A word-based management style

Nervous Washington Post employees are wondering what life will be like under their new boss, Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com.  So some of the newspaper’s reporters did a bit of investigative journalism on what Bezos is like to work for.  The article is worth reading for his exploration of the distinctive management style of the man Warren Buffett calls “the ablest CEO in America.”

After discussing such things as Bezos’ long-term thinking, his willingness to experiment, his disdain for bureaucracy, his demand for efficiency, and his high standards for performance (which allow for productive failures), reporters Craig Timberg and Jia Lynn Yang tell about this ultimate book-seller’s  belief in the “power of words.”

They warm the cockles of this English professor’s heart when they describe how Bezos doesn’t allow PowerPoint, thinking the bullet-point approach leads to simplistic thinking, making his workers write papers instead, since the very act of writing forces them to focus their thinking and to explore their ideas. [Read more...]

“PowerPoint corrupts absolutely”

I can’t believe I missed this critique of PowerPoint in Wired by Edward Tufte, which came out a year ago:

Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that promised to make us beautiful but didn’t. Instead the drug had frequent, serious side effects: It induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication. These side effects would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall.

Yet slideware -computer programs for presentations -is everywhere: in corporate America, in government bureaucracies, even in our schools. Several hundred million copies of Microsoft PowerPoint are churning out trillions of slides each year. Slideware may help speakers outline their talks, but convenience for the speaker can be punishing to both content and audience. The standard PowerPoint presentation elevates format over content, betraying an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.

Of course, data-driven meetings are nothing new. Years before today’s slideware, presentations at companies such as IBM and in the military used bullet lists shown by overhead projectors. But the format has become ubiquitous under PowerPoint, which was created in 1984 and later acquired by Microsoft. PowerPoint’s pushy style seeks to set up a speaker’s dominance over the audience. The speaker, after all, is making power points with bullets to followers. Could any metaphor be worse? Voicemail menu systems? Billboards? Television? Stalin?

Particularly disturbing is the adoption of the PowerPoint cognitive style in our schools. Rather than learning to write a report using sentences, children are being taught how to formulate client pitches and infomercials. Elementary school PowerPoint exercises (as seen in teacher guides and in student work posted on the Internet) typically consist of 10 to 20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation of three to six slides -a total of perhaps 80 words (15 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work. Students would be better off if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to the Exploratorium or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something.

In a business setting, a PowerPoint slide typically shows 40 words, which is about eight seconds’ worth of silent reading material. With so little information per slide, many, many slides are needed. Audiences consequently endure a relentless sequentiality, one damn slide after another. When information is stacked in time, it is difficult to understand context and evaluate relationships. Visual reasoning usually works more effectively when relevant information is shown side by side. Often, the more intense the detail, the greater the clarity and understanding. This is especially so for statistical data, where the fundamental analytical act is to make comparisons.

via Wired 11.09: PowerPoint Is Evil.

He goes on.  Is he right?

I myself use it only when I am giving a presentation in which I need to show and then discuss works of  art.  But I don’t use it for my lecture outlines.  And I don’t like to turn out the lights, thus cutting off my contact with my audience and surely inducing them to fall asleep.

Does PowerPoint make us stupid?

So claims some military experts:

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti.

Power Point of our Strategy 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.

The slide has since bounced around the Internet as an example of a military tool that has spun out of control. Like an insurgency, PowerPoint has crept into the daily lives of military commanders and reached the level of near obsession. The amount of time expended on PowerPoint, the Microsoft presentation program of computer-generated charts, graphs and bullet points, has made it a running joke in the Pentagon and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

via Enemy Lurks in Briefings on Afghan War – PowerPoint – NYTimes.com.

Drawing also on the PowerPoint vogue in business, education, and other fields, would you agree?


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