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In defence of the “Worst slide ever”

November 8, 2010

Powerpoint gets some bad press, that’s for sure.

In fact Powerpoint seems to be regarded as some sort of evil creation sent to bore us to tears. It is now more popular than ever to blame powerpoint for all our presentation woes (blame the software, not the user eh?) and I suppose I too am partial to a bit of crappy-powerpoint-that-shouldnt-see-the-light-of-day bashing, but I think the criticism of one slide in particular has just gone way overboard, and in fact might actually be completely misplaced in the first place.

I present to you the slide in question that has attracted the attention of every presentation expert, office worker (and a few notable journalists) on the planet:

Everyone quickly lambasted this particular slide when it surfaced, and it is now cited by the good and the great as hard evidence that Powerpoint is not up to the job of communication and is indeed the product of the devil, and to be honest that annoys me quite a bit. Now, I can see how this seemingly never-ending mess of arrows, boxes and colours is indeed enough to make for quite uncomfortable viewing, but without knowing the context in which the slide was being used then perhaps our criticism is premature.

I know that I was one of the first people to jump onto my keyboard and proclaim the above slide to be a large steaming chunk of rubbish, but now, upon mature reflection, I have changed my mind. In fact, I think that the slide is great*, and it could be one of the best slides the US Army has ever produced, yep I said it… it’s a great* slide (*If it was used in the way I would use it myself)

I must admit that I have never been part of any war, and plan to remain strictly out of the theatre of war, but I would imagine it is fair to assume that things in an active war are very complicated. I would also imagine that although war is complex, that the higher up members of the military demand simple explanations of what the strategy should be going forward.

Enter our much-hated slide.

Now let’s imagine the person delivering this presentation really needs to hammer home the point that things are extremely complicated in Afghanistan, where a change in one area affects many others. Let’s imagine to prove this point they whip out the spaghetti slide to back up this point that “things just aren’t that simple” or “A complex web of relations calls for a complex strategy”, or some words to that effect. It’s a pretty convincing slide!

If we talk about slides as we should – as visual aides that complement what you are saying – then this could be a very powerful and effective visual aide for demonstrating just how complex and interrelated various parties are in the theatre of war. Just because the Afghanistan slide baffles us without the accompanying context, it doesn’t mean it can’t be effective and great*.

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