March 28, 2001

PowerPointless

Author: JT Smith

- By Joab Jackson -

Cyberpunk -

I know a woman who disciplines her children with
PowerPoint briefing charts. Well, the stapled handouts themselves aren't
the actual punishment; it's the whole presentation that goes
along with
them. When things really go awry in the household -- when the
garbage isn't
taken out, when bedrooms go uncleaned, when there's
horseplay at church -- out
come those briefing charts. Claire's husband and their two kids, aged 12
and 14, gather in the family room to sit in glassy-eyed
silence while Claire,
in her most professional singsong voice (she's a
middle-management type
at work), plods her way through the "family
presentation" --bullet point
by bullet point, page by page -- until all admit that their
misbehavior
is harmful.

The idea of using briefing charts at home might seem truly
perverse
if it didn't also seem so darn wholesome. In the space of 45
minutes, Claire
delves deep into the psyche of her family, dissecting it as
if it was a
dysfunctional workplace. The cover page states the goal of
the briefing -- namely,
to affect a "Positive Change to the Family Team" -- and
features a picture
of two smiling children (a generic photo, not actual family
members).

Now, you may have thought about your family as a "team"
before, but probably
not in the sense of actually being out to win something. But
this family
is indeed out to win many things, as described in Claire's
bulleted list:
harmony, happiness, love, etc. And what's holding them back
from a winning streak?
Page 4 offers another list: negative behavior, "fighting and
squabbling at inappropriate
times," lack of cooperation, disorganization.

You get the idea. What's amazing here is how effective these
presentations
articulate how a smoothly family unit should run. How can a
teenager slack off when a chart clearly shows how
"disorganization
leads to inefficiencies that impact the entire family"?

This is odd because -- as most everyone who uses Microsoft
PowerPoint,
the software used to make slides and briefing charts for
corporate meetings,
knows on some level -- PowerPoint is not actually used to
communicate ideas,
but rather to not communicate ideas.

Forget the Microsoft Web site
ad copy
about how PowerPoint helps one
"organize,
illustrate, and deliver your ideas professionally." It's not
used for anything of the sort. Here's
how to use PowerPoint: You, Mr. or Ms. Middle Manager, are
assigned to
give a presentation about something that, in all likelihood,
you didn't
have time to think through beforehand because you were out
late last night
getting drunk with the intern. So, hung over, you click some
meaningless
buzzwords onto some charts and, come meeting time, read off
the charts,
tossing in a few pointless asides to pad the show timewise.
A PowerPoint
slide presentation, with its neatly ordered bullets; generic
clip art;
bold, clear typefaces; and bright, unambiguous colors
effectively hides
the fact that you don't have all that much to say.

Which is perfect, because your co-workers don't want to
hear what you
have to say anyway. Much better to avoid trying to make
sense of what the
bozo in the front of the room is droning on about and
instead stare blandly
into a briefing chart while daydreaming about that hottie
back at your own office.

Truth is, nothing provides a patina of productivity
better than a PowerPoint
presentation. Demanding little raw data and no emotion, such
presentations
gloss over the messiness and pointlessness of much of
business life.

So people who take this stuff too seriously worry me. See, I
happen
to know that Claire, despite the respect she commands in her
profession,
enjoyed a wild youth, and that at least one of her offspring
is showing
signs of possessing that rebellion gene -- at least if wearing
black is any indication.
So it concerned me that PowerMom might be using
her charts to sublimate that essential yet unseemly undertow
of her children's
unconscious -- the universal dark side of human behavior that
impels otherwise
productive people to get drunk, lust after interns, and
leave the garbage unemptied.
Was she really trying to gloss over her own progeny's wanton
behavior? Mold them,
presentation by presentation, into two of those insufferable
"organization kids" described in this month's Atlantic
Monthly
-- robo-youth whose lives are filled with
activities
and appointments aimed only at self-improvement and
resume-building?

Well, Claire may be a little too influenced by
business-speak, but she
holds no illusions that her point-packed presentation has
any value beyond
simple annoyance. "Oh, they absolutely can't stand it," she
confides, laughing
not a little at her brood's reaction to the family
briefings. It's not
like the kids actually learn anything from the charts and
bullet lists,
she says, but "all I have to do is mention them and they
calm down." Her
youngest actually breaks out in tears when the charts are
handed out. Evidently,
lecturing on how to "streamline the family process" is more
painful than
revoking TV time or docking allowances.

But the charts do serve a higher purpose, Claire says. "I
figure when
[my kids] grow up and go out in the work force, they'll be
so traumatized
by these presentations, they will refuse to use them," she
says, maybe
weary of making a few too many herself.

Ah, the crazy wisdom of the corporate mom.

NewsForge editors read and respond to comments posted on our discussion page.

Click Here!