Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Brussel Sprouts and PowerPoint

Brussel Sprouts have a bad reputation. Many people don't like them, because the primary way of cooking them in the past was to boil them, and when you boil brussel sprouts it is not very pretty. There has been a renaissance in sprouts as of late as people starting roasting them with a bit of olive oil and salt. They taste (and smell) infinitely better this way. The problem was not the sprouts - it was how we used the spouts.

Powerpoint is in the same boat as brussel sprouts. Most of us have sat through egregious powerpoint presentations. Edward Tufte has railed against them and Saba.ology has touched on this subject. However powerpoint is a tool. It is not powerpoint that makes bad presentation, it is people that make bad presentations. John Foreman, on his blog, gives an excellent analysis of this, as well as the biases that informs Tufte's stand.

Having been a consultant to the federal government for a number of years, it was hard to not hear about Edward Tufte. The style of communication used by government consultants and their clients (particularly the military) are anathema to the longtime information design,data viz luminary. So when I was at Booz Allen, my team used to think about his perspective as a counterpoint to how we built data visualization products.
Today, I had the privilege of attending one of Tufte’s training sessions in person. I along with a few hundred other folks gathered in a hotel ballroom for a 6 hour tour of his many books and theories. 
He’s got awesome points. Let me summarize some that will be pertinent to this blog post:
1) Humans have a good vision system. So we shouldn’t hide data (especially related data) behind hierarchical layers. Rather, data should all be displayed on a single canvas where readers can delve into it and digest it with speed. If data points are related, then that relationship can be called out by allowing the data to share space. To emphasize these points he contrasted the National Weather Service’s  local forecast website with most corporate websites (using an XKCD comic to underline his point). 
The NWS uses simple, intuitive dumps of data, and they plop it all on one page, whereas many websites would hide this amount of info behind layers and layers that “disrupt the signal.” As Tufte puts it in one of his books:  
“Visual reasoning usually works more effectively when the relevant evidence is shown adjacent in space within our eyespan.” 
In order words, it’s the author’s job to serve up the data on a broad platter, and it’s the reader’s job to chop it up and make sense of it. Data should not be served precut in bitesize chunks a la Chinese food.  For what it's worth, I think the NWS website is ugly as balls, but that’s neither here nor there for this post.
2) The audience of a presentation should be given data and reading upfront (Tufte loves paper) and allowed to digest data at their speed.  As he puts it in his book Beautiful Evidence:
“It is helpful to provide audience members with at least one mode of information that allows them to control the order and pace of learning – unlike slides and unlike talk.” 
3) Visual adornment for the sake of visual adornment in data presentations should be avoided. He calls this “chart junk.” Amen! Here’s a great animation that drives this point home
Those were the three well-reasoned takeaways for me. But he had a forth point he kept hitting over and over...
PowerPoint is Evil
When I say that Tufte thinks PowerPoint is evil, I’m not making a joke. Tufte  argues that visual communication is a “moral and ethical” undertaking for the presenter. To chop up information between slides, force readers to drill down, hide relationships by separating them on disparate slides,  slow down information transfer by minimizing words on a slide (low information density and throughput) is to communicate dishonestly. 
The use of PowerPoint to split apart data and ideas and deliver them piecemeal to an audience is an amoral power play. I disagree. 
Brussel Sprouts & Why Slides Don't Kill People, People Kill People
Brussel sprouts have had for a very long time a bad reputation. On after school cartoons (Rugrats comes to mind), they always ranked up there with liver as dreaded food items. Why? Because if you boil them, they’re foul. And for years and years, that’s how they were prepared in the U.S. But these days, brussel sprouts are making a comeback. Every new restaurant I go to from hipster speakeasies to lawyerly steakhouses is putting them back on the menu. What changed? The preparation. They’re not boiled any more. They’re often split and roasted with olive oil  and served with salt, lemon, goat cheese, pine nuts, parmesan, etc. It's delicious. Brussel sprouts were never the problem. People were the problem. They were preparing them wrong. 
PowerPoint is the same.  
About halfway through Tufte’s presentation, I noticed that much of his time was spent flipping through slides. He showed a slide of this beautiful graphic beautiful graphic from the New York Times and then he flipped to a slide of Tim Berners-Lee’s proposalfor creating the internet and so on. His slides were single, information-dense graphics. Nothing that couldn’t go on a PowerPoint slide.  So really his problem isn’t with PowerPoint then is it? It’s with how the enterprise uses PowerPoint. What he’s really criticizing is not PowerPoint as a tool, but rather the default use of PowerPoint by an old guard. When I create a new PowerPoint deck, the first thing I do is delete the title and text box of the default sheet and start with a blank slate. Then I build up slides not much different from those I saw Tufte present.  
“But wait!” you might say, “The fact that the default slide in PowerPoint has a bulleted list PROVES that it’s intended for evil!” The default preparation instructions on the side of my bag of store-prepped and washed brussel sprouts are to boil them. Does that make sprouts inherently evil? Nah. Just ignore it and use the tool/vegetable how you wish. 
What’s wrong with POWER?
In Beautiful Evidence, Tufte calls PowerPoint “pushy” and “tends to set up a dominance relationship between speaker and audience, as the speaker makes power points with hierarchical bullets to passive followers.”  I heard a lot of language like this today. PowerPoint in its default use was equated to no less than the figurehead of hegemony himself – Dick Cheney.  
Hey, I get it. I’m all for active listening, especially in film and television. That’s why I’m such a huge fan of reference-based rapid-fire dramadies like Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars. They make the reader work and pay attention in ways that inane laugh track garbage can't. 
But let's follow some other bits of Tufte's logic and see where we end up. One thing that Tufte kept saying was “if you want to play with the big boys,” you’ll get rid of PowerPoint. And his biggest boy of all was Apple. Tufte loves him some Apple products. He feels that the iPad in using a touch screen (doing away with interface elements such as pointers and scroll bars) has freed up more visual space for data. Good point. That’s awesome. Tufte pointed out that, naturally, Apple does not use PowerPoint in their meetings. Indeed, Steve Jobs dropped the f-bomb four times in one sentence when discussing PowerPoint with him. Go Steve! 
But wait.  
How can Tufte align himself with Steve Jobs? Jobs is the antithesis of open-canvas, all-on-one-slide, read-ahead data communication. While Tufte criticizes PowerPoint presentations as “aggressive” and “over-managed,” there is no more over-managed presentation than a Jobs presentation. Don't believe me? Read here. 
There’s even a word for Jobs' highly controlled, authoritarian presentation style: the  Stevenote.
And the hallmark of the Stevenote was one more thing.” 
The act of declaring “one more thing” at the end of a presentation is inherently opposed to Tufte. It’s all about keeping information back, not laying it on a canvas, not putting it in front of the audience. The relationship is not one of "respectful teacher and student" but one of king and awestruck subject. But if Jobs’ method of presenting is so reprehensible, as I'd hope Tufte would admit, then why is he lauded as one of the most effective presenters of all time?
We Present to Convince
For Tufte, the objective of a presentation is maximum data throughput. The speedy, digestible transmission of data to the audience. Hierarchy and layers just get in the way of a data buffet.
But for Jobs and indeed for many presenters, this is a secondary concern.  The primary concern is to make an argument. (A sales pitch is an argument). Tufte is an academic. He said over and over again that the best examples of his philosophy can be seen in scientific and mathematical literature. In these contexts, data speaks for itself. 
But in Jobs’ context, an argument is made not by vomiting data before the audience but by teasing it out in just the right way. Save the best for last. This is no different than a comedian timing punch lines perfectly. A comedian would never give you the jokes on a “high density paper read-ahead.” That’d spoil the presentation! 
Wrapping This Up
So those are my two main reasons for why Tufte is wrong about PowerPoint:
  • He uses the enterprise's typical use of PowerPoint as a straw man for PowerPoint itself
  • Not all presentations are given for the sole purpose of transmitting raw data. And when this is not the case, the style of information delivery can affect the outcome of the meeting.
That said, Tufte seemed to like Excel. Which we all know I freaking love. So I’m still a fan. Now on to make some PowerPoint slides for my talk in Arkansas next week.

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