Tufte In Denver - Recap

I had the opportunity to see Edward Tufte present his one-day seminar on Presenting Data and Information yesterday in Denver. It was a great presentation and well worth the entry fee.


In addition to the 6+ hours of lecture-style presentation, each attendee also received copies of all four of Tufte’s visualization books, including the newly release Beautiful Evidence. Some thoughts:


1. Tufte himself is an engaging presenter. He’s constantly on the move and, as you’d expect from a professor who spends a great deal of time presenting, is very comfortable in front of a large group. You can tell that he’s presented the material a hundred times, but he still avoids sounding bored or appearing to “go through the motions.”


2. He didn’t rely much on “props” or technology (and doesn’t need to). Over the course of the day, there were maybe a dozen different images presented on two very large screens — but I’m pretty sure they were all photographs. There were no slides at all (see more about that below). He had a few physical props he showed, including original first edition prints of the Euclid and a Galileo collection. These latter two were walked around by Tufte and then by two assistants for people on the aisles to see, but the relevant pages had been photographed and were displayed on the two screens for everyone.


3. Most of the content was well prepared and meticulously presented. He presents several “Principles of Information Design” from Beautiful Evidence and spends a good deal of time on each principle. Most of what he was presenting was available throughout his books, so we spent a fair amount of timing flipping to certain pages so he could speak to some of the images and ideas he’d written about. More on this “books as handouts” below. Later in the presentation, we spent a good deal of time looking at technical presentations that had been given at NASA before and after the Columbia and Challenger shuttle disasters.


4. I’m not sure when/if he got a break. During each break we took (one mid-morning break and then an hour for lunch), he would sit at a table off to the side for “office hours.” We could go to him with questions or to have him autograph one of his books. He was doing this in the morning during registration, as well as at the end (for the brief time I was there). As a germophobe myself, I found it interesting that he kept a small container of Purell hand sanitizer nearby at all times. It occurred to me later that if you’re shaking a lot of hands or handling a lot of other people’s books, you probably want to clean your own hands regularly — especially before handling first edition books that are hundreds of years old.


5. Tufte is no fan of PowerPoint (note: extreme understatement). For that matter, he’s no fan of any technology “crutch” a presenter might use, but PowerPoint is that crutch most of the time so its gets the bulk of his criticism. His concerns include:


  • Most slides are poorly written. As he put it, “the sentence has served us well for thousands of years and now we’re using a tool that demands bulletpoints with abbreviations and shorthand.”

  • Most presenters rely too much on their slides to be their message. He gave various examples of PowerPoint slides being used as the entirety of documentation for some projects (including NASA, where he’s since served as a consultant).

  • Most presenters simply read their slides for their presentation, which is also my personal pet peeve. He put it well that “nobody got to be the boss by being a slow reader… so don’t read to them.” I find it maddening that most presenters who don’t present fulltime will too often read their slides. He provided some stats that most of us can read several hundred words per minute, yet we only speak 100 or so… explaining why you always say “ugh… read faster” when sitting through a technical presenter reading their slides.

  • Most of the images and design “phluff” (his term from Beautiful Evidence) in PowerPoint presentations isn’t aesthetically pleasing and it detracts from the message.

  • Most of the charts/graphs that people use (true for PowerPoint and elsewhere) don’t have enough data points or density to be interesting. They’re only slightly more useful than the same information in tabular form. This was a theme earlier in the day during his “Principles of Information Design,” but the ease with which PowerPoint and other software lets us create charts worsens the problem.

  • The final point is the one I found most interesting. If your entire presentation depends on the message being delivered via PowerPoint slides, your message will rarely be received in its entirety. Meetings get sidetracked. “The boss” likes to ask questions that lead to tangents. People show up late or leave early. Schedules get conflicted. By the end of your deck, the entirety of your message has likely NOT been received by all the people you’d like.

So rather than depend on the slides you’ve prepared, Tufte suggest a short handout. His suggestion was a single sheet of 11x17 paper that can be folded in half to yield a 4–page document. Paper has higher resolution than any display, making it easier to organize and present a great deal of information in a relatively small space — especially if the charts/images you use are effective (a single picture worth a million data points).

In doing this, you can speak briefly to your message knowing that everyone in the room has all the information you want them to have — even if they arrive late, leave early, or get sidetracked by tangential questions. Let them read ahead while you present your message… It means they’re interested. A handout also means they can make notes and have something to refer back to later (or read through again when the next presenter is slowly reading through their own PowerPoint slides).

What goes on that 11x17 piece of paper? For that, you’d want to refer back to his books and those Principles of Information Design.

Toward the end of the day, the anti-PowerPoint angle grew a bit old but he had enough distinct arguments and good examples that it wasn’t too bad.

I did come away thinking that if I were the PM for PowerPoint at Microsoft, I’d want to get Tufte on the horn and have the Office unit’s checkbook in hand. “We don’t necessarily disagree with you, Ed… ever been to Seattle?”