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By Joab Jackson | Posted 3/28/2001

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 realize why their misbehavior is so 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? 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 are at articulating how smoothly a family unit should run, in theory anyway. 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 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 intern.

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. Truly it's Microsoft's gift to the business world--a product that weaves illusions of efficiency in order to keep everyone sane.

And 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 that rebellion gene. So it concerned me that she 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 in the kitchen so we can watch South Park. Was she really trying to mold her progeny, 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 résumé-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 get anything out of 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 PowerPoint presentations herself.

Ah, the crazy wisdom of the corporate mom.

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