The “Briefing”

A retired defense expert takes a humorous tour of the world of presentations these days

7 min read
Image: Peter Norvig
Image: Peter Norvig
“We are put on this earth to give and receive briefings.”

Many years ago, folks would have a meeting and one or more would present some subject—orally—and, maybe, draw something on the blackboard or show a chart that conveyed some technical or business data. Or one could go to a conference and folks would present papers and give reports of studies— orally. Sometimes to convey the message, it was necessary to include a picture, a graph, an equation, a chart, or a table. If the conference was large, that information had to be projected onto a big screen. For this, 35-millimeter slides were used. Preparation of these slides was sufficiently difficult that they were only used when necessary to convey key information.

All that’s gone. Now we have briefings where the presenter reads words projected on a screen or, even worse, asks the audience to read them. Even at the smallest gathering, any person asked beforehand to say a few words on some subject prepares such a briefing.

What happened? How did we give up logic and data to descend into this morass of pointless words, buzz phrases, and gimmicky artwork? In short, the briefing! And now, even worse, the PowerPoint briefing? And, more importantly, how do we get out of it?

Looking back over the years, it’s now clear that it all started with the overhead projector, the Viewgraph machine, which provided an easy way to project material, especially words—not information, just words—on a large screen.

Now, I have a confession to make. I bear some responsibility for this tragedy. Back in the 1950s, when the U.S. first got stirred up about defending itself from Soviet bombers with nuclear weapons, I worked at Airborne Instruments Laboratory (AIL). Among our various programs was a small effort supporting the Air Defense Command (ADC). It should be noted that this national concern led directly to the creation of two of the nation's valuable institutions: Lincoln Labs and the Mitre Corporation.

One of our tasks was to evaluate several Air Force developments, including a device that projected radar plots onto a large board. As the leader of this effort, I was trying to figure out some way of projecting relevant status information—such as ready interceptors, call signs, frequencies—on the side of the same board. In a search of optical magazines, I came across a machine made by a small company in New Jersey. It was called a Vu-graph projector. It was a large boxy thing with a nice black paint finish and good optics. It also had a roll of plastic that one could write on with a grease pencil. The ad showed a professor lecturing to a large class and writing on the plastic roll while deriving some equation. After a few lines, he could turn a crank and roll to a fresh part. All of this was projected on a large screen above and behind him and, thus, visible to and readable by a large class. I bought one of these, and we set it up to project various kinds of semi-static information that would be of interest to the senior military officers and controllers viewing the overall situation.

One day, a couple of bright young ADC captains stopped by to review the program. (By the way, it's always the bright young folks in every field who bring about change, usually for the better—although not so in this case.) They asked many good questions about the program but seemed especially taken with that Vu-graph projector, noting the name and manufacturer. A couple months later, I visited their command headquarters to get a fill in on various issues and—lo and behold—there was one of the machines. Then the commanding officer, a well-tanned colonel, got up with a stack of transparencies and gave what I believe was the very first “modern” military briefing!

After that came fancier projectors—in colored cases, some with a built-in spare bulb, some quite portable. This was followed by the use of two screens with two briefers—the so-called “dog-and-pony” approach. And the practice spread from the military to its contractors; to federal, state, and local government groups at all levels; to all types of industries and their many associations and even to most nations. It’s impossible to attend any meeting, even with as few as a half dozen folks gathered around a table, without receiving one or more briefings.

And so it has gone with the final descent into the content-free world of the computer-driven PowerPoint briefing. It is a fact: the surest and quickest way to remove the content from a report is to put it on PowerPoint. In a typical PowerPoint briefing, the briefer just reads the lines on each chart and occasionally adds some additional material. Further, the briefing is rarely put together by the briefer. So, it’s not uncommon for some puzzled, poorly prepared briefer who you later realize doesn’t know the subject and is very likely seeing some of the graphics for the first time, to say, “I’ll just let you read this slide.” Furthermore, these briefings are filled with the current crop of hackneyed buzzwords and phrases. (As someone once said, “There’s a cult of ‘bad is good enough’.”)

I want to—here and now—publicly apologize for my role, small though it was, in creating this monster.

It must be noted that occasionally someone strikes back. In his book describing the overhaul of IBM ( Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? Inside IBM’s Turnaround [2000]), Louis Gerstner tells of an early visit to one of IBM’s major operations. When the general manager was on the second “foil” of his briefing, Gerstner relates, “I stepped to the table and, as politely as I could in front of his team, switched off the projector. After a long moment of awkward silence, I simply said, ‘Let’s just talk about your business.’”

Edward Tufte has written three books on the subject of graphical display of information and has developed the concepts of chart junk and a measure of content, the data to ink ratio. “Chart junk comprises all ingredients of a figure that do not convey information, such as elaborate artwork, complicated grids and corporate branding elements,” he writes. “In effective illustrations, most of the ink should be used to display data, not graphical junk.” In his latest book, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, Tufte notes, “The available templates make it easy to create slides in which graphical junk overwhelms information.”

PowerPoint makes it easy to create attractive logos, but even when the artwork is pretty good, one must be careful with the choice of words. For example, in these days of precision weapons, this new Air Force logo, seems somewhat inappropriate!

Moreover, just think what might have been if PowerPoint had existed 150 years ago. On his delightfully irreverent Web site (www.norvig.com), Peter Norvig shows a six-chart PowerPoint briefing for the Gettysburg Address, ending with this summary chart.

Can’t you just picture President Lincoln saying to the audience at Gettysburg, “I’'ll just let you read this slide”?

Of course, one of the principal problems is the constant overuse of buzzwords and phrases. You know: synergy, 24/7, outa-the-box, et cetera.

One of the new favorites is serendipity, whose origin is interesting and not widely known. Many years ago, Sri Lanka, before it was Ceylon, was called Serendip. The English writer, Horace Walpole, wrote a story called “The Three Princes of Serendip.” In the story, these three guys wandered around and kept making marvelous discoveries by accident. From that, Walpole coined the word serendipity.

Now there are some phrases that should be used more. My favorite is Serbonian Bog. This bog is a large marshy tract in the northern part of ancient Egypt into which large armies entered and were swallowed up entirely, never to be heard from again. I find it a useful and accurate description of the Department of Defense Operational Test & Evaluation (OT&E) process. An acceptable substitute term would be “black hole.”

There are serious efforts being made to counter the growth of content-free briefings. Several companies have briefings (!) or even courses on presenting information sensibly. All these efforts have helped and will help more in time. However, laudatory as they are, their total impact on the briefing scene is ecologically comparable to removing a few clams from Pismo Beach.

Something much more dramatic is needed; something that reaches down into the hapless audience and causes them to react in such a way that the briefer receives an unambiguous, unforgettable message.

A careful analysis has indicated that no amount of writing or lecturing about the problem will bring about a solution; that some form of shock treatment will be required to effect the major change so desperately needed. The only person available to shock is, of course, the briefer and, indirectly, his boss or bosses in attendance. Repeatedly making briefers understand in a “loud and clear” way that those briefings are intolerable and have no content should cause a major reexamination of the entire issue of transfer and interchange of information, thereby bringing about the demise of the current briefing.

Fortunately for all, a technique has been invented to provide this shock. This “solution” has come from the most logical of sources, the Internet. It will send a clear, unambiguous message to the perpetrator. The identity of its inventor or inventors is not known to me, but I fervently hope that he/she/they would be in serious contention for the Nobel Prize.

Here’s the drill:

Step 1. Get a 5"x5" card.

Step 2. Divide the card into columns and rows: five across and five down, giving 25 one-inch blocks.

Step 3. Place one of the standard overworked words or phrases in each randomly selected block. Here's an example:

Image: Anonymous
Figure 3. Bull Hockey.

Step 4. Pass out different versions of the card to a number of attendees.

Step 5. The first person to fill out five in a row—up, down or diagonally—yells: “Bull hockey!”

Just imagine the reaction of the briefer and his or her bosses. That person or that organization will never, ever, ever again give a “briefing” like that.

The first target should be the Pentagon. If this Bull Hockey operation were carried out for 10 percent of the estimated ten thousand briefings given daily, mathematical analysis shows that the entire scene would disappear in three months. (Speaking of the Pentagon, most people are unaware that the word derives from an ancient Greek word— pentagonia —which means cost overrun.)

Once the Pentagon saw the light, the word would quickly spread to all the commands and agencies, and from them to other branches of government. While this was happening, the defense industry would quickly fall in line. Non-defense industry, which adopted the approach from the defense folks in the first place, would rapidly follow suit. Further, NATO, which has always humored the U.S., would gladly change to a more civilized form of information transfer, perhaps in French. World businesses, noting the dramatic improvement in U.S. productivity and not wanting to give a leg up to U.S. industry, would also quickly “deep six” the briefing.

All that needs doing is to go out and do it! So let’s get going!

About the Author

IEEE Fellow Charles A. “Bert” Fowler of C.A. Fowler Associates has been a consultant to industry and government since 1986. His major field is electronics, with specialties in radar; command, control, and communications (C3); counter-C3; intelligence; and military systems. He has held a wide range of industrial positions, most recently as senior vice president of MITRE Corp. He was a member of the Defense Science Board (Chair 1984-1988) and the Defense Intelligence Agency, Science and Technology Advisory Board (Chair 1976-1982); and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

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