Thursday, April 29, 2010

Hypnotizing Chickens

PowerPoint Ranger -- a military term used to describe someone who spends most of his or her time in front of a computer making PowerPoint slides. Some have even gone so far as to create mock badges, similar to the wings worn by paratroopers or aviators, which denote how many hours a person has logged in front of their computer on PowerPoint.

It was once said that an army runs on its stomach. Now, it appears that the maxim has been updated for the computer age...the U.S. military apparently runs on PowerPoint.

I expect that virtually everyone has sat through a mind-numbing PowerPoint presentation at some time. You know the ones...30 slides, the text getting eye-chart small, the presenter simply reading the bullets to you, the flashy animations that add nothing. While intended as a means of presenting key information quickly, clearly, and easily, more often than not the critical information within a PowerPoint presentation gets lost in a morass of competing bullets.

A number of years ago, I participated in a 1-day seminar given by Edward Tufte, a Yale professor, expert in information design, and author of a nice little zinger entitled "PowerPoint is Evil". In his surgical dissection of PowerPoint as an inadequate tool for presenting critical information, he pointed to a slide used by NASA engineers to address potential danger points due to cold weather in the space shuttle program shortly before the Challenger disaster. The key finding -- that the O-rings used to seal the rockets were at serious risk in extremely low temperatures -- was relegated to the last line and in the smallest font where it was guaranteed to get the least amount of attention. Sadly, that risk factor is exactly what caused the loss of the Challenger, an eminently preventable tragedy.

Of course, the fact-obscuring capabilities are apparently being put to good use by the U.S. military, according to today's New York Times:

Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters.

The news media sessions often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake. Those types of PowerPoint presentations, Dr. Hammes said, are known as “hypnotizing chickens.”

No comments: