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A Tool Only as Good as the User

Jason Logan

Published: April 29, 2010

To the Editor:

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint” (front page, April 27) describes how many military personnel bemoan the overuse and misuse of PowerPoint. They could just as easily have bemoaned bad written reports and summaries, and blamed Microsoft Word.

Don’t blame the messenger: The problem is not in the tool itself, but in the way that people use it — which is partly a result of how institutions promote misuse.

A two-dimensional image flashed on a screen is an excellent way to present two-dimensional objects, like photographs, maps and statistical charts. But it is a poor way to present an inherently multidimensional graph. A complex narrative is better communicated with a prose report made available to all participants, followed by a discussion.

Many members of the military should spend much of their time communicating information, but they should use all channels of communication in appropriate ways — and make sure that they are not just “PowerPoint Rangers.”

Peter Norvig
Stephen M. Kosslyn
Cambridge, Mass., April 27, 2010

Mr. Norvig is director of research at Google and the author of “Gettysburg Address in 6 PowerPoint Slides.” Mr. Kosslyn is dean of social science and a professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of “Clear and to the Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations.”

To the Editor:

The problem is not PowerPoint itself. The problem is the military’s obsession with formal presentations.

I was a lieutenant at an Air Force headquarters in the early 1960s and spent many hours preparing “visual aids” for presentations. There were no laptops and no PowerPoint; instead, there were flip charts and Magic Markers. We wasted hours on the charts, but they were just as vague as today’s slide shows.

PowerPoint merely makes it easier to prepare bad, vague, unfocused, mind-numbing graphics. It did not create the problem in the first place.

John T. Christian
Waltham, Mass., April 27, 2010

To the Editor:

Your article illustrates the notion that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

In 2003, Edward Tufte, contributing to the (shuttle) Columbia Accident Investigation Board report, systematically analyzed and demonstrated the problems that occur when an organization is overly reliant on graphical software that is inappropriate for sophisticated technical communication.

Mr. Tufte’s analysis of PowerPoint was subsequently included in his book “Beautiful Evidence” and is currently on his own Web site. Around the country, in classrooms and workshops, that analysis has been studied ever since. But not, it would appear, by our military leaders.

Daniel van Benthuysen
Hempstead, N.Y., April 27, 2010

The writer is an assistant professor of informational graphics and visual journalism at Hofstra University.

To the Editor:

Those complaining about tedious, ineffective PowerPoint presentations might be forgetting the alternative: page after page of mind-numbing, often badly written paragraphs that are no better and certainly less efficient in getting the message across to audiences.

PowerPoint is merely a channel; when used strategically it can aid critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making as well as any other kind of communication vehicle.

Like all well-written documents, PowerPoint presentations demand a focused and well-executed logical structure to be effective.

Betty Sugarman
Bronx, April 27, 2010

The writer is a consultant for executive education.

To the Editor:

As a junior Army officer, I’m glad to know that the top brass shares the aversion many soldiers feel to “death by PowerPoint.” If Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff had used PowerPoint to plan D-Day, the Allies would have landed at Normandy on June 6, 1954.

Vincent Solomeno
Hazlet, N.J., April 27, 2010

To the Editor:

• PowerPoint criticism
• Used instead of full-text documents
• Substance often lacking
• Subtleties not easily conveyed
• Other uses
• Substitute for letter to editor

Sharon Aucoin
North Andover, Mass., April 27, 2010