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Off to the Slide Wizard

Edward Tufte is an expert on information presentation and visualization design, and can fairly be said to be among the designers and statisticians who made foundational contributions to the contemporary age of data visualization. My current work has me making a fair number of presentations, and I have found myself looking for better ways to discuss complicated systems and projects. When I saw that Tufte’s one-day traveling roadshow/course on those topics (and many others) was coming to town, I jumped on the opportunity to attend. The course and accompanying books by Tufte have a wealth of technical information on offer (the books, by the way, are self-published beauties of the highest quality), but the core things I took away go much beyond data and analysis. Indeed, the most significant lessons are about taking communication seriously — something relevant to most of us, and which I have been trying to do with new seriousness ever since.

The first key insight is an assertion that making a presentation, be it for persuasion or explanation, is not only an intellectual but a moral act. It is inextricably bound with one’s credibility and reputation, on one hand, and scrupulously honest, accurate depiction of one’s material, on the other. The audience has the reciprocal obligation to engage the presenter’s material with the same care and attention. The presenter and audience really are in it together.

This approach brings something valuable but often left unrecognized to our communication: A sort of partnership that is at once intuitive but often hard to remember amidst so many rote, lifeless meetings. I very much appreciated the suggestion that there must be some element of partnership, of intellectual collaboration, in the presentation of data and information. It reminds us to take seriously our roles not only as presenter but as audience, and allows us — requires us, really — to hold colleagues accountable for their end of the bargain.

Second, and stemming directly from the commitment above, is Tufte’s approach to the most common mode of presenting itself: “The cognitive style of Powerpoint” that many are familiar with. In opposition to the information-bare model encouraged by slide software, Tufte admonishes a determination to use whatever methods are appropriate and necessary to communicate the intended content. Don’t do anything that does not serve an understanding of your information; and to Tufte, boxes, shadows, logos, gradients, and five-bullet slides never, ever serve your case — and yet they are all but inescapable when using software, like Powerpoint, that impose simplification rather than explanation.

This becomes the crux for Tufte’s exhortations about tools: They are merely plumbing to the material that really matters. If diving carefully and exhaustively into your data requires tables, then use really, really well-designed tables; if explaining your project requires a detailed narration, then tell that story in the most complete and informative way possible. This requirement is about quality and completeness, and the requirement that those needs, rather than any kind of dedication to methods or software (and never fashion!, as tempting as it might be to try to cram information into an attractive style), dictate utterly your methods.

During the course of a day, Tufte uses examples and data from sports, engineering and art to make his case, and I found it an engaging and inspiring set of lessons. Setting aside for a short time his wonderful science of analysis, Tufte offers to a very broad audience a re-humanizing of the sterile, numbing and dumbed-down world of business communications. It’s not easy to bring these lessons back to most places of work, but it’s certainly worth some effort.