Presenting Data and Information

Presenting Data and Information (a 1-day course by Edward Tufte)

I attended this presentation last Wednesday. If you ever do presentations for work, your MBA program, or anything else, attending this presentation is the best money you’ll ever spend. The fee includes a copy of all three of his books, and he refers to them often during the presentation. If there are two key points that can be summarized from the entire day, they would be:

1. Paper is a much higher-resolution medium for communicating information than a computer screen.

2. Only overhead projectors are worse for communicating information than PowerPoint.

Tufte does an excellent of substantiating each of these points. He illustrated the second point in hilarious fashion by showing us The Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation, courtesy of Peter Norvig (and the Microsoft Powerpoint AutoContent Wizard).

I’ll include my notes from the course in a future post, but attending it in person is the best way to get the full effect.

Presenting Data and Information

Notes from Presenting Data and Information

A basic Google search will reveal all kinds of pages of information about Edward Tufte and his ideas–including notes other people have written about their experiences during his presentation. Looking at those will give you a broad picture.

My notes from the presentation are below:

* 6000+ year history of trying to communicate 3 or more dimensions of info in 2 dimensions (paper, computer screens)

* Data density and increased resolution are other issues with presenting data

Recommendation: put the data directly on the chart, don’t shove it into a legend

Rules of analytical design

1. Show comparisons

2. Show causality

3. Show multivariable data

4. Integrate words, numbers, & images

5. Document everything and show documentation (sources). Don’t trust people who fail to provide documentation.

6. What happens in a presentation depends on the quality, integrity, and relevance of the content.

7. Try to make important comparisons adjacent in space instead of stacked in time.

8. Use small multiples. They are comparative, multi-variate, and adjacent in space. Repetition, in time-series, increases credibility and integrity of presentation.

Example: Napoleon’s March (originally an anti-war poster, according to Tufte)

Dimensions of information:

* size of army

* location (3 dimensions)

* direction

* temperature

6 dimensions of data in only 2 dimensions (paper)

“Why should our work show the chaos of the bureaucracy that produced it?”

Principles of analystical design are the same as those of analytical thinking.

Good design is clear thinking made visible. Unfortunately, the converse is true.

Recommendations: Get a Mac. Get a big, high-res monitor. Even better, multiple screens.

Don’t de-quantify data. In page 31 of Envisioning Information, the chart would be better if the X’s were replaced by the number of occurrences of the crime.

Edward Tufte is working on a 4th book which should be out this year (he self-publishes).

You must show scales of measurement.

If you have data with high periodicity, consider carefully the vertical scale of your data. Smoother data can reveal trends that “spikey” data can’t.

Side note: when sewage gets into drinking water, cholera can result. This comes from a discussion of process of stopping a cholera epidemic in London, and the way data was used to determine the source.

Make small, but effective differences. This brings out more info.

Defend your content against a production process that might mess it up.

Borrow strong design (don’t reinvent the wheel).

Displaying Financial Data

1. It’s generally an assessment of change.

2. Show averages and variation. Detail increases credibility. Clutter and confusion are design failures. Micro-macro design is a good idea.

3. When comparing money & time over more than a year, you must adjust for inflation so comparisons will be correct. Annual reports typically don’t do this, so their data in tables & graphs is wrong. Data needs to be adjusted for seasonal effects.

4. Don’t trust a display with no footnotes. Footnotes help credibility.

5. Financial data should explain as well as describe. Annotation is a good tool for accomplishing this. Every table & graphic in a presentation should be annotated.

6. Find and follow great conventions of displaying financial data. Borrow strength. Don’t be constrained by time or geography in your search for examples to borrow.

Consider what thinking task the analytical display is supposed to help.

Regression toward the mean is a statistical fact. So you must separate that from other possibilities when trying to use data to make public policy.

Recency bias is the tendency of people to give more weight to the most recent data.

Spark lines are a Tufte invention for displaying financial (or similar) data. They display better on paper than on a computer screen.

Design should not reproduce the hierarchy. It shouldn’t reproduce bureaucracy. Don’t reproduce binary searches.

Design should be as flat as possible. Should depend on scanning of reader’s eye, not scrolling. Sites like GoogleNews and Yahoo and other portals are successful because they cram lots of info into the first screen.

Paper is: permanent, high resolution, portable

“Users should never see an operating system.” (Edward Tufte) On the shop floor, and in military environments, user interfaces are devoted entirely to content.

Screen should be 90% content in web design. You don’t need more than a nav bar to navigate a website.

Side Note: Edward Tufte loves the iBook G4. The MacOS is ok, though he doesn’t like the dock because it reveals the OS.

Microsoft bought a company that developed an app called Presenter in 1984. The app became PowerPoint. A software corporation is its underlying metaphor (structured, nested, hierarchical, short lines). It is presenter-oriented, not audience-oriented.

Powerpoint’s problem is that it’s low-res. the bullet points are a big problem too.

Don’t abbreviate the truth to fit on a slide. Find a better presentation method.

An 11×17″ piece of paper can hold the same amount of information as 250 PowerPoint slides. Feel free to use PowerPoint to display really expensive graphics (that would be cost-prohibitive).

Bell Centennial is both highly readable and highly condensed. Great for use in serious printing situations.

Solid rocket boosters are built in Utah, assembled in Florida. The post-manufacture assembly is what makes O-rings necessary.

Lessons to Learn from Challenger Disaster Presentation

1. Show me causality

2. Show me all relevant evidence

3. Ask yourself: what do I really need to see?

These 3 things improve the chances of making the right decision. Tables should have numbers and words in them.

Supporting material can be found here.

Techniques for Better Presentations

1. Show up early. Good for giving handouts and getting to know your audience individually.

2. Problem, relevance, solution. Your presentation must have these elements.

3. Never apologize in your intro.

4. Particular, general, particular. This pattern can be used to present slide information (instead of just reading the slide).

5. Think about your audience by what they read.

6. The Gettysburg Address (what not to do)

7. The audience is precious. Treat them accordingly, don’t patronize. Consider them colleagues. Be civil and diplomatic, but don’t self-censor.

8. Humor is good. But don’t be generic.

9. Don’t use masculine pronouns universally. Feel free to use plurals.

10. Don’t hide behind the podium. Believe in what you’re presenting, and be demonstrative.

11. Finish early.

Outside the Meeting

1. Practice, practice, practice

2. Practice in front of a friend.

3. Practice in front of a video camera (so you can pick up any habitual gestures or movements, stutters, use of the word “um”, etc.)

4. Get better presentation content.