Last week I had the privilege of attending a seminar given by Edward Tufte. Tufte is recognized as an authority on Data Visualization and he offers extensive examples of incredible diagrams that engage the reader by communicating extensive amounts of information through diagrams or the written word.

This was one of the most interesting seminars I’ve ever attended, and I strongly suggest this seminar to anyone that has to communicate data. Either as a salesperson, a public speaker or simply to internal technical groups, the information in this seminar will help you to become a better presenter of information.

Tufte uses many historical examples of visualizing data. Starting from Minard’s diagram of the French invasion of Russia, to showing two rare first-edition leather bound books of Euclid’s Geometry and Galileo’s History and Demonstrations Concerning Sunspots and their Phenomona. He showed examples from each of these books, and it was amazing to even be near these priceless volumes. You could even smell the aged books, which lent to their credibility. At times, this was very much like a college course, as we used Tufte’s books as textbooks and referred to them frequently.

The ultimate visualization of data seemed to resolve as a testament to the written word. I am reminded of Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, where Postman goes into extensive detail of how society has changed as a result of moving from the written word to the media soundbyte. This same idea seemed to impress Tufte’s thinking, as he showed how PowerPoint has removed the integrity of the thought-out sentence and replaced it with the “bulleted grunt.”

Most liberating of all was Tufte’s comment, “If the data does not fit the presentation, then get a better presentation method.” If one cannot fit a complete thought into a PowerPoint without losing the integrity of the data and the language, then it is time to stop using Power Point. Or even more simply, don’t let PowerPoint dictate the presentation of your ideas. This was very compelling as Tufte’s 6-hour seminar only used 7-8 slides; it was limited to when they could enhance the content, rather than being the content.

This was very liberating, as I believe that many people feel bound to PowerPoint as the only method of communicating their ideas. Over the past year, I have been experimenting with alternate ways to use PowerPoint, rather than relying on the standard hierarchical presentation style. I have been amazed at the results. Some of the best feedback I have received on my presentations have been for presentations that utilized PowerPoint as merely a slideshow and an assist to the information presented verbally. I’ve focused the presentation on the content, rather than the “pitching” of an agenda through bullets.

This seminar challenged me to go even further in my exploration of alternative presentation methods. It even made me long for the days of whiteboarding, which was a lot of fun. Whiteboarding lent itself to visualization, communication, and exchanges of ideas, which does not typically happen in a PowerPoint style presentation. This is also something that I have been experimenting with, as my new laptop allows me to “whiteboard” on my powerpoint slides, which has been extremely effective. (The main reason was because I hate laser pointers). Whiteboarding draws attention to the content and the presenter’s understanding of it.

It culminated in examining the most important elements of a presentation.

  • Content
  • Context
  • Credibility

(I love principles in three’s)

A good presentation has, as its sole focus, good content. No amount of flashy graphics, cartoons, or bullets can make up for a lack of substantive content. Now that’s a lot to apply.