Presumptuous Bullet Point Analysis (Yuck!) and the Power of "Waffling On"

"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."

- ARMY BRIG. GEN. H. R. McMASTER, on the growing use of PowerPoint presentations among military commanders. (From the article ''We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint" - New York Times 27/4/10)


I'm 38 years old and am still attending school. But it isn't as if I got a late start in life; I just don't seem to be able to keep a deep interest in anything long enough to call it a 'career'. Some people say I'm a professional student. I can live with that as a job title and it's only by circumstance that I'm able to maintain such a lifestyle despite being married with three children. Most men my age have already established themselves in some sort of niche. I'm digressing here, but you obviously don't have anything better to do than read this so why not let me waffle on a bit? Waffling can be a surprisingly good way to give and receive information. I'll go deeper into that later.

The reason I'm presenting this aspect of my life here isn't because I'm working on a draft for my autobiography. I respect trees and even LEDs enough not to bother them to be used as a medium to tell my story. I'm just trying to qualify myself to make the following criticism of a social and educational trend that I hope dies out soon.

What I'm talking about is the global obsession with PowerPoint slides. Yes, I'm aware how they can be used to good effect and supportive of important points that need to be made. They provide an outlet for the visually creative presenter as well as an 'inlet' for visual learners.

But here's the downside. Far too many times have I seen individuals use the PowerPoint medium in ways that, indeed, present 'the facts' but fail to convey the context of those facts. Bulleted lists seem to lend themselves to a summarized brevity that I interpret as presumptuous. Few people, it seems, know how to let the content drive the medium. More often they end up with a reversed presentation where the medium drives the content.

"True eloquence is the truth spoken concisely." said the great 16th century poet Krishna Das Kaviraja. Being concise and being presumptuous, I feel, are two different things altogether.

For example, the quotation at the beginning of this post asserts that we cannot reduce the nuance of interpersonal conflict down to a set of bullet points. In fact, whenever we are dealing with people, the entire medium is usually inappropriate.

I've learned that when I've had problems with another individual there are often complexities that take time, patience and prayer to resolve. No quick fix bullet point slide show does the trick. (if it was only that easy)

After nearly a decade of tertiary education (and one year of teaching high school) I've realized that the best learning takes place through a healthy relationship. It doesn't matter how slick the teacher is with multimedia as much as how genuine their concern is for the student's well-being.

For instance, my five year old son doesn't learn how to speak, read and interact with others via a set of memorized 'points'. His education at this level is achieved mostly by osmosis. Does that change as we grow older? I doubt it.

There is a lot of learning that takes place by just 'hanging out' with someone and waffling on about whatever comes to mind. Tangential conversations reveal the heart of a person. This helps to contextualize and personalize the message. By engaging in light discussion we can learn about the presenter's:

- interests
- concerns
- aspirations
- vulnerabilities
- miscellaneous other things

Just see how dorky that looks? It's misleading to even present such a subject in a way that presumes that you can summarize everything there is to know into a slide the size of your screen resolution.

In the last five years I've especially noticed that getting off-topic is practically considered taboo for a presenter. Personally, I love it even if just for the respite it provides from the barrage of bullet points being fired into the audience.

I also love it when the projector doesn't work properly. Funny how that seems to happen all the time. (No I don't sabotage - I just don't offer to help get things up and running.)

So next time you are tasked to give a presentation please consider these ideas. Sorry, but you'll have to read things over if you want an obvious summary. True I'm lazy, but I don't want to contribute to your intellectual laziness by assuming the role of expert and trying to wrap everything up into a nice tidy take away container. Waffle on, get off topic occasionally and you might find that your audience is far more interested in what you have to say. You might find it more interesting yourself.