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Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

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I got to see Edward Tufte’s Presenting Data and Information yesterday. In general, it was a really cool experience. A lot of the first half of the presentation reminded me of the better classes in college — where there was a professor who was an expert in their field, had strong opinions, and had a true passion for teaching and an interest in transferring that wealth of knowledge they have to their pupils. When you find yourself in a class like that, you get to the point where you don’t care if you agree with the proctor or not, as the passion itself provides enough interest. This is the part of school that I really miss, but it was one of those rare things that should be the very focus of higher education, and I don’t think in this world it will ever be.

I digress.

Tufte spent most of this first portion introducing the material and his books, and walking through some examples of information display done effectively and ineffectively. This included several sidebar discussions on topics such as publishing and politics, most of which I found entertaining and interesting. Perhaps the coolest novelty factor were first-ish edition printings of works of Euclid, Newton, and Galileo, which were brought around the room by an assistant with white gloves; you don’t get to see that sort of stuff every day.

Where I feel like things took a slightly disappointing downside is when Tufte went on at length blaming PowerPoint for the ills of humanity. I agree with his primary assertion — that decisisions of great importance (of the utmost importance even, in matters of life and death), such decisions should not be made as part of “pitch culture” through PowerPoint presentations. His analysis of the Boeing presentations around the Columbia disaster is spot-on. However, trying to extrapolate this finding to life in general “meetings should not use PowerPoint” is a bit generous, I feel. While I am the first to admit I have a deep hatred for PowerPoint, especially after several “read from the slides” classes in school and meetings at various jobs, I have also had meetings and classes that were excellent that did leverage the use of PowerPoint.

Like anything, it’s a tool with a purpose, and it does have its uses. If it is used properly to support a meeting, and not give a meeting, I think it does in fact have a place. Are there situations where handouts and visual diagrams are appropriate and/or sufficient? Sure. But, when you actually are part of a pitch culture business, maybe pitching is best done with tools made for it.

I guess where I found things to break down a bit was the first big chunk of the presentation was on matters of visual data display, intelligent information design, and things on which Tufte can provide an opinionated yet thorough treatment. The latter chunk centered around an attack on PowerPoint which while extensive, seemed hardly thorough and felt more like an emotional attack for Tufte.

He wrapped up with a few minutes on presentation skills, which were largely standard issue for any presentation skills course, with little unique to add.

What I’m getting at, I suppose, is I’d get much more value of extending the first half of the program and cutting out the second half (powerpoint and presentation skills) entirely.