“What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate.” – Captain (Strother Martin), “Cool Hand Luke”

Several years ago, I invited author Peter Singer to speak at event that focused on mission command. Like most of our presenters, he arrived armed with a thumb drive of PowerPoint slides that we queued up for his discussion. When he took the stage, however, he was unlike every other speaker that day. His hour-long presentation consisted of just ten slides, none of which included any text: each slide captured only a single, solitary image. As he spoke that day, he weaved a carefully-crafted narrative that conveyed his message clearly and succinctly. He commanded the stage like he was delivering a TED Talk, moving effortlessly from one side to the other as he interacted with the attendees on an almost personal level. He concluded with enough time to entertain questions and comments from the audience, to engage with them in a way that was as productive as it was informative. When he stepped down onto the floor of the auditorium, we all knew we’d experienced something unique.

Days later, I stared down at another set of ten PowerPoint slides on the table in my office and thought, what we have here is… failure to communicate. Setting aside my desire to make light of the situation, I asked the officer, “What are you trying to say with these slides? Help me to understand.”

The officer looked at me, clearly confused. “Well, sir, you said to keep it to ten slides or less.”

I spread the slides across the table into two rows of five. A standard opening and closing slide, an agenda slide, four quad charts, and three slides that seemed to convey something, but I wasn’t exactly sure what. “Right. But I’m not sure that what’s here tells the story we need it to tell. Think about it like a design problem: a slide to frame the environment, a slide to frame the problem, and a slide to frame the solution. Then a wrap up slide to show our approach to getting to the solution and a timeline slide to get there.”

“But that’s only five slides. You said to keep it to ten or less.”

“I did. You’re right.” Five is less than ten, after all. “Five is about right for this level of briefing.”

“But what about the quad charts,” he continued. “The quad charts show our progress. We’ve got a lot done during the planning meetings.”

“You want to show real progress,” I replied, “not that you’ve had a lot of a meetings.”

The ensuing long sigh from the officer led to what is euphemistically known as a “teaching moment.” It wasn’t that he lacked the ability to prepare the slides, it was that he hadn’t developed the skill to tell a story. The result was “Death by PowerPoint” – a confused mishmash of data, process, and graphics that failed to capture the key ideas we’d discussed. But PowerPoint wasn’t the problem, it was merely a symptom of the problem.

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate (Correctly)

Where Singer presented a cogent narrative for his audience, the lieutenant colonel on the other side of my office table had struggled to find his voice. This is a phenomenon that’s really not that uncommon today, and certainly not something limited to the ranks of the military. I addressed this issue in a 2014 post for Tom Ricks in his Foreign Policy Best Defense blog: “We suffer from a communication problem. Stringing together a coherent, one-page information paper is a challenge for many people; forget about a more in-depth “thinking” piece.”

When we see a bad briefing, we like to blame PowerPoint. But, PowerPoint is just a tool. You don’t blame Word when you read a bad book. Let’s set the tool aside and focus in on the tool behind the tool. Because that’s where the real problem exists. Former TRADOC commander General David Perkins once said that the problem wasn’t PowerPoint, it was that “People start making slides before they know what problem it is that they’re trying to solve. Pretty soon, they’ve got a bunch of really great slides but they’re no closer to solving the problem than they were when they started. But they’ve got some great slides.”

Start with writing. Before a single slide is created, require the “big ideas” to be written out in an information paper. And until those ideas can be condensed into a single page, not one slide is created. There’s a scene from the film A River Runs Through It that captures this thought perfectly, as Tom Skerritt educates his son, Norman MacLean, in the fine art of writing succinctly. “Write it again, half as long.” That clip is 90 seconds well-spent with any group of leaders. “Again. Half as long.”

Once the key concepts are clearly understood, then — and only then — do you break out the slide deck. And when you do, find your PowerPoint “Zen.” Translating those ideas into graphic form doesn’t mean slides full of bullet points that should never leave the surface of a 3×5 card or images that induce nausea in your audience. It means thinking through how best to convey core ideas in a manner that stimulates thought and spurs discourse. It means visualizing key concepts in a way that drives decision making. It means communicating clearly, directly, succinctly.

The end result will be a free flow of ideas, unconstrained by the limits of a digital medium. Instead of leaders left wondering if the color of an arrow or the size of font conveys particular meaning, the collective group can focus on the key issues at hand. In other words, they can get down to the business of communicating, clearly and unambiguously.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.