Petraeus Does PowerPoint

Is there anything to add to an item that was the rage of the political media a month back, the misuse of one of our favorite miscommunication tools, PowerPoint, by U.S. military leadership? Check out Gen. David Petraeus’ September 10, 2007 slideshow explaining and justifying the drawdown of U.S. troops inserted into Iraq in the recent “surge.” The bloggers (e.g., Yglesias, Benen, Drum) found particularly notable an egregiously amateurish slide that related simply that in nine months, troop levels would be back to the levels of nine months previous.

Military mis-PowerPointing is a “dog bites man” story: commonplace, banal. Edward Tufte blogged it back in 2003. Miscommunicating with PowerPoint is common in the corporate world too although of course the impact of the decisions being made in and for Iraq goes beyond mere profit and loss.

The real story, however, isn’t busy slides that in the end give away very little.

We learn about Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s August trip to Iraq:

She lost track of all the PowerPoint presentations that she and her colleagues sat through — it was either five or six. “You would get these organizational charts that were all acronyms — I mean like, 30 of them,” Schakowsky recalled with a laugh. “And the danger of asking a question about them is it would add another 10 minutes” to the presentation.

And we have blogger Kevin Drum’s August expectations for the then-upcoming September Petraeus report to Congress:

Petraeus has been very shrewd about providing dog-and-pony shows to as many analysts, pundits, reporters, and members of Congress as he could cram into the military jets criss-crossing the Atlantic to Baghdad on a seemingly daily basis this summer. And those dog-and-pony shows don’t seem to have been subtle: rather, they’ve been hard-sell propositions complete with “classified” PowerPoint presentations (always a winner for people with more ego than common sense)…

Go ahead and pick on individual slides. The bigger issue is elsewhere: in the control of the narrative that PowerPoint affords the presenter. The deck becomes an imperative; any foray into discussion must return within minutes to the predetermined story line if we’re to get through the deck. Edward Tutfe explains this effect in Metaphors for Presentations: Conway’s Law Meets PowerPoint. Excerpting,

The pushy PP style tends to set up a dominance relationship between speaker and audience, as the speaker makes power points with hierarchical bullets to passive followers. Such aggressive, stereotypes, over-managed presentations — the Great Leader up on the pedestal — are characteristics of hegemonic systems and of Conway’s Law again in operation:

“The Roman state bolstered its authority and legitimacy with the trappings of ceremony… Power is a far more complex and mysterious quality than any apparently simple manifestation of it would appear. It is as much a matter of impression, of theatre, of persuading those over whom authority is wielded to collude in their subjugation. Insofar as power is a matter of presentation, its cultural currency in antiquity (and still today) was the creation, manipulation, and display of images. In the propagation of the imperial office, at any rate, art was power.”

— Jás Elsner, Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph

How better to describe General Petraeus’ dog-and-pony shows, where PowerPoint was the tool, not the villain?

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