Officially, Dave Karle is an executive communications manager at Microsoft. Less officially, his colleagues have given him another name: the Pied Piper of PowerPoint. His audience? The U.S. Army.
Except that Karle isn't trying to get the Army to use Microsoft's presentation software. PowerPoint is already ubiquitous within the Army - to the chagrin of many an officer. Karle's mission is much harder: stopping the Army from using it stupidly.
"I'm chasing the bad ideas out of presentations," Karle tells Danger Room by phone from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He's there for a meeting at the Combined Arms Center, the Army's central nervous system for writing and spreading its doctrine. Working with an Army major at the Center, John Roberson, Karle - himself a 15 year Army veteran who served in Iraq - has come up with what he alternately calls Modern Presenter or the Modern Presentation Method, all to revive the poor headquarters officers who've suffered Death By PowerPoint.
The basic idea behind Karle's Method is to introduce "simplicity, cleanliness and a very refined and simple tool set" to plan a presentation. He's spent weeks with the Army compiling over 11,000 commonly used graphics into a database to spare officers the agony of searching for the right illustration. And - gasp - sometimes a presentation doesn't have to use PowerPoint at all.
"Use Word sometimes instead of PowerPoint. Use a whiteboard sometimes," Karle says. "It's all about fixing the tool behind the tool." He pauses. "I love that phrase."
It's not exactly a revolutionary concept. But military headquarters staff take to PowerPoint exactly like Pookie takes to the crack pipe in New Jack City - they hate it, even as they make themselves entirely dependent on it. One of Gen. David Petraeus' stock jokes is that PowerPoint is every general's First Amendment right.
But the backlash against it is real and growing. Col. Lawrence Sellin lost his job (working for Petraeus' deputy) after he ranted that his colleagues were a bunch of PowerPoint zombies. A senior officer recently informed subordinates that he absolutely hates PowerPoint. That guy is about to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Slides like this one explain why the officers who have to write PowerPoints and suffer through presentations packed with them are fed up:
PowerPoint "can be very good if used properly," says Roberson, Karle's partner at Fort Leavenworth, diplomatically. "Otherwise, it can waste people's time wonderfully, too."
Emphasis on the phrase "used properly." Blaming PowerPoint for an inscrutable slide is like blaming Twitter for DMing pictures of your penis to unsuspecting followers. "If the military used Keynote, rest assured, they'd find a way to misuse that as well," says Army Cpt. Crispin Burke, a Danger Room pal who's put together his share of PowerPoints and PowerPoint criticisms.
In fact, it's because of Burke that Karle's whole effort got under way. Karle saw Burke quoted in a New York Times article in April 2010 that castigated PowerPoint and sent him a Facebook message soliciting his critiques.
Burke recalls his advice to Karle on making PowerPoint less of a soul-killing monster: "A common graphics library…. Use the default template…. By standardizing certain products across organizations, we can eliminate much of the time wasted re-formatting slides."
Through Burke's online contacts, Karle found the pseudonymous Army officer known as Doctrine Man, who rails on his Facebook page in cartoon form against the undignified foibles of military bureaucracy.
"My advice to Dave was pretty basic," Doctrine Man reflects. "Knowing that there is a bias against PowerPoint that is building momentum, you don't market Modern Presenter as a tool for better PowerPoint, but as a method to improve our communications skills." (Doctrine Man made the Xtra Normal parodying PowerPoint Rangers that appears at the top of this post; the "tool behind the tool" phrase is his, too.)
In December, Karle launched a blog called, simply enough, Modern Presenter, that synthesized his experience giving endless presentations for Microsoft with the feedback he got from Burke and Doctrine Man.
He offered his Method as a way for people to focus on the goals of their presentations, rather than getting hung up on the technology - which results in the tangle of boxes and arrows that give PowerPoint its bad reputation.
"Presenters learn how to define what their audience needs, the presenter's needs, and how to build a great story framework," he blogged. Simply put: Visualize what you're trying to say; map it out in storyboards; add some cool visuals. Refine it. Keep it pretty short. And it doesn't have to be a PowerPoint: Let the message define the medium. "Hopefully the [Microsoft] Office team is not on its way to find me right now," he joked.
On the advice of Microsoft's chief defense liaison, Tim Solms, Karle trekked from Redmond to talk to the doctrine writers in the Army about his Method. By March, he got a sit-down at the Combined Arms Center, whose chief of staff, Col. Dominic Pompelia, assigned Roberson in May to work with him on developing an Army version of modern presenter.
The updated Military Presentation Method is a series of templates, graphics libraries and best practices tips to stave off the overuse of PowerPoint. Karle and Roberson literally scanned hundreds of field artillery graphics and more than 6,000 NATO-approved map symbols to spare officers the time of hunting for them online or in share drives.
"It's all the tenets - less is more, don't use 1,100 slides when you can use 20," Karle says. Officers come to him asking, "How can I do it better, how can I do it less, how can I do it faster?" That's missing the point, he explains: "I switch it from tools and more toward outcomes…. OK, maybe that's what I'll show you here, but what I'll really show you is how to give a world-class presentation."
All this work is gratis. Karle figures it'll pay for itself by generating happier MS Office customers. At least if the Military Presentation Method doesn't become a rigid how-to pushed out by the Army brass that results in even more labored presentations.
"The U.S. Army, it's like any other bureaucracy," Karle says. "It can take the best idea and twist it into worst of shapes. But one of nice things about the U.S. Army and the military [in general] is that when they get behind something that's smart, they make the most out of using it."
A "proof of concept" should be finished and given to the Combined Arms Center by the middle of next month. Karle has talked to the Marines, too; if the concept proves useful in the Army, it could spread to other services, the methadone for the PowerPoint fix.
"We can retain the goodness that PowerPoint offers while strengthening the communications skills of our people at the same time," Doctrine Man enthuses. "Everyone is happy." As long as they're not spending hours creating inscrutable slides for interminable meetings.