The Pentagon, Politics and PowerPoint

Can PowerPoint influence the ideas that shape our government? Just ask Karl Rove, Thomas Barnett or Rob Stein, because their PowerPoint presentations have been credited with shaping the ideas that are guiding Republican White House strategy, Pentagon policy and the future of the Democratic party.

Karl Rove, who is U.S. President George W. Bush’s chief strategist, made news when "a misplaced disk containing one of Rove’s private PowerPoint presentations" revealed political strategies for the upcoming fall election, according to a 2002 Time magazine article. A 2003 New Yorker magazine article described the incident further: mehlman_rove

"For Democrats who spend a good deal of their time looking for the Mark of Rove, an exciting moment came in June, 2002, when a backup computer disk was found in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, containing two PowerPoint presentations, one by Kenneth Mehlman, Rove’s deputy and the White House political director, called "The 2002 Challenge," and the other by Rove himself, called "The Strategic Landscape." (Inevitably, speculation has begun over whether the Lafayette Park PowerPoint, as it has been referred to, is the Rosetta stone to the mind of Karl Rove or a piece of deliberate disinformation designed to throw the Democrats off the scent.)

"Since that discovery, an even more interesting PowerPoint presentation has fallen into Democratic hands, and from there into mine. This one outlines, in ninety slides, the work of the 72-Hour Task Force. It acknowledges, much more freely than Rove does in conversation, that in the 2000 Presidential election the Democrats outperformed the final opinion-poll predictions in state after state, and attributes this to their superior organizing. In 2001, the presentation says, the Republicans conducted more than fifty separate tests, in New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Arkansas, often using paired venues, one for experimenting, the other as a control. The over-all finding was that grassroots efforts work, and that grassroots efforts by local volunteers work especially well."

Meanwhile, over at the Pentagon, Wall Street Journal writer Greg Jaffe describes how Thomas Barnett’s PowerPoint is influencing military leaders in an article titled, "At The Pentagon, Quirky PowerPoint Carries Big Punch":barnett

"At the urging of his Pentagon bosses, Mr. Barnett overhauled (his) concept to address more directly the post-9/11 world. The result is a three-hour PowerPoint presentation that more resembles performance art than a Pentagon briefing. It’s making Mr. Barnett, 41 years old, a key figure in the debate currently raging about what the modern military should look like. Senior military officials say his decidedly controversial ideas are influencing the way the Pentagon views its enemies, vulnerabilities and future structure….

"This blueprint for America’s defense force comes wrapped in a presentation devised by Mr. Barnett that samples the ‘ching ching’ sound effect from the television series Law & Order, borrows lines from The Sopranos and features the voice of movie character Austin Powers calling out ‘Oh yeah, baby!’ to punctuate a key idea…

"’Tom polarizes people with his brief. They either love it or they hate it,’ says retired Navy Capt. Bradd Hayes, a professor at the Naval War College, where Mr. Barnett also teaches.

And over in the Democratic Party, New York Times Magazine writer Matt Bai describes Rob Stein’s influential PowerPoint in an article titled, "Wiring the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy":

"What Stein showed him was a PowerPoint presentation that laid out step by step, in a series of diagrams a ninth-grader could understand, how conservatives, over a period of 30 years, had managed to build a ‘message machine’ that today spends more than $300 million annually to promote its agenda…

"What made Stein’s work compelling was the genius of its packaging. For some reason, perhaps because most political operatives don’t function in the business world, no one had ever thought to unearth all the evidence and put it on color-coded slides in a way that ordinary people could immediately grasp…

"To (Democratic strategist Simon) Rosenberg, then, Stein’s presentation was like an elaborately wrapped gift on Christmas morning: the deeper into it he got, the more enthusiastic he became. Stein had given him, in 30 minutes’ worth of slides, a jolting summary of the challenge that needed to be met if the Democratic Party was to avoid total collapse."

Whatever your place on the political spectrum, these accounts of the influence of PowerPoint on serious military and political ideas are a wake-up call for all of us. PowerPoint is no longer the exclusive domain of boardrooms and classrooms — it is now front and center in the corridors of military and political power.

The importance of this fact doesn’t have as much to do with the quality of the graphics on the PowerPoint slides, the "ching ching" sound effects, or the way the ideas were put "on color-coded slides in a way that ordinary people could immediately grasp." Rather, it has more to do with the ultimate results of these PowerPoint presentations — for better or for worse, they are shaping our collective future of war and politics. PowerPoint is now a very real and powerful political force to be reckoned with.

The best way to understand this phenomenon is by understanding the innovation of PowerPoint itself. Because it is so easy to use, customize, and produce, PowerPoint has given rise to a powerful new form of "micro-media", as distinguished from "mass media". This distinction is very significant, because:

1. Micro-media is a powerful influencer of ideas. Where we understand mass media as influencing large groups of people, PowerPoint influences key decision-makers whose ideas influence the rest of us. Rove shows his PowerPoint presentations to a Republican president and his staff, Barnett shows his PowerPoint to key Pentagon decision-makers and politicians, and Stein shows his to Democratic fundraisers and strategists. These PowerPoint presentations are flying under the radar, engaging the pivotal ideas around which our collective culture turns. If we think mass media is powerful, we haven’t even begun to think about the possibly greater power of micro-media like PowerPoint. It’s time to start thinking about it seriously.

2. We all hold this power in our hands. With PowerPoint, the potent power of media has gone to the people. Businesspeople quickly and easily adopted PowerPoint, followed by educators, the military and now politicians. If you have an idea and PowerPoint on your computer, you can create media yourself that can influence a culture, if you find the right audience.

3. This new power is a double-edged sword. The role and influence of micro-media is extremely powerful, which makes critical thinking more important than ever. Packaging ideas with PowerPoint can make a good idea even more appealing. But as companies are learning the hard way, PowerPoint can also be used in ways that dominate audiences, corrupt statistical integrity, shut down dialogue and manipulate by emotion, which are all toxic to democracy. This makes it more urgent than ever that we not only learn how to produce effective micro-media experiences, but also that we learn the critical thinking skills and techniques that can break its sometimes intoxicating and overpowering spell.

It might not be overstatement to emphasize how important it is to learn how to present better PowerPoint, and to develop the critical thinking skills to analyze and debate it. The future of our ideas of war and peace in our democracy and our world just might be at stake.

Tip: If you want to make a difference, keep learning how to get better at PowerPoint. The breakthrough skills to learn are not so much about graphic design or the bells & whistles of PowerPoint technology, but rather about classic skills of rhetoric, persuasion, and facilitation. As you explore these areas, think about how you can apply what you learn in PowerPoint. Keep posted to this blog for new ideas, and be sure to contribute your own innovations so we can continue to learn from one another.

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4 Responses to “The Pentagon, Politics and PowerPoint”

  1. Edward Osborn says:

    Great article. Rob Stein sounds like a good interview candidate for your newsletter-would love to see his presentation.

    Ed Osborn

  2. cliff says:

    Thanks, Ed. If anyone locates a copy of Rob’s PowerPoint, let me know and I’ll post it.

  3. Tony Ramos says:

    See also “The PowerPoint that Rocked the Pentagon” in Slate:

    The headline promises more than what is actually delivered (a glimpse into some LaRouchian thinking) but supports Cliff’s points all the same.

  4. Warbaby says:

    Actually, Rob Stein is a perfect exemplar of why the Democratic party is on the skids and why the Republican party is on its way to one-party dominance ala Mexico’s PRI.

    There is nothing new about the information Stein is presenting. I’ve participated in numerous briefings (and helped prepare several) for Democratic party officials, political activists, funders, etc. over the last 10+ years. In every case, the information was ignored and rejected.

    Stein’s ability to get publicity is not due to the originality of his work (it’s all taken from other people’s research and much of it is at least ten years old). He’s a fat cat and pushing the information from the top down through the hierarchy of the fossilized party.

    It’s not the message, it’s the messenger. Stein’s a big wheel with the NDN. This is his publicity push. The information is not going to lead to: a) structural reform in the Democratic party or b) the creation of new movement-style organizations that will revitalize the party.

    The Dems are dead above the neck and necrotizing from the margins. The incumbent hacks have marginalized and destroyed their own base. The parasites have killed the host.

    Even if Kerry squeaks through this fall, he will be a sitting duck for attack politics that will make the political martyrdom of Bill Clinton look like a Tupperware party.

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