What the US Military can teach you about better presentations

The US Military can teach us the influential impact of a single presentation – how to communicate a complex message in a simple way to millions of people. They can also teach us how not to do PowerPoint – how laughably bad presentations can distract people from a message, however important it is.

In this article, we’ll look at two of the US Military’s most famous PowerPoint presentations. Despite their huge differences, both have made a massive impact. Both discuss significant global conflict. People have shared both throughout the world. I will explain what concepts make one much better than the other. What are the simple and small differences that make them better presentations. Before that, let’s get a quick overview of both examples.

Better PowerPoint Presentation Number 1 – Afghanistan Stability / COIN Dynamics

People immediately criticized this US military presentation when shown in Kabul in 2009. The internet rapidly passed it around. And it developed a reputation as one of the worst PowerPoint presentations of all time. It even inspired the New York Times to write a year anniversary piece about it, discussing the pitfalls of modern-day PowerPoint. So what was so wrong with it?

Click here to see it!

It outlines the Afghan conflict in an impenetrably complicated way. Including every no-go PowerPoint rule out there, meaning is lost in exaggerated diagrams and oversimplified statistics. The text is tiny and unreadable. The visuals are unengaging. The format is disorganized. In fact, the hilarious terribleness of the PowerPoint distracts the audience entirely from its message.

This disaster of a presentation is now a prime example of what not to do.

Better PowerPoint Presentation Number 2 – How to Win in Anbar

In 2006, Captain Travis Patriquin created a PowerPoint to change the world. The internet similarly circulated his presentation “How to Win in Anbar”. It tells a simple story from the perspective of a stick figure soldier called Joe. It introduces the different members of the conflict, also as stick figures. Joe gets to know local Sunni tribes in Iraq. They then join forces to fight against al Qaeda.

This presentation inspired the “Sunni Awakening,” a real militant strategy and movement that effectively resolved conflict in Iraq.

Patriquin disregards all typical military presentation techniques. But his unique style is incredibly powerful. Through illustrations, the focus is on the story. There is no militant jargon; everyone can grasp the idea presented. It is easily one of the most influential PowerPoints of all time.

Now, let’s look at the three main concepts dividing these PowerPoint presentations. I will outline the core differences that determine why one is better than the other.

Simplicity VS Complexity

Complexity Loses

The complexity of the Afghan PowerPoint was not accidental. Creators designed it to portray the complexity of the conflict in Afghanistan. But with a slide so horrifically complicated, it fails to portray anything at all.

Stanley McChrystal said, “”when we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war”. Basically, if the leader of US forces in Afghanistan doesn’t understand a PowerPoint about US forces in Afghanistan, then it’s too complicated.

Simplicity Wins

In contrast, Patriquin’s PowerPoint shows how simplicity can inspire massive change. By sticking to a basic plot, he encourages the audience to listen to his message – and message is key. Everything else, diagrams, visuals, text, should be there only to support your core idea. Let your audience feel in control. Let them feel like they understand. Keep it simple and you keep it effective.

Storytelling VS Information

Information Loses

Information isn’t a bad thing. You want your listeners informed. But reducing something significant in people’s lives, like war, to data dismisses an important human narrative. When you remove the subtle details and emotive voices behind a topic, something sterile and misunderstood remains. Storytelling acknowledges perspective. It acknowledges emotions, lives, and experiences. Especially in a military context, recognizing human stories is very important.

As General McMaster says: “Rigid lists of bullet points…take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces…If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise.”

Reducing individual voices behind the Afghan conflict to data and bullet points creates a detached and feckless approach to war. All too common in militant history.

Storytelling Wins

The best thing about the “How to Win in Anbar” presentation is the story. A single character immediately draws you in. It’s amazing how easily invested we become in the life of stick figure. How interested we become in finding out what happens to him. By engaging with a level of emotive reaction in the audience, Patriquin hooks us to the core idea.

Storytelling is one of the key pieces of advice for a great presentation. And this PowerPoint does it perfectly.

Text VS Visuals

Text Loses

Again, a bit of text isn’t a bad thing. Words can solidify a concept or grab attention. But visuals have twice the impact in half the time. One of the main mistakes of the Afghanistan Stability presentation is tiny text. It goes way over the 15-words-per-slide rule. Instead, the overload of meaningless buzzwords is confusing.

The attempt to organize chaos through color is totally lost. The font is too small, boring and close together. Along with no visual support, there is no way the audience will read it all. All the effort creating headers and titles is wasted.

Visuals Wins

Patriquin centers his presentation on visuals. It does include text. But the words are only there to support to illustrations, which are the core of the message. His simple but strong visuals dictate the story. We are compelled to keep following, thanks to the fun and often funny illustrations.

He takes a difficult and complex subject and puts it into terms everybody can understand. Like a comic strip or a children’s book, these visuals capture the imagination. They abandon the association of presentations as dull or boring. Through an innovative and unique visual style, this PowerPoint makes the impact it desired.

What has the US Military taught us about better presentations?

The US Military has exhibited both fantastic and awful PowerPoints. These have taught us the different impacts of good and bad presentations. A good presentation made a positive change that influenced an entire war. A bad presentation circled the internet as a laughing piece.

The aftereffects of a presentation are crucial. For the Afghanistan Stability presentation, the result of overcomplicating is a lack of action. People don’t want to act on information they don’t fully understand. However, the military did act upon the straightforward strategy put forward by Patriquin. His visually engaging story was both real and inspiring.

Especially for the US military, action is important. But it is also important to businesses, salespeople, and anyone trying to send out a message. You want your listeners to act upon your idea. So next time you want to create better presentations, remember these two US Military PowerPoints.

Remember the potential of your message.

Remember the massive impact made by a single powerful presentation.