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Bullets and "delusional" briefing slides

Briefing_1 Another set of PowerPoint briefing slides was released to the public recently. The slides, which were obtained by the National Security Archive under the Freedom of Information Act, show what planners in 2002 projected might occur if the US invaded Iraq (get all slides in PDF). The slides contain "completely unrealistic assumptions about a post-Saddam Iraq..." according to National Security Archive Executive Director Thomas Blanton. These PowerPoint Slides were used to brief the White House and Donald Rumsfeld in 2002. (See CNN article and video report.)

These slides were likely never projected on a screen. PowerPoint decks like this are instead often printed and used in the US government and military as a kind of document. (See earlier posts related to slideumentation here, here, and here). Slides like these would not make for good visuals, but they do not make for good documents either. Even though the title of the slide (err, "page") below is "Key Planning Assumptions," the problem with presenting bullets like this is that important assumptions about each bullet point are left unstated and unexplained. Since printed slides like these are acting as de facto documents to be left behind and examined later, why not present the information with more written explanation and greater clarity in a properly written document which adheres to the principles of good writing and good document design?

Is the last bullet the most or least important?

In a document like the one above, what is the relationship of the bullets? Is it sequential from the first to the last in order? Or is it priority from the most important to the least important? (Or the other way around?) Or is it that the bullets are just related in some way. When most people look at such a long bullet list like the one above it's only natural to assume (whether consciously or not) that the last bullet may be of lesser importance than items higher up on list. In this case the last item, "Iraq regime has WMD capability," looks almost as if it were a parenthetical addition following the two-line acronym-filled bullet (number nine out of ten if you're counting) on "forces in Turkey" placed above it. WMDs, of course, would apparently move up the bulleted-list chain on future PowerPoint decks in Washington.

In the Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, Edward Tufte, citing the 1998 Harvard Business Review article ("Strategic Stories: How 3M is Reviewing Business Planning"), suggests that bulleted lists "can make us stupid" because bullet lists (1) are too generic, (2) they leave important relationships unspecified, and (3) key assumptions are left vague at best. These briefing slides seem like pretty good examples of the kind of "documents" we should avoid subjecting our audiences to.

Bullet outlines dilute thought, says, Tufte. Certainly if we are going to make a document to be left behind as a handout we have to do better than printing out slides of bulleted outlines. Says Tufte:

"Instead of showing a long sequence of tiny information fragments on slides, and instead of dumping those slides onto paper,report writers should have the courtesy to write a real report (which might also be handed out at a meeting) and address audiences as serious people. PP templates are a lazy and ridiculous way to format printed reports.(Emphasis mine.)      
             – Edward Tufte, The Conitive Style of PowerPoint

Above: POTUS = President of the United States. SECDEF = Secretary of Defense. The first bullet reads much differently if it is written "George Bush/Donald Rumsfeld directed effort; limited to a very small group."

I am not arguing with the content of the briefing slides, there are plenty of sites for that. I am saying that the way in which it was presented is something that we ourselves should avoid doing at all cost. Presenting paper documents like this — which violate rule after rule of good document design and good writing — will obfuscate our message, not clarify it.

You will need this: List of acronyms used in War Planning Slides (PDF).

Thanks to my buddy Les in Australia for the heads up on these slides.


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