York Times article about the release of these documents: hp&ex=1171602000&en=ad512b1b8c4bfb32&ei=5094&partner=homepage

Daniel Meatte

-- Daniel Meatte (email)

See "Grammatical parables at the Pentagon:":

-- Edward Tufte

Senator Levin has released a declassified version of slides used by Douglas Feith, formerly of the Office of Special Plans (the "stovepiped intelligence" unit) in Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, to assert a link between Saddam and al-Qa'eda:


A good example, perhaps, of the issues discussed in this and related threads.

(And thanks to ET and many contributors for their passion for truth and honesty.)

-- Stewart Schoder (email)

James Fallows, pg 196 of Blind Into Baghdad, recounts a war game sponsored by The Atlantic magazine under the direction of Sam Gardiner whose specialty is war gaming.

"[Gardiner's] commitment to realism extended to presenting all his information in a series of PowerPoint slides, on which U.S. military planners are so dependent that it is hard to imagine how Dwight Eisenhower pulled off D-Day without them. PowerPoint's imperfections as a deliberative tool are well known. Its formulaic outline structure can overemphasize some ideas or options and conceal others, and the amateurish graphic presentation of data often impedes understanding. But any simulation of modern military exercise would be unconvincing without it. Gardiner's presentation used PowerPoint for its explanatory function as a spine for discussion, its best user."

-- Dave Froberg (email)

I have just finished reading George Packer's account of the leadup to and conduct of the Iraq war, "Assasin's Gate: America in Iraq." It's a bit overlong at times, which one should perhaps from a New Yorker writer, but as a fan of ET's work I was struck by the description, at a number of key points, of important decisions being made on the basis of PowerPoint "decks," rather than serious written analyses or sincere debates. Packer himself doesn't make a big deal of this, but to me it's a striking insight into the decisionmaking process.

As a quick reply to Victor Yodaiken's point above, I'll just observe that, although the use of PowerPoint may not be a *necessary* condition to poor communication, it's darn nearly a *sufficient* one ...

Charles Hoogstraten

-- Charles Hoogstraten (email)

USSTRATCOM attempt to minimize PowerPoint

Perusing this discussion, I came across a post by Niels Olson, way back on February 23, 2004. Interesting to note that he mentions KWeb, a tool developed for the Navy's Carrier Group Three. That Commander was, I believe, RADM Zelibor. After leaving there, he went to US Strategic Command. He asked a team of developers to come up with something similar to KWeb, and I was a small part of that team for a while. What we came up with is now known as "SKIWeb", short for "Strategic Knowledge Integration Web".

SKIWeb (pronounced "sky web") is a unique beast. I wish you could see it, but it is available only on the military's SIPRnet (a classified-SECRET version of the Internet). At its core, SKIWeb is a logging utility - users post "articles" (or "events") in text form. These articles are time-tagged, and the user can attach images, documents, or even (God help us) PowerPoint briefings.

The best feature of SKIWeb, in my mind, is that each article keeps track of when it was last viewed for each user. So if a user hasn't read an article, a little circle appears next to it. Once the user reads it, the circle changes to a square. If the article then gets changed after the user reads it, the square changes to a diamond. The user can thus tell at a glance whether he/she is up-to-date on the information.

The relevance for this thread is that, if someone needs to brief the General on current events, all they have to do is have the General log into SKIWeb. Then they just look down the list of articles for the ones with circles or diamonds. They can assume that if there is a square, then the information has already been briefed, thus saving (in theory) massive amounts of time. If there is a diamond, they can assume that the General already has a basic knowledge of the event and just has to be brought up-to-date. Also, since most information is in text format, they can brief directly from the web without having to use PowerPoint (unless of course the article has PowerPoint attached). The information is thus direct from the source, without having been "dumbed down" for the General.

The chief architect of this effort was Mr. J.J. Reich, my boss at the time, who frequently stated that he would like to see all PowerPoint briefings eliminated.

For more information, see Lieutenant General Kehler speech at AFCEA Convention.

-- Steve Roach (email)

PP from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence

The pie chart and bars charts (PP templates) are absurd. Here's the story

and the deck

-- Edward Tufte

Making the Best and Worst of PowerPoint

BusinessObjects has a program called "Crystal Xcelsius". They have a showcase here. When I saw these examples, I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. On the one hand, as a military person who is required to use PowerPoint whether I like it or not, some of these examples would certainly get me some "oohs and aahs" if I used them. (Not that I would be allowed to use them - the Air Force frowns on purchasing anything that would actually improve anything). On the other hand, I think that they are some of the worst examples of chartjunk I've ever seen.

-- Steve Roach (email)

Steve Roach asks whether to laugh or cry at the Crystal Xcelsius Phenomenon. I say both are appropriate.

Laughter: be sure to check out the "Executive Console" Xcelsius sample on the link. It's the fourth sample down. Several potential storyboards come to mind. Here's one based on the Simpsons. Imagine Montgomery Burns peering over his long, crooked nose; stiff, spindly fingers covering his eyes in panic as the "Executive Console" appears before him... reactor core temperature in the red zone... stock portfolio plummeting... interest rates rising... Burns cries out in anguish: "Smithers, get in here!"

Tears: Yes, Crystal Xcelsius for Dummies is available now!

I've had to endure software pitches where the feature "this program can export to Crystal Reports" has come up a few times. Crystal Reports is a report-writing program which presents imported data in tables. Xcelsius takes this basic task, and adds multi-media Pfluff.

Does animated Pfluff increase dimensionality of data presentation?

-- Jon Gross (email)

General Petraeus's presentation to Congress today included extensive use of PowerPoint slides. The slides are at Many exemplify problems E.T. has addressed in The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, Beautiful Evidence, and elsewhere. The final slide (numbered 13 in its lower right corner) in particular is a masterpiece of the genre. There's some discussion at (See the comments there, too, where E.T. is (unsurprisingly) invoked.)

-- Stewart Schoder (email)

Multinational forces, Iraq, and PowerPoint

The American military is not the only institution infected by Powerpoint thinking. These appear to be briefing notes prepared for the press.

Weekly attack 
"Weekly Attack Trends"


This next one is interesting in that it is similar data (meant to be added together to reflect how bad the situation is) but the mode of charting has changed to a line graph, and the values are presumably not being summed.

Coalition, Iraqi Security Force and 
Civilian Deaths
"Coalition, Iraqi Security Force and Civilian Deaths" (what's a CIOC?)


For high profile attacks, the basis for illustration has again shifted: there is a new line representing the sum of various modes of attack.

High-profile attacks
"High profile attacks"


IED incidence widens the timeline back to 2004 in search of good news, the prior visual displays being limited to 2006.

IED incidence
"IED incidence"


I'm not even sure where to begin on the next two.

"Ethno-Sectarian Violence"

Caches Found and Cleared
"Caches Found and Cleared"

Source: Iraq by the Numbers, Long War Journal, Bill Roggio, December 17, 2007.

-- Stephen van Egmond (email)

More on Iraq slides

I happened to see this presentation - Found it cluttered and loud, fonts which are very 'official' ' legal' type Totally uninspiring and drab. It was surprising that someone would make these kind of presentation well knowing that entire world was watching the US progress in Iraq.

-- raj (email)

I just wanted you to know that you are cited in a dissection of a PowerPoint slide from Gen. Petraeus' presentation on 10 Sep 2007:

-- J David Eisenberg

Readers may be interested to see a ~120 slide powerpoint that the Joint Chiefs recently used to acquaint themselves with Islam. It's remarkable at how much it resembles and Edward Tufte satire of a slideshow AND retains a remarkable "Elders of Zion"-level of propaganda.

-- Jamie (email)

Today the website Talking Points Memo drew my attention to another slide from Gen. Petraeus' September 2007 presentation, highlighted above by Stephen van Egmond. There are several things wrong with the chart, starting with the fact that there is no explanation of what the left axis means (but I assume it refers to the number of brigades in Iraq). A look at the y axis shows that the numbers do not conform to an ordinal number scale. There is an implied relationship between the color bars, the solid black line, and the number scale, but it is not clear how this should be interpreted. The timescale is also undefined, except in the sense that it recognizes a continuum from the present to the future. Finally, if a viewer of this Powerpoint presentation-- say, a member of Congress-- used the size of the color bars to gauge the size of the troop presence, the distorted scale makes it look like the numbers of troops in Iraq will decrease more steeply than what the numbers on the axis indicate (for example, the right-hand bar, which seems to represent 5 brigades, is less than 25% the size of the left-hand bar, which seems to represent 20 brigades).

-- A.K. Pertilla (email)

From a recent email:

I work at the Office of Naval Research. A colleague there attended a briefing at the Pentagon, and according to him, it ended with the following statement made by the military officer who requested the briefing: "You're not going to win the next war by using PowerPoint. You're going to win by making the other dumb bastard use PowerPoint."

-- Edward Tufte

Dumb-dumb bullets

Retired Marine T.X. Hammes has an excellent essay on the Armed Forces Journal website titled Dumb-dumb bullets. My favorite quote:

Make no mistake, PowerPoint is not a neutral tool -- it is actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making.

-- Steve Roach (email)

Theory of PowerPoint

An intriguing discussion about PowerPoint and military intelligence:

via Aaron Swartz

-- Edward Tufte

The New York Times has a piece today on a rebellion against Powerpoint in the military entitled "We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint". Referring to a particularly abstruse slide, the reporter quotes the US commander in Afghanistan, "'When we understand that slide, we'll have won the war,' General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter." Another general is quoted as saying "Powerpoint makes us stupid", while a third rails against the idea that all problems are reducible to bullet points. The article is at .

-- Gregory Mayer (email)

And for the military critique of PowerPoint cited in the NYT story:

T.X. Hammes, "Dumb-Dumb Bullets: As a Decision-Making Aid, PowerPoint is a Poor Tool," Armed Forces Journal (July 2009).

-- Phillip Troutman (email)

I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with the New York Times article regarding the highlighted "spaghetti" slide. That slide looks nothing like most PowerPoint slides and actually seems to make the intended point perfectly. It reminds me a bit of the "Cubism and Abstract Art" graphic praised at the beginning of the "Links and Causal Arrows" chapter of "Beautiful Evidence."

-- Tim Smith (email) . The colonel took on more than PowerPoint; but it's interesting that PP here is so closely identified with, almost shorthand for, foolish organizational, management, and communication practices.

-- Stewart Schoder (email)

Dilbert comic

I'm reminded of this Dilbert comic from June 2008.

Dilbert: "You won't read my technical report so I summarized it in this complicated slide."
Dilbert: "If you stare at it long enough you will either experience the illusion of understanding it or be too embarrassed to admit you don't."
Dilbert: "Do you have any questions to betray your ignorance?"
PHB: "Is the triangle thing mad at the tube?"

-- Jacob Rus (email)

more on using powerpoint as a career management tool: jdmccubbin

-- jd mccubbin (email)

A further skirmish in the military/PowerPoint conflict: an officer is fired for criticizing PowerPoint: Army colonel in Afghanistan fired for criticizing PowerPoint. The officer had wider complaints about the organizational and informational culture, but he thought PowerPoint was a contributing factor. Quote: "[The] war consists largely of the endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information." The actual reason for firing was that he went public with his complaints, not that they were about PowerPoint specifically.

-- Gregory Mayer (email)

The State Department is also having Powerpoint issues. Tara McKelvey in the DailyBeast:

One of the few things that the Americans have done is to assist Afghan officials in preparations for their presentations before other officials; in other words, as [Michael] Semple says, "better PowerPoints."

-- Gregory C. Mayer (email)

Yet another example, this time referenced by technology blog Gizmodo.

-- Andrew Howe (email)

Here's an interesting observation on how PP can impede good communication in meetings: . This is surely the case in non-military settings too. One of the comments on Ricks's blog linked to this, which illustrates that members of the military are as incisive and as sardonic in their assessment of PP as any of ET's contributors: . (I did not read the latter link as in any way making light of torture, and hope that it will not be misconstrued. "Duffelblog" appears to be a military version of "The Onion.")

-- Stewart Schoder (email)

When it comes to PowerPoint, I thought I'd seen it all, including the "Achieving Representation" slide from the Operation Iraqi Freedom plan, but I was still brought up short by this slide:

Here is the Wikimedia Commons page it came from: The page has links to the PP presentation the slide came from, "How to Win the War in Al Anbar" by Captain Travis Patriquin of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, "the Ready First Combat Team," and to "Anbar Awakens: The Tipping Point," an article by Major Niel Smith and Colonel Sean MacFarland that appeared in the Military Review, a journal published by the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center. According to the article, "This slideshow perfectly captured the Ready First's concept for winning the tribes over to our side." Captain Patriquin did not live to see an Iraq free of Iranian influence; he was killed in action in December 2006.

-- Robert O'Rourke (email)

The chart in the link is at least three years old, but I just encountered it: . (Apologies if it has already been posted and discussed elsewhere here.) The title is as mind-numbing as the content: "Integrated Defense Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Life Cycle Management System."

-- Stewart Schoder (email)

Threads relevant to PowerPoint:
Don't get your hopes up.
Compares tables, slopegraphs, barcharts for showing cancer survival rates.
A look at a rich and complex question: What are the the causes of presentations?

An intriguing but under-explored topic.
Account of the role of PP in the shuttle Columbia accident, followed by many good alternative methods and examples for technical presentations.

Privacy Policy