By Christopher Dunne
What do Galileo, War and Peace, and violin manufacturers have in common? For Edward Tufte, the eminent statistician and data visualization guru, they are all opportunities to better understand the world through smart graphic representation. As COVID-19 has forced us to grapple with what public engagement looks like in a world without face-to-face meetings, we’ve been doing a lot of thinking about presenting information. So when Tufte made his talk on “Analyzing and Presenting Data and Information” available as an online video course with accompanying texts, I jumped at the chance to get some key insights into how to share information with an audience.
Tufte is perhaps best known for eschewing PowerPoint slide decks and “chartjunk” (data displayed on a graphic that adds little to no value). His anecdotes about John Snow’s cholera outbreak map and Charles Joseph Minard’s analysis of Napoleon’s march through Russia have become standard fodder for social science classes.
Edward Tufte’s example of “chart junk”
So while I knew a bit about Tufte’s philosophy on what makes for a bad presentation, as well as what kind of graphics he admired, I wanted to learn more about what makes for a good presentation and how to approach building a better visualization. While some of his philosophy feels better suited to academia and research than consulting and public engagement, Tufte still shares plenty of straightforward but easily forgotten truths about presenting data and information relevant to our work.
Tips for presenting technical information:
For more credibility, lose the jargon.
Tufte sees presenters as having a moral/ethical obligation to tell the truth. Of course, truthfulness is no good if people don’t believe you. Hence the importance of credibility. Presenting information in everyday language without resorting to jargon can signal that you’re not hiding a shallow understanding of the data or facts from your audience. In a public meeting, that means avoiding terms like “LOS” and “signal warrant” and “multi-modal,” which are handy shortcuts for us, but tend to alienate our audiences. Similarly, making the data itself available can build trust by demonstrating that you have nothing to hide and that you are more interested in truth than in ensuring your interpretation of the data wins out.
Don’t dumb it down.
An almost ubiquitous piece of advice one hears about presentations is “Keep It Simple Stupid.” So it was a bit jarring to hear Tufte reject this approach with the rejoinder “Don’t dumb it down. Make everyone smarter.” How can we achieve this? Tufte recommends presenting information in formats that allow the audience to scan for the information that interests them rather than as top-down slide decks or bullet points. From this perspective, websites and documents are the preferable means of disseminating information because they take advantage of the human capacity to quickly identify the things that they care about rather than forcing them to wade through hours of information on topics that don’t speak to them. In terms of graphics, complex maps and tables are actually okay, as long as you have good design.
Think study hall, not classroom.
All of this flips the traditional model for a presentation on its head: the template for sharing information and data isn’t the classroom or lecture — it’s the study hall. Tufte suggests taking whatever information you want to share, turning it into a brief document and then starting each meeting with a period of time when your audience silently reads what you’ve written. After that, questions and discussion can naturally emerge. In a public meeting, this approach would allow you to jump directly into discussion without making participants sit through a 45-minute presentation. Executives at major tech firms fed up with the traditional PowerPoint presentation have embraced this approach, citing the benefits of a fully informed audience and the efficiencies of allowing everyone to focus on the pieces of information relevant to them.
Many of these approaches might sound like a great way to run a meeting with a coterie of experts but ill-advised for larger audiences. I would argue that the underlying principles of credibility and allowing your audience to find the information that interests them can and do apply even to work with the general public. At its heart, Tufte is asking presenters to put themselves in the audience and ask, “What do I like in a presentation?”