Edward Tufte: Presenting Data and Information

I recently attended Edward Tufte‘s one-day course entitled “Presenting Data and Information.”  Tufte is widely recognized for his expertise in the visual presentation of data; his book “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” has been called “a visual Strunk and White” by the Boston Globe.

Tufte focused on presenting data with integrity and on empowering the consumer of the data to understand the data, reason about it, and make decisions based on it.  He does not seem particularly interested in persuasive use of data, which is of course one of the primary uses in business.  In other words, he comes at the problem from the perspective of a scientist who wants to discover truth, not from that of a salesperson, marketer, or manager who wants to convince people to take a particular action.  (And, yes, I do believe that you can and should present data with integrity, even if you are attempting to persuade people of something.)

He spent quite a lot of time criticizing the typical corporate PowerPoint presentation.  Tufte’s complaints ranged from the “slow reveal” style of animated bullet points (which he considers a power play by the presenter in that the presenter denies the audience the chance to think ahead) to the small amount of content on the average slide to the use of bullet points rather than sentences.  Instead, he believes that presenting more data at once (using everything from multi-variate charts to sparklines) is better.  He praised ESPN’s web site for its baseball game summary pages (such as this summary of a game between the Cardinals and the Red Sox) because they present box scores, scoring details, player statistics, and so forth on a single web page.  I’m very sympathetic to his criticisms of PowerPoint, but I’m not entirely convinced that doing something radically different will work in most business contexts; you might find that you spend most of your time explaining why you are not presenting “the normal way”.

Tufte argued that presenters should begin every meeting by providing a written document (in hard copy or online) rather than jumping right into the presentation.  Then, after everyone has had a chance to read the document (which contains the information to be presented), the presenter can walk through his or her presentation, taking questions and interacting with the audience as appropriate.  This seems to me to be a technique worth trying.

One notable meta-aspect of the course was that Edward Tufte is a pretty decent businessman.  The course was at the Westin Market Street in San Francisco, in the main ballroom.  It was set up classroom style, and my approximate count (based on counting the people in a few rows and multiplying by the number of rows) was 750 attendees.  At the list price $380 each, that’s $285K.  Even assuming some discounting, and subtracting the cost of the books we were provided, the cost of the room, the roadies, and so forth, it’s easy to believe that Tufte had net profits of $100K.  It looks like he teaches about ten of these courses a year, so that’s a cool million in net income.  Pretty impressive!

Did I get my $380 worth?  I think so.  When I’m presenting, I generally hope to influence a decision that is worth thousands, or even millions, of dollars.  So, I don’t have to improve my presentations very much to get $380.  A better question is whether the course was worth a day of my life.  Since I had three other very useful meetings in San Francisco on the same day, the course only really cost me about five hours.  I found Tufte’s own presentation style very compelling, so I think I’m likely to improve my speaking and presenting, even in ways that aren’t directly driven by the content of the course.  And, I think that some of the ideas Tufte espoused, including some of the particular details in his books about how to format graphs and such, will positively influence the documents I produce.


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