This week I went to Dr. Edward A. Tufte’s course on presenting quantitative information. Being a professional (yes, I know some people argue about the professionalism part) presenter I found this to be a reasonable way to pick up a few nuggets that might help me improve. What I saw and heard was both interesting and disturbing though. The interesting stuff made it worthwhile, and if you work on presenting, or digesting, information it is probably worth it to at least get the books.
Dr. Tufte is Professor Emeritus from Yale. Typically, Emeritus means “retired because he’s too old and decrepit to drag himself into a class room but he made a really significant impact on science while he was here” Here I think it was more an indication of the fact that he makes more money getting 1000 people into a room, paying $320 a pop, to hear him talk about presenting information instead. He is widely considered one of the leading authorities of our time on the topic, so that frankly makes a certain amount of sense.
The second half of the course was the more interesting part, and was where Tufte’s real biases showed up. First he talked about web design, arguing that a good web site should have 200-400 links on the first page. People are good at scanning information, they are already at the site so they do not need to be enticed to go there, and they are there looking for information, not corporate logos, so give them information. I generally agree with this, but he fails to include in this reasoning some of the fundamental externalities about why we have web sites. Many (most?) web sites are fundamentally about selling something. Tufte disparages marketing imperaialism, and I am not a great fan of marketing either most of the time, but frankly, it pays my bills. When you go to Microsoft.com, you may be looking for information, and we give it to you, but in the end, the site would not be there if Microsoft did not think it helped sell copies of the products. You cannot ignore that fact when you design something. What is needed is a good mix. Only marketing is not good, and only content is not going to pay the bills.
The last part of the course is the one I really wanted to talk about though. Tufte spends the final two hours in a very long, disparaging rant about PowerPoint – which I take to mean “PowerPoint the product.” He even demonstrated this with a slideshow, shown using the built-in Macintosh slideware program Keynote. (He had two Macs on stage the whole time, the only reason for which I can see is to give free marketing to Apple, because he never actually used more than one). I find it ironic that he uses one presentation program to disparage another, particularly when what he was disparaging the other for was not the faults of the program itself but rather the ways people use it, and to a lesser extent, its success.
This part of the course was one long rant about the sins of PowerPoint, all rooted in his famous essay “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.” Yet, throughout this presentation, he failed to make a few critical points.
- PowerPoint is a tool; it is what you make it. The fact that people use it to put their audiences in pain is not necessarily the fault of the tool. PowerPoint has great power. As Peter Parker learned to his dismay, with great power comes great responsibility and you have to learn to use it for good, not evil.
- What he was really disparaging were people who use the tool wrong. The tool does not force people to use it wrong. You can chose to use it right. At the risk of making it sound as if I am simply narcissistic (which I hope I am not) there are ways to use it which do not put your audience in pain. Here is part 1, and here is part 2.
- PowerPoint is exactly that, it is a tool to add power to your points. If you do not have any points, or you do not use it to add power to them, then it is either the wrong tool for you, you are using it incorrectly, or you have nothing to say and should sit back down and stop talking.
- Using a slideware program (PowerPoint or some other) to write a technical report is the wrong way to use the tool. I’ve said that before, and Tufte did actually say it too, but what he failed to say is that it is perfectly fine to use the tool to explain complicated relationships, show and discuss graphs, and so on, in the report. A slide show is not a substitute for the report, although people often us it as such, and it is not meant to show that you have graphs and diagrams unless you use them to illustrate a point. A slide show is used to add power to the important points in the report.
- In his essay “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within” Tufte does acknowledge that for years people used transparencies, but never mentions how those were used to put people in pain. Misuse of slide shows did not start with PowerPoint, or any other computer-based presentation program. It did not even start with flip charts and overhead transparencies. Putting an audience in pain is a finely honed art that transcends computers and began long before desktop computing. I had a professor once that would photocopy the book onto transparencies, put them on an overhead projector, and read them to us. Professors have been putting their audiences in pain for hundreds of years, and were never hindered in this pursuit by the lack of slideware programs and desktop computers.
Overall, I think Tufte failed to recognized, or at least acknowledge, because I think he actually does recognize them, two things:
- Bad presenters are bad presenters. Using a tool will not make them good presenters.
- There is a difference between “presenting” and “delivering a speech”
The first point is really simple. Using a tool to organize and deliver a presentation will not make a bad presenter a good presenter. If you can find a place in the PowerPoint documentation where it says that it will let me know and I will personally go over and sit down with the Office group to have a chat with them about their docs.
When I first learned to give presentations, I learned to create an outline. An outline was a way to organize my thoughts; a way to keep me on track, jog my memory as to what I was going to say, and ensure that I covered what I wanted to cover. It also prevented the most common problem at the time, which was people standing up and reading a text, instead of giving a presentation. Slideware programs all have, as a basic functionality, the ability to create an outline. That does not mean that you must put the outline up on a 3 meter by 4 meter screen in front of your audience! Doing that is one of the core misuses of PowerPoint. The audience does not need to see your outline, you need to see it. The audience needs to have the points in that outline explained. Slideware programs are not there so you can project your outline, they are there to help you present visual aids. You may need them for a particular presentation, or you may not. Slideware programs are great for showing diagrams, a network of something, or a relationship between objects. However, paper can do that too. What slideware allows you to do is point to the important bits so people can follow appropriately. If you do not need to do that, then there is no point in showing the diagram, unless your sole point is that you have one, which you could demonstrate by using a 4,000 year old technology called “paper”. Computers can also make things move. Yes, it is very easy to overuse that technology, but it can also be extremely valuable in showing something in four dimensions (where time is the fourth dimension). For example, in my “How To Get Your Network Hacked in 10 Easy Steps” presentation, I use it to show how the attack progresses through the network, allowing people to follow along. I could print out the presentation and give everyone a set of pictures and then say “now go to picture 3” but that would kill large numbers of trees and have little value since the audience does not need to keep the picture, they just need to see it while I speak to it.
Another, sometimes, legitimate use of slideware programs is to present lists. Yes, you should also present them on something more permanent than a silver screen because people will not remember them, and if they do not need to, you don’t need to show the list. However, slideware makes great lists. That is why they have bullets. The bullets are not there so you can show the audience your outline. It is there so you can show them a list – while you talk about that list! In many cases, it is better to not show the list, but to show them something that will make them remember the list. But, if you have already done that, you can show a list that summarizes the points you want people to understand. In many cases, however, it is not the content of the list that is important, it is the fact that a list exists. In that case, there is definitely value in showing the list on the screen because it saves threes. Then you can put a picture of something else up and explain why the presence of the list is important.
Finally, there is a significant difference between giving a speech and presenting. My seven-year old recently had to give a presentation at school. To help him organize his thoughts I asked him what points he wanted to convey to the audience. His answer was “that I did a good job.” I think he is going to be a politician. That is pretty much exactly what they do. A speech is not about conveying information, helping people get better at anything. A speech is about reinforcing to the audience that the speaker is a trustworthy authority, or represents such an authority, and that the speaker is important. In politics, a speech is almost invariable designed to do one thing, and one thing only – get the speaker (re-)elected. Yes, there may be a circuitous route to that, through some bill that some portion of the constituency finds important or by announcing some new program, or by simply making people feel better, but make no mistake, the objective is to get (re-)elected. Even with a president, who like the current US president cannot get re-elected, that is the objective. If the people, for even a minute, think that he is not re-electable, then he loses his power, which in the end is the ultimate objective for all politicians. All the president’s speeches are designed to show why people should trust him, and why they should mentally re-elect him, even if they cannot rush to the ballot box to do so. Organizational politics is no different. Giving a speech, which is what almost all keynote addresses are about for instance, is simply about making the audience trust the presenter.
You may have noticed that politicians do not use slideware when they make speeches? That is because they have no points they are trying to explain. Their point is the fact that they are important enough to give a speech. Every now and then you see a politician use a visual aid to demonstrate this fact, typically through demonstrating some other fact. Possibly my favorite political cartoon is one from 1992 that makes fun of that fact. It has a caption that says “inspired by Ross Perot Bill Clinton turns to visual aids to explain his new tax plan.” The drawing is of Clinton, pointing to a picture of a large screw. Now, regardless of whether you agree with the message or not, the point crystal clear. That is the only reason to use a visual aid in a speech; to reinforce the point, which is that you are worth being re-elected, sometimes by demonstrating why someone else is not. For instance, I really believe the republicans were aching to use visual aids to illustrate Clinton’s crimes, but could not do it for various reasons.
Delivering a presentation is very different. It is not about electing anyone, it is about conveying information. It is about helping people understand something so they can use it better, make a better decision about it, or use it to analyze a problem. The correct tools for doing this vary depending on the information. As Tufte correctly points out, if the information is a business plan, then a set of bullet points or a chart on a slideware presentation is an awful way to do it. It does not aid decision making, it does not convey information any more efficiently than paper or just a discussion. However, used to present a large chart so that we can illustrate complicated points, it is very valuable. If it is used to present a number of options for an advertising campaign, it is not because it is inherently missing the depth dimension. A set of print-outs would be better for that. Used to list a set of new features in a software product it is typically just painful.
In conclusion, I think Tufte understands very well how people can misuse the tools, but he blames the tools, not the people. He clearly does not like Microsoft. He gave that away in the first few minutes of the presentation when he said “The best thing you can do to improve your information uptake on the computer, other than get a Macintosh, is to get a great big high-resolution screen.” His bias is leading him to blame the tool, not the way people use it, losing the opportunity to convey something really important in the process. Yes, the auto-content wizard makes it look like putting an outline on a big screen is all presenting is about, and yes, I don’t use it, and yes, I would not miss it if it went away. However, it is not there to help competent presenters. It is there to help the bottom 10%. The rest of us would do better by handing out a report, and then put up a few pictures to illustrate our points, if that is what the presentation is about.
Now I am off to give yet another presentation. This one has four slides: a title slide (because the organizers require it), a graph of the fundamental tradeoffs in security, which I could put on paper if I weren’t worried about the trees, a really complicated time-series progression with annotations at various places, and a picture. The presentation is expected to last for an hour, during which I will spend 55 minutes discussing the middle two slides with the audience.