Death by PowerPoint

It continues to be a real hazard of military—and civilian—life.
Death by PowerPoint
A Navy reserve briefing. (JO1(SW) Greg Cleghorne, U.S.Navy)
Battlefields Staff


I’m sure that nearly everyone has heard the term “death by PowerPoint,” and just as many have suffered through those hour-long nightmare briefings where you consider faking going into labor just to get out of the room. And you’re a male. It’s been an ongoing problem in both the military and civilian worlds, almost from the beginning when it was created in 1987 by Robert Gaskins and Dennis Austin. But don’t blame them for all the lost hours of your life—blame the people using it. And blame those above them for enabling the problem to continue.

My question is this. Why are there so many people giving briefings who are absolutely clueless as to how to create and deliver a good one? The military prides itself on clear and concise communications and yet seems unable to apply those rules for briefings. Why is that? Think about this for a moment. List the number of briefings and the number of people-hours consumed in your unit for a calendar year.

Now multiply that by the whole of the Department of Defense (DoD). It becomes very clear that briefings are a major element of military life, so you’d think that there would be training given to officers and non-commissioned officers about how to create and give a good briefing. If there are courses, they are either wrong or they’re not being widely applied afterward.

How do I know that? Because “death by PowerPoint” is still a real deal, and most of you know that what I’m saying is true. 

Here are three personal accounts regarding briefings and then I’ll follow up with some helpful hints.

In early 2004, I was TDY (temporary duty) to Edwards Air Force base as a representative of the F-22 systems program office. The program was in a critical phase getting ready to enter initial operating capability (IOC). Every morning there was a briefing to the local colonel about the status of the jets and progress towards IOC. A handful of folks had certain areas of responsibility that they had to brief in the meeting. One of these people was a hapless captain who sat by me and always got shut down by the colonel as soon as he started his slide deck.

The colonel would get very agitated and cut him off with just a “next briefer!” The captain was visibly crushed and had no clue what he was doing wrong. The essence of the problem was that all his briefing was page after page of huge Excel spreadsheets. You couldn’t even read them on his laptop, let alone on a projected image. And they didn’t say anything useful to most of the people in the room. I pulled the captain aside afterward and offered assistance and told him a little about my background. He agreed and sent me the files and in about an hour created a new briefing for him.

I boiled all those spreadsheets down into six bullet points on two slides. When he looked at it, he freaked out and asked what would happen if the colonel wanted to see the data in the spreadsheets? I told him to have them ready to pull up in a separate file, but I guaranteed that the colonel wouldn’t ask.

He was still balking until I just told him that if the colonel was unhappy with the new format, then I would stand up and take the blame. He reluctantly used the new format the next morning. The colonel perked up and then said, “Finally, you gave me some useful information. Great job, Captain!” Strangely enough, the following day the captain moved to another part of the conference room, wouldn’t make eye contact and avoided me. I guess he couldn’t deal with an old Air National Guard master sergeant crew chief helping him out. Who knows, maybe he is a colonel now. If so, I hope he grew out of his ego.

U.S. Air Force F16 fighter jets fly in formation during U.S.-Philippines joint air force exercises, dubbed Cope Thunder, at Clark Air Base in Mabalacat, Pampanga province, Philippines, on May 9, 2023. (Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)
U.S. Air Force F16 fighter jets fly in formation during U.S.-Philippines joint air force exercises, dubbed Cope Thunder, at Clark Air Base in Mabalacat, Pampanga province, Philippines, on May 9, 2023. (Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

My second account also occurred while I was in the F-22 program, but this event happened while I was at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, where the F-22 SPO (system program office) is based. At the last minute (two days’ notice) I was asked to go present at a week-long safety meeting regarding two safety issues that the aircraft had. My PowerPoint was five slides. Title, two pictures, two slides with five bullet points each. It took me 30 minutes to make and six minutes to deliver.

The colonel in charge was so elated that he asked if I could stay for the remaining four days of the conference. “I’m sorry sir, as much as I would like to (lie), I have a brand new second lieutenant assigned to me back at the office. And we all know how helpless new butterbars are!”

Everyone laughed harder than what I thought the joke deserved and the colonel said, “Oh yes, we ALL know that!”

My confusion changed to realization as I started to leave the room, because there at the end of the table was a brand new second lieutenant sitting at attention in his dress blues. He was turning beet red and as I passed, I said, “Sorry lieutenant, but I guess offense intended.”

Everyone laughed harder and so did he. Later I asked my newbie lieutenant to check up on him since they knew each other, and word came back that he was fine and happy that he had a great story about some old master sergeant crew chief who had insulted him in a high-level briefing. It had actually removed some of the tension he was feeling.

Lastly, we come to a few years later to when I made E-8 and was appointed quality assurance chief inspector in an A-10 unit. There was a quarterly briefing, which normally lasted a few hours with multiple presenters and included the aircraft maintenance group and the operations group (pilots). I had attended these briefings prior to being promoted and the QA portion normally took thirty minutes and had about the same number of slides.

My chief (E-9) told me that I would be doing the briefing from then on because it was the chief inspector’s job and not his. I asked if I could run it the way I wanted to, and he said that was okay with him. The QA portion of the next quarterly took about seven minutes. I told people that I was only covering things that were issues and if I didn’t talk about something then that meant the status was good. I had five slides in total. The room was stunned when I finished so quickly, asked for questions (there were none) and sat back down. Afterward, the commander approached me and told me that the briefing was excellent and that he wished everyone would do theirs that way.

On the way back to the shop after the next quarterly briefing, my E-9 told me to stop doing them that way because it made our shop look like it wasn’t doing any work. I laughed at him and then realized he was serious. He took the briefing back after that and started doing them again himself.

So, what lessons can we learn here?

Know Your Audience

Understand the specific needs and interests of those you’re briefing and tailor your content to that. An engineering group may need to know what metal a particular aircraft part is made from. A general in charge of the whole acquisition program normally doesn’t because they are just interested in the 30,000 foot view. They have people down in the weeds handling the minute details. And a group of aircraft mechanics will just get hostile if you put useless info to them in your briefing.

The main problem that lots of briefers have is that they aren’t presenting to impart critical information, they are briefing with the intent to impress others with their depth of knowledge on a given subject. It’s a time to look good in front of the boss or other influential people who can help their career. If you disagree, then please explain the reason for someone saying, “Just to piggyback on what the boss just said ...” And sometimes multiple people will piggyback on the piggyback. Why in the world do you think you look like a good leader by repeating what was just said? Truth be told, all your subordinates are mentally, and sometimes literally, rolling their eyes.

And in all fairness, briefers often create presentations based on what they’ve seen others do. They have just never been taught the right way to do it. A misdrawn blueprint results in lots of defective aircraft parts.

So, customize your briefings to things that people truly need to know that they don’t already know. Think back to all the briefings you’ve attended where you already knew 90 percent of the info. So why do we insist on covering stuff people already know? Fire extinguisher training was a mandatory annual requirement in the Air Force. I had to take it 38 times. Honestly? If I didn’t get it by the third year, I sure wasn’t going to understand it at year 38. And how many people brief the content of an e-mail that everyone got the week before?

Be Concise and to the Point

Present only the most critical information and avoid unnecessary details. That applies no matter who you are briefing. Just because you find it interesting, Cliff Claven, doesn’t mean everyone else does. Details and supporting data should reside elsewhere, not in your PowerPoint. And should you be tempted to add an “interesting tidbit,” don’t. Just don’t. Say what you gotta say and then sit down. Period.

Be Transparent and Honest

One of the biggest fears of doing a briefing is the fear of being asked a question that you don’t know the answer to. Briefers are afraid that they will appear incompetent, and this leads to massive PowerPoint slide decks that cover every single detail in an attempt to proactively reduce any uncomfortable questions.

Here’s a little hint. You will gain credibility by saying that you don’t know the answer, but you will find out and communicate it back via e-mail or at the next meeting. The absolute worst thing to do is make something up because there is often someone who does know the answer but keeps quiet. They will then tell everyone else that you made something up and your credibility will be shot.

The funny thing is that often when you offer to find the answer and get back to everyone, the person who asked the question will often say not to do that. Basically, the question wasn’t really that important to them. It makes you wonder if it wasn’t that important, then why did they ask it in the first place? I can think of a few reasons but that’s another article.

Avoid sugarcoating or providing misleading information. Sugarcoating information shows a lack of integrity and is a prime indicator of careerism. And it’s detrimental to the force and the country we serve. I will say no more except to say that sugarcoating is another term for deceit, and deceit is another term for lying. Integrity and lies cannot coexist.

Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, participates in a joint press briefing at the close of the eighth Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Jan. 20, 2023. (Tech. Sgt. Jack Sanders, U.S. Air Force)
Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, participates in a joint press briefing at the close of the eighth Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Jan. 20, 2023. (Tech. Sgt. Jack Sanders, U.S. Air Force)

Stick to Time Constraints

Stick to the allotted time frame or better yet, finish more quickly. Remember why the Gettysburg address was so powerful. One reason was because of its brevity. The orators of the era would speak for literally hours at a time. Lincoln spoke for a few minutes.

Listen—generally speaking, people hate briefings, and the longer you go, the more they are going to hate it and shut down. In effect, you are talking to an audience who isn’t listening. In what world does that make sense?

Also, if you go long, you force the others following you to rush, or even possibly have their briefing cut out. I’ve had this happen to me and let me tell you, I didn’t have nice thoughts about that windbag who rambled on about meeting Chuck Yeager at an airshow, and the presentation I worked on for weeks was cut due to time. It’s just plain humiliating and crushes morale. If you can’t stick to briefing time allotments, then please, in the name of General Curtis LeMay, please delegate to someone who can. 

Have a Valid Reason for a Briefing/Meeting

I guess this one is the most critical. How many briefings/meetings do you attend on an annual basis that are a complete waste of time, you don’t learn anything new, or most of the information doesn’t apply to you? Eighty percent? Sixty percent? Here’s the question. If any of the above are happening, then why are we having those meetings/briefings? Oftentimes it’s just because we always had the meetings, and they are just habit. In other cases, it’s a way for the boss to interact with her/his kingdom and to be seen by his or her boss as doing “boss” work.

In one of my groups, I told my people that we were halting regular meetings and the only time we would meet formally was when there was something big or concerning happening that we needed to discuss as a group. Otherwise, I had an open-door policy, and my folks could come into my office literally any time the door was open. Exceptions were if someone else was in there or I was on the phone or hadn’t had my second cup of coffee yet. Lol! We had all the communication we needed and only met a few times a year when events dictated. Nobody complained about a lack of meetings.

I’ve often said that if I was ever in charge of the DoD or a corporation, my first order would be for everyone to provide a list of all their meetings and briefings. Then reduce the number by 50 percent in the next 90 days. Then, in the following 90 days, reduce the duration of the remaining meetings by 50 percent. Be honest here. Would doing that have any detrimental effect on the force? Do you suppose that it might actually boost morale? If there isn’t a good reason for a briefing/meeting, then cut it.

But I guess that those who brief to look knowledgeable or to look like boss material might not like a reduction.

Otherwise, how would they shine?

This article was first published in The Havok Journal.

The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Dave Chamberlin served 38 years in the USAF and Air National Guard as an aircraft crew chief, where he retired as a CMSgt. He has held a wide variety of technical, instructor, consultant, and leadership positions in his more than 40 years of civilian and military aviation experience. Dave holds an Airframe and Powerplant license from the FAA, as well as a master's degree in aeronautical science. He currently runs his own consulting and training company and has written for numerous trade publications. His true passion is exploring and writing about issues facing the military, and in particular, aircraft maintenance personnel.
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