Edward Tufte during his one day course, in San Francisco on Dec. 3rd, 2012. Photo by David Gauquelin.
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to attend a one day course hosted by Edward Tufte. I've been a great admirer of his work since I was at university and, as with many people interested in information design, his four books have been crucial reference points in my personal library for some years now. These books about data visualization, information design, and presentation are still amongst the most relevant, accurate, and inspiring works on these topics that I've yet read. As you can imagine, I was very excited to both attend his course and meet him personally.
Here are some of the key ideas that I took away from the presentations after this intense and very inspiring day.
There's an ethical dimension to the act of presenting content to an audience.
Presenting ideas in front of people listening to you is a great chance, but it also comes with a moral responsibility. As a presenter you're responsible for the integrity of the content you're presenting. It's a simple yet bold statement to follow. You should make sure you know everything about the content you're presenting, you should know where it comes from (always let your audience identify your sources), and avoid "cherry-picking" — the selective display of incomplete or partial information just to demonstrate your own point.
As presenters, we also tend to make too many assumptions about the people in the room, their culture, their background, and so on. In fact, we're usually bias and tend to underestimate our audience's knowledge or ability to understand us. By starting a presentation and submitting content to someone's attention, you're engaging in an intellectual task where your responsibility is to make sure you provide people everything necessary to help them fully understand what you're showing them. Knowing your content for sure is certainly more important than assuming you know your audience.
You can have your own point-of-view, but not your own facts.
A good presentation should be about sharing clearly defined ideas, not trying to manipulate your audience with partial, confusing or vague information. In short, striving for content integrity and empowering people to reason about it during your presentation is probably the best attitude you can have as a presenter.
Do whatever it takes.
Following this idea that you should help people understand your content, Edward Tufte mentioned a couple of times to do whatever it takes. I really like this idea because too often we let presentation tools dictate how we should present our content. For instance, we all know how slides constrain us to "format" our ideas into a limited space. Beyond the fact that a tool like Prezi is much better since it gives you much more freedom and space to arrange your content, there's plenty of other things that you could use during a presentation. No one says we have to stick to a single medium! Use any other tools or software you might need to demonstrate your points, hand-out beautiful printouts that complete (and not repeat) your presentation, exit your "presentation" back and forth and browse through websites, point out books, newspapers, or even bring physical objects or models if needed.
Stack information in space, not in time.
A presentation can contain a large amount of information. Typically a deck of slides is a way to divide this amount of information in smaller bits (slides) and stack them in time, revealing them one after the other. This approach can result in an audience passively waiting for the single bit of information most meaningful to them. Another approach to presenting a large amount of information is to arrange your information in space, allowing people to see more at a glance and find what they need to understand the wider context of your presentation early on. People have a great ability to visually scan through a lot of information laid-on a single surface and find what they need, or skip what they don't. Our brain is faster than our mouth, and it means that we can read two or three times faster than what a presenter can say aloud.
Screenshot of the BBC website homepage, Jan. 2013.Most of the services we use to access information are surprisingly effective in terms of the density of content they display at a glance. Good information design is not about reducing content, it's about finding the best way to arrange, hierarchize it in a way that the eye can quickly scan through it, and find the needed information.
Not everyone needs to be staring at the same screen.
Image from http://www.shedoesthecity.com/
Ultimately, I really like this idea, especially when applied to a presentation situation. More and more people in the audience now have a device in their pocket that features a high-resolution display (often with more pixels than the projection itself). If you combine this fact with the previous point, there are huge opportunities to re-think what me might term as contemporary presentation setups. Indeed, by leveraging all these high-resolution and personal surfaces to display information, it's possible to imagine a much more active audience that follows you, but also focuses on the things that matter to them, helping them skip what they know already or follow their own path on your presentation.
I believe that all these ideas are extremely important for a company like Prezi that develops a tool that helps people share ideas. At Prezi, our work fits within a larger scope than just designing a nice piece of software. The traditional vision and setup of a single presenter running a show in front of a passive audience probably now has to evolve. Great ideas are built together, how do we facilitate collaboration between people while creating a presentation? There are millions of great ideas and a lot of shared knowledge already available out there, how do we provide access to it? How do we provide inspiration around a specific piece of content or topic? How do we allow people to find broader, detailed information about something they see in a presentation? Remixing, building upon other people’s work is part of our culture, how do we facilitate tracing and sharing our information sources? People don't want to be passive and waste their time waiting in endless meetings, how do we allow people to scan through a lot of information and be free to get more details on what they need even while you're presenting? How do we better leverage the ecosystem of digital devices that we carry with us?
Beyond designing the best presentation software possible, it might finally be time to rethink the presentation situations themselves. And that's an exciting challenge for us at Prezi.