Verbal Energy

Predicate verbs fend off 'death by PowerPoint'

Critics of PowerPoint presentations argue that in a hail of bullets, no one can really communicate.

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An analysis out of Washington suggests that some top military brass have had it with the slide shows that so often accompany briefings nowadays. In The New York Times of April 26, Elisabeth Bumiller wrote, "Like an insurgency, PowerPoint has crept into the daily lives of military commanders and reached the level of near obsession." PowerPoint has become a running joke both at the Pentagon and on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, she said, because of the time and energy spent preparing slides.

But some generals are pushing back.

"PowerPoint makes us stupid," Marine Gen. James N. Mattis told a military conference in North Carolina recently. (And by the way, he didn't use slides.) At the same conference, Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster likened PowerPoint to an "internal threat," Ms. Bumiller reported. He banned PowerPoint presentations when he was leading the effort to secure the Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005.

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In a follow-up interview with the Times, McMaster expanded on his concerns about PowerPoint: "It's dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.... Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable."

Bumiller's article is all over the Web. You'd think she'd caught a skateboarding cat on video.

Among the 15-seconds-of-fame characters in the piece was an Army platoon leader in Iraq who, when asked by a military website how he spent most of his time, responded, "Making PowerPoint slides." He wasn't just being cute. He really meant it. Much of the blogosphere – including a good many corporate warriors as well as military people – was horrified, if not exactly surprised.

But for me the nub of the case came in this passage of the piece: "Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs."

To that last point I say: Let's not give anyone ideas!

Seriously: Let's not forget the power of the complete sentence and the humble predicate verb – the "motor" of a good sentence. However much firepower "bullet points" seem to contain, they are often just lists of phrases. They're inert, like munitions stored in an arsenal. They haven't been bolted together into actual complete sentences.

In real prose – persuasive, expository, narrative, or whatever – the words work together. Some nouns are subjects of the verbs; other nouns are the acted-upon objects of those verbs. Verb tenses help us sort out past, present, and future, often in quite complex ways. Verb moods help us keep mere possibilities separate from actual facts. Dependent clauses suggest causality, conditions, logic, possibilities: If this happens, that may follow. Conjunctions help us connect more complex ideas: "This is true, and that is true, too." Or, under other circumstances, "This is true, but that is true, too."

Among the most concise reader comments on the Bumiller piece was this from someone in Boston, evidently in the armed forces: "In my briefings I refuse to use power point, which forces everyone to (1) think (2) focus and (3) discuss."

If I didn't know better, I'd think this person had just made a point in a hail of bullets.

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