Friday, July 27, 2007

I had the pleasure of going to see a wonderful speaker. His name is Edward Tufte (pronounced "tough - tee") and he is the expert in the world of displaying quantitative information. Yes, I went to an all day seminar to learn how to make better graphs, tables and charts. I even walked away with four books full of hundreds of pictures on the principles of data display. I went to see him speak with fellow HP colleagues and here are some of the things we took away from the day:

1) There really is no such thing as too much information: it's just a matter of it being displayed in a way that is relevant and interesting to the audience. For example, newspapers constantly pack as much information as possible on their paper. It's even more intense in the sports and financial sections with all of the pure data. Still, people seem OK looking at the information and are actually thankful it's all their: that's because it's interesting to the audience. The same can be said of aerial photos of your home town.

2) Everything presented should add to the understanding of the information. Colors, graphics and lines should have a purpose to people's understanding - they are busy people after all and it shouldn't be their job to figure out what is and is not important. Here's an easy test: take your material and stand back, away from it. What catches your attention first? Is it the data? Your border? Or, the cute graphic in the corner? Also, if people walk away from your presentation saying, "gosh, that was a nice shade of blue," you missed your mark.

3) Tufte is not a fan of PowerPoint because it deludes speaker's points to meaningless phrases. He is a huge fan of only using it as a slide show or a way to watch video. Instead, just create a handout for people. It's harder to produce because you have to create complete thoughts (sentences) but it gives them much more information and provides them something for later. I see this as a cue we can get from politicians: how many of them do you see using PowerPoint?

4) If your content is so boring that you feel you need to dress it up: get better content. Seriously, if nobody will be interested in what you have to say, why say it at all. I think this is one of the reasons why I like to listen to Steve Jobs of Apple Inc. talk: I like what he's talking about. I see this as tying back with #1: make your information meaningful to the audience.

For more information, you can check out his website at or read about him on Wikipedia. I would definitely recommend checking him out if you regular give presentations.

As an aside, if my transformation to Geek-dom wasn't bad enough already. My colleagues and I did walk a few blocks afterwards to check out OSCON, the Open Source Conference. The worst part is that I actually saw companies who I know about and I regularly use. We even got to check out the $100 laptop and it is pretty cool.

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