death and counterinsurgency by powerpoint

April 27, 2010

Today’s New York Times features an article, “We Have Met the enemy and He Is PowerPoint” that became the day’s most emailed piece. It features a complex diagram designed to present the relationships that shape counterinsurgency dynamics. This isn’t even a new story: as my colleague John Sterman reminds me, it was in the news last year. John argues that the story offers a good illustration of the poverty of the mental models most people hold and suggests checking out Stephen Colbert’s quite funny piece about this, Afghandyland.

I have to say I got many messages about the NYT article myself!  Why the interest?  In my circle, it’s partly because the author conflates the complexity of a causal loop diagram designed to capture a full spectrum of COIN, or counterinsurgency, policies and dynamics with the use of powerpoint. I’m happy to critique powerpoint–in fact, it’s been a bit of a theme for me these past five years–but I also don’t want to unfairly blame the medium for problems in presenting dynamic complexity.

First, on presentations as the method of sharing ideas and work. We are seeing how important powerpoint is everywhere, even in my students’ class projects this semester where some of our project clients want only powerpoints. The form is, clearly, here to stay, at least for the present–Tufte’s earnest injunctions notwithstanding (check out his monograph with the enticing subtitle “Pitching Out Corrupts Within”). For some useful advice, feel free to check out some great blog posts (such as this one from Lifehacker),  aptly-titled books like “Death by Powerpoint,” and my favorite, Garr Reynolds. And get better at using powerpoint. Try new things, experiment, iterate, weed out what doesn’t work.  Run your presentations by a “murder board” of peers or colleagues. In almost every case, you’ll need to cut slides and words, simplify diagrams, and leave off things.

The result will be slide decks that are even less self-explanatory when they stand on their own (this is something I learned from MIT’s Woodie Flowers, who argues that you need to create live interactions for learning that cannot be captured by other materials). Woodie’s powerpoints make no sense without him there.

But if we are trying to pare down, simplify, and present ideas more succinctly and compellingly, we are in a quandary when we realize that powerpoint is one of the most widespread genres for sharing and recording work, at least for now. And as infographics become more influential (and fun!), we’re drawn to images over words and stories. In the debate over healthcare reform, for instance, dense diagrams are key tools, as these images show.

How to deal with the challenges of presenting dynamic complexity in ways that live on beyond the interpersonal interactions of, say, a classroom or client presentation? If the slide deck is the trail you leave behind you, how on earth do you present a system dynamics model using one? We’re beginning to see more explanatory videos (example). Is this the new method of disseminating and discussing dynamically complex ideas?

I don’t think that there are simple answers.  Embedding models in decks may be one solution. Presenting the model carefully and part-by-part may be another. Take a look at others’ presentation decks, and borrow what works. Put your documentation in hidden slides or appendices. Or post more detailed material online and place the url on every slide.

If your material is online, that’s another story, as it’s getting easier to post hosted models that can be simulated using java. People are experimenting with online interactive diagrams: see this one on obesity. But can such a complex set of loops and relationships stand on its own?

Any other suggestions?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Mona Masghati April 28, 2010 at 1:40 pm

In the absence of an existing well designed interactive UI in the SD community, I favor showing the model piece by piece.

I looked for better tools than Venism. Tools like Forio neglect the importance of seeing the full causal loop diagram in favor of a text based language: the best visual tool by Forio allows only seeing one node at a time. That is unacceptable.

One of the key factors that limits SD’s adoption is the lack usability.

The now famous PA model had no place being presented as is to a client because it doe snot convey information effectively in the context of the powerpoint format.

The recent debates about this chart confuse the usefulness of SD with the lack usefulness of the UI.

What is much needed is the SD community to take the lead on this crisis and invest in better UI rather than accept the status quo Vensim and other similar tools represent.

We, at MIT, have enough experts to teach us that human-computer interfaces matter, yet we continue to accept the deplorable state of UI for SD modeling.

David Quinn April 29, 2010 at 9:21 am

An interesting open-source software that enables a more mind-map style of presentation is Visual Understanding Environment (VUE) ( ). I think Forio ( ) is a useful way of sharing some of the insights from System Dynamics models and it is possible to import a Vensim model using their software. Although it is easy to share Forio models as they can be published with a CC license, I don’t think it is possible to convert a Forio model back into Vensim.

Anjali Sastry April 29, 2010 at 4:28 pm

I looked up comments on the NYT site. Among over 700, there’s one that appears to have come from someone who was at the presentation of this slide deck:

While I agree in principle, the brief that went along with that slide was one of the best I’ve ever seen. The slide was a “build slide” that took a full hour to “build” as the lecture was delivered. Taking it out of context and just showing the spaghetti slide is silly. It was not meant as a stand alone slide. It was widely hailed as a fantastic brief (and was briefed at the highest levels) and only derided by those who never heard the accompanying lecture.


So, the deck makes sense while you’re there. Maybe the lesson is never to let your powerpoints go anywhere without you? If you are there, David’s suggestion about VUE is interesting; also take a look at Cmap and a blog post I found on the topic.

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