PowerPoints are the peacocks of the business world; all show, no meat” – Dwight Schrute, The Office

It was a Friday morning ritual in the Joint Operations Center. As we settled in for the weekly, three-hour PowerPoint Hell known as the Battle Update Brief, I was always thankful that my seat was on the aisle, as close to the exit as you could get in the auditorium-style setting. The briefing—an oxymoron if there ever was one—was an opportunity for the command staff to provide the commanding general with an update on progress on any of the hundreds of initiatives we had running concurrently in the organization.

Most of the presentations were mercifully short. The vast majority of the staff recognized our shared misery and worked diligently to ensure they weren’t the cause of a marathon Friday morning update. There were exceptions of course. The command surgeon rarely had anything constructive to add to the discourse, so he would instead walk the staff through the meaning of some obscure work of art, spending fifteen minutes blathering on like some undergraduate art appreciation major. But, for the most part, we all recognized the need to move things along smartly.

A big part of maintaining the steady flow of presentations during the update was understanding the boss. He wasn’t particularly complicated, but he did have expectations. If you were taking time on his calendar, he wanted that time put to good use. As a result, most of us learned early on to follow the 3Bs: be brief, be brilliant, be gone. We said what we had to say, made it count, and ceded the microphone to the next lucky staff officer.

Most of us.


Some people just couldn’t—or wouldn’t—learn. Maybe it was laziness or maybe it was just an inability to see their briefings slides for what they were. PowerPoint slides, after all, are like your kids. No matter how weird they might look to others, they’ll always be beautiful to you because you created them.

On one particularly brutal Friday morning, the staff logistics officer was briefing the status of a project to expand the readiness of our non-tactical vehicle fleet. As we waited for the J-4 to get to the point—seemingly always an elusive task—they tossed up a slide completely filled with a random array of data that compared everything from the number of repair parts order, to open contracts for various issues, to transit times for unrelated items. It made no sense whatsoever.

During our updates, the boss generally asked the same basic questions, driving the brief while ensuring the information presented made sense. Although he was an old school infantryman, he maintained a secondary specialty in operations research and systems analysis; he was a “numbers guy” who viewed the world through a quantitative lens. The surest way to stop a brief in its tracks was to put a data table on a slide. The surest way to end that brief on a bad note was to have mistakes in those numbers. The J-4 did both.

When the general questioned the data on the slide, the staff logistics officer responded, “Math is hard. There’s a lot of math in this chart.”

“The math doesn’t check out,” he replied. “See me after the update.” The entire room took a collective breath, thinking that we’d just witnessed the end of the update brief. We were wrong. What followed was a “hot mic” tirade for the ages as the J-4 went on a rant with a live microphone, with the entire operations center there to hear. Then the update brief was over.

FIVE Ways to Blow a Presentation

There’s no shortage of hate for PowerPoint, but it’s just a tool. It’s the tool behind the tool that gives it a bad name. Like any tool, it takes a practiced hand (and mind) to create something memorable. Hitting a presentation “out of the park” takes a practiced hand. Blowing a presentation, however, is relatively easy.

In general, there are five ways to truly blow a presentation. Each is unique in its own right; each requires little more than a volatile mix of stupidity and diligence.

1. A presentation without a central idea.

Every presentation needs a big idea, a “so what” to drive it. Without that central idea, a presentation is just a random collection of PowerPoint slides with no clear end in sight. It’s like sitting through the reading of an L. Ron Hubbard book—you keep hoping it’s going to come to an end, but it never does.

2. A presentation without a problem.

There’s nothing worse than sitting through a briefing only to hear the boss ask, “What problem are you trying to solve?”, while the briefer stands there like a deer in the headlights. Your presentation needs a purpose; it needs a problem to solve.

3. A presentation without a return on investment.

In the same vein, it helps if you can clearly explain the ROI your particular solution offers. If it’s only an iterative improvement or change, it probably could have been addressed in an email. If you’re going to ask people to patiently sit through your PowerPoints, there needs to be a definitive ROI at the end of the brief.

4. A presentation without any appeal.

Some people can take a complex topic and convey it with just a handful of slides, spurring discussion with just a simple visual presentation. Find them. Embrace them. Leverage their skill. Avoid the major in search of a way to squeeze a fifth block onto a quad chart.

5. A presentation without attention to detail.

“Attention to detail” was one of the first phrases I heard in the early days of my military career. From change of command inventories to battle update briefings, attention to detail is what separates those who can from those who think they can.

As I was on the way to the flightline—and my flight back to Kuwait—early one Friday morning in December, I stopped by the Joint Operations Center to check off the final action on my redeployment to-do list. I settled into my station and opened the slide deck for the update brief. I found the command surgeon’s presentation and replaced the Monet painting he was going to present with one of those poker-playing-dogs pictures. I laughed all the way to the terminal.

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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 co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.