PowerPoint / Presentations / Data Visualization
I wrote a post last week about PowerPoint and how easy it is to use it carelessly — to just open it up and start dumping in a bunch of thoughts and then rearranging the slides. That post wound up being, largely, a big, fat nod to Garr Reynolds / Presentation Zen. Since then, I’ve been getting hit right and left with schtuff that’s had me thinking more broadly about effective communication of information in a business environment:
- The Intermediate Stats class I’ve been taking (taught by an Ohio State professor on-site at my company, Nationwide…as in Nationwide: Car Insurance) is wrapping up, and the last day of the class includes a group presentation
- Jon Peltier really knocked one out of the park on the PTS Blog with his re-working of a weird, radial chart showing oil prices over time
- Jim Knight wrote Will Death by PowerPoint Soon be a Thing of the Past, where he summarized the highlights of a one day Presentation // Reboot workshop put on by Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte
- Knight’s post introduced me to Duarte (and her blog), who, according to Knight, is “most famous for developing the design of Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning An Inconvenient Truth presentation“
- In Duarte’s latest post — a video entry while she is on vacation in Hawaii — she reviews Advanced Presentations by Design: Creating Communication that Drives Action by Andrew Abela, which sounds like it is a bit dry, but makes a strong case for putting a lot more rigor behind developing a presentation
Put all of those together, and I’ve got a mental convergence of PowerPoint usage, presenting effectively (which goes well beyond “the deck”), and data visualization. These are all components of “effective communication” — the story, the content, how the content is displayed, how the content is talked to. In one of Reynolds’s sets of sample slides, you can clearly see the convergence of data visualization and PowerPoint. And, even he admits that this is a tricky thing to post…because it removes overall context for the content and it removes the presenter. Clearly, there are lots of resources out there that lay out fundamental best practices for effectively communicating in a presentation-style format. Three interrelated challenges, though:
- The importance of learning these fundamentals is wildly undervalued — it sounds like Abela’s book tries to quantify this value through tangible examples…but it’s a niche book that, I suspect, will not get widely read by the people who would most benefit from reading it
- “I need to put together a presentation for <tomorrow>/<Friday>/<next week>” — we’re living under enormous time pressure, and it’s incredibly easy to get caught up in “delivering a substantive deliverable” rather than “effectively communicating the information.” When I think about the number of presentations that I’ve developed and delivered over the past 15 years, the percentage that were truly effective, compelling, and engaging is abysmally small. And that’s a waste.
- Culture/expectations — every company has its own culture and norms. For many companies, the norms regarding presentations are that they are linear, slide-heavy, logically compiled, and mechanically delivered affairs. For recurring meetings, there is often the “template we use every month” whereby the structure is pre-defined, and each subsequent presentation is an update to the skeleton from the prior meeting. Walk into one of those meetings and deliver a truly rich, meaningful, presentation…and your liable to be shuttled off for a mandatory drug test, followed by a dressing down about “lack of proper preparation” because the slides were not sufficiently text/fact/content-heavy. <sigh>
What’s interesting to me is that I have spent a lot of time and energy boning up on my data visualization skills over the past few years. And, even if it takes me an extra 5-10 minutes in Excel, I never send out something that doesn’t have data viz best practices applied to some extent. As you would expect, applying those best practices is getting easier and faster with repetition and practice. So, can I do the same for presentations? And, again, that’s presentations-the-whole-enchilada, rather than presentations-the-PowerPoint-deck. Can I balance that with cultural norms — gently pushing the envelope rather than making a radical break? Can you? Should you?