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How to make presentations: techniques, handouts, display technologies

In your discussion you seemed to have a dislike for using Microsoft's Power Point. Is there an alternative software package for presentations?

-- Robin Chin Goldberg (email)

Response to Presentation Software?

The best presentations may be analog, not digital. Slides, real life objects, handouts, and a well-delivered lecture are hard to beat. Multi-dimensional and escaping flatness. E.T. does this in his lectures with a few projected images, old books, new books, Challenger model, and marching around when he speaks his well-rehearsed lines conveying memorable ideas.

In my business, the best introduction begins with holding up real objects...a bottle of Old Vine Zinfandel, a bag-in-box of White Zin, a huge bunch of table grapes, and a box of raisins...then asking the audience which one is their end-product. Projected images of these would not have the same impact.

Once a lecture is committed to Power Point, the presence of the content creator is no longer critical. This can be a good thing for bad speakers and a bad thing for good speakers. Like canned food, it is a necessary staple but it will never be fresh.

-- Lucie Morton (email)



It is astonishing that people have somehow managed to teach and to give talks for thousands of years without "presentation software"!

In the first place, don't begin with the question "What presentation software should one use?" but rather with "What are the thinking-learning-understanding tasks that my displays and presentations are supposed to help with?" Answering this second question will then suggest technologies of information transmission.

So if you are teaching a course in art history or architecture, you will need to show a lot of high-resolution color 35mm slides and to provide color thumbnails on a class handout (paper). To present statistical data, you'll need to hand out annotated and sourced tables, graphs, and charts on paper.

If the presentation is about strategic thinking or project planning, you will want to avoid the dreaded bullet list. On how the bullet list makes people stupid, see Gordon Shaw, Robert Brown, and Philip Bromiley, "Strategic Stories: How 3M is Rewriting Business Planning," Harvard Business Review, 76 (May-June 1998), pp. 41-50.

And there is nothing like the real thing; show your audience the actual physical object you are talking about. If the content consists of sound and motion, show sound and motion.(See my earlier response on multi-media for more on this.)

For medical case presentations, see the display in Visual Explantions, pp. 110-111 and the articles by Seth Powsner and E.T. cited there.

Overhead projectors and PowerPoint tend to leave no traces; instead give people paper, which they can read, take away, show others, make copies, and come back to you in a month and say "Didn't you say this last month? It's right here in your handout." The resolution of paper (being read by people in the audience) must be ten times the resolution of talk talk talk or reading aloud from bullet lists projected up on the wall. A paper record tells your audience that you are serious, responsible, exact, credible. For deep analysis of evidence and reasoning about complex matters, permanent high-resolution displays are an excellent start.

For a devastating parody of PowerPoint, see Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in PowerPoint, by Peter Norvig (http://www.norvig.com or a mirror site which you can easily track down in Google).

One more example. If you are teaching math, hand out the proofs on paper at the beginning of class to all the students; then work through the written-out proofs aloud in class, following the proofs on paper. That way your students aren't merely making notes and recording your words; instead they are thinking. I believe that students should THINK in class, not take notes. So give the students your lecture notes and go through them carefully in class, trying to insure understanding of each part as you go. Your voice in effect annotates and explains the material on paper. (Of course, these ideas apply widely, not just to teaching math.)

I have written specifically about making presentations in Visual Explanations, pp. 68-71.

-- Edward Tufte

I was always taught as an instructor that if you have handouts you shouldn't give them to people until after the class so that they take notes and pay attention. Don't even say "There will be a handout at the end of the class" or people will tune out what is being done and think "I can just read the handout later" which of course never happens.

I can understand the importance of the handouts for complex math problems so the students can go through them and make notes on the handouts however. I have found that when people make notes in their own way (I use index cards and a 4 colour pen--which instantly becomes a teaching aid and a form of flashcard for reviewing my notes) it allows them to organize themselves according to how they think.

-- Bill Paton

On the contrary, the best handouts are given out in advance of meeting. Why turn our students into stenographers recording our dictation? Instead let's try something new in class: thinking.

-- Edward Tufte

I think the issue is the value of the handouts ... when they contain important and useful information they make a strong suggestion the speaker/teacher may know their subject ... so handing them out at the beginning is good. OTOH, if the handouts aren't worth the paper they occupy ... that, too, makes a statement. I can attest to being visually oriented enough to have much greater recall of information I "see" as I listen.

-- Gene Prescott (email)

During my time at Princeton I had the good fortune of watching two extremely good public speakers, each with their own style.

One used props and many slides (real slides, not computer-based) to illustrate his points. No handouts.

The second used all presentation software (not sure if Powerpoint was around then) and real-time projection of his computer screen. No handouts either.

Both were captivating speakers in his own right, because they were passionate about their subject matter and had a very fine talent for distilling complicated topics into simple to understand terms, all without speaking down to the audience.

The former was Stephen Jay Gould on various topics of evolution. The latter was Steve Jobs, showing off his then latest creation -- the NeXT computer and the visual NeXTStep programming environment.

Granted, these were not exactly classroom lectures, but even many years later I can recall these two presentations. The many thousands of other lectures I sat through (with and without handouts) have long since been forgotten.

In the end, I don't think you can definitively say one way or another whether handouts are good or bad, and whether Powerpoint is good or bad. You have to treat the entire presentation as a whole -- the topic, the speaker, the venue, the audience, etc. -- to see what works best.

-- Tony Chen (email)

Way back in art school at UC Irvine, all us art students had the supreme good fortune of having Philip Leider, founding editor of Art Forum, teach a Survey of the History of Art. Ninety minutes a class twice a week for two years (and for numerous other more specialized courses, Picasso, Abstraction etc.). We got to the Theater department's small performance hall early so as to procure a seat; 350 seats and every class was SRO, with at least 100 just sitting in. There were only about 100 art and art history majors then, so the vast majority weren't art students. No textbook (Janson was "sugggested reading" but he didn't bother with following the book), no handouts, no presentation software, no high tech dynamic mirror imaging system, just a brilliant teacher with a light pen and two old semi-focused Kodak slide projectors prowling the stage willing us all into a much deeper understanding of art and why it's important to us as individuals and to the world as a whole. Each class became a group meditation on the subject and when he wheeled and fired the light pen at the screen and said "Look at that!," we saw. Charisma? Sure, in spades. But he kept 400 undergrads coming back for more, bringing their friends and boyfriends and girlfriends, week after week, with a charisma sprung from his deep insights into and abiding passion for art. Now, those were successful presentations.

-- Steve Sprague (email)

"Death by PowerPoint," is a phrase I've heard, even while conducting training at Microsoft. I chide not the software, but users who abuse the technology. PowerPoint is a whole art-supply-store-full of wonders for presenters, yet, just because I have these tools, doesn't mean I must use them all. Give a toddler a hammer and everything becomes a nail.

My chief worry about PowerPoint is the same as my worry about speakers who read speeches word by word. Once something is "canned," the listener is robbed--he or she no longer has the power to influence what is being said, the listener is no longer part of a creative act, but merely a potentially passive observer.

Concerning handouts, nearly every book on public speaking that I've read the past 42 years warns about giving them out ahead of time: "The audience will read the handouts and not pay attention to you." I say, so what? Audiences are always distracted and if they are going to read anything, I would much rather they be reading my handout than a copy of USA Today. Besides, I have to gain and regain their attention anyway. And, deep down, what this old advice says to me as a member of an audience is: "Look, because you are too immature to pay attention to the speaker, you may not have the handouts until we leave." Distribute handouts first, fill them with valuable information and a bibliography, use the handouts actively during presenting by telling them to look at page 8, and don't be afraid of losing listeners because they have a handout in front of them. If the training or presentation is ABOUT the listeners, they'll pay attention.

-- Michael Buschmohle (email)

<<Audiences are always distracted and if they are going to read anything, I would much rather they be reading my handout than a copy of USA Today.>>

I always take "alternative" reading materials to any "captive" event :-) I had them handy when I went to ET's presentation several years ago but never touched them.

-- Gene Prescott (email)

If anyone has a concern about the over use or reliance on Power Point, one should read the Nov. 11, 2002 Wall St. Journal, page B1, which reports that even second graders are doing their presentations with it. The subheading: "Even Second-Graders Use It For Classroom Presentations; Learning to Think in Bullets?"

It was an interesting article and it cause me to ponder: is thinking in bullets good? I have recently gone through the agony of preparing a PP presentation and being frequently warned to reduce the talk to fewer points because of the audience (read: upper management). On the other hand, I just finish digesting an article about how a 3M executive put aside PP and actually did his presentation as a narrative (an angle a personally favor).

Anyway, intesting food for thought.

-- Dave Froberg (email)

I use Powerpoint for short, fully automated presentations only. I do all the type and images in Photoshop so it's nice typography and not jagged onscreen. It's painful because ppt is not set up to do a nice job of this and I use a lot of workarounds to make transitions work properly, but it is simpler for my clients to use and adjust than more intense programs like Director. I set it to music that works with the content. It becomes more like a Flash style presentation with the only intent of getting your attention. This works in situations where you are selling/presenting to someone or a small group and you have only a short time. Then after that brief show, I turn off the computer and chat. The shows break the ice and can be fun or entertaining setting a great tone to the remaining meeting.

Otherwise, I too dislike the reliance we have on presentation software. I cringe at the sight of the projector when I go to big meetings now. Just how many slides will the presenter have I think, and I giggle at these serious bulleted presentations when I think of Peter Norvig's Gettysburg parody.

-- Alison Fraser (email)

On handouts:

I like to hand them personally to students as they arrive at a lecture, especially if it's the first or only lecture I'm giving to a particular group.

This lets me make direct contact with my audience, making them more willing to ask questions and gives me a gentle seque into the lecture. And in lecture theatres where you enter at the back, it's also a good way to drag them to the front ("...if you could just sit there...thanks").

-- David Glover (email)

One thing I do find PowerPoint helpful for is making simple pseudo animations to illustrate points. I work for a company that restores wetlands and rivers, and often give presentations to non-technical audiences. I find that PP is a good tool for quickly making sequential diagrams (e.g. a series of schematics showing how a wetland has evolved over the last few hundred years). This is one area where going sequentially rather than small multiples seems to help the audience make sense of the idea.

The Tufte lecture and books have definitely changed the way I think about presentations and will probably reduce my use of PP, but the fact is many of us are stuck with it to some extent (e.g. mandatory to use for some key conferences I attend). I think it would help to show examples of effective PP.

-- Andy Collison (email)

[I sent this to RISKS Digest, but I thought you would find it interesting]

Ironically [after the criticism of the Columbia Accident], the best antidote to Powerpoint may be a guide to technical writing that was published by NASA many years ago, and can still be downloaded from NASA's own servers: http://techreports.larc.nasa.gov/ltrs/1964-cit.html

That page is a link to this file: http://techreports.larc.nasa.gov/ltrs/PDF/NASA-64-sp7010.pdf

"Clarity in Technical Reporting" by S. Katzoff was written in 1955 and circulated informally at NASA's Langley Research Center. Popular demand led NASA to publish it officially in 1964. The PDF file on the web is a scan of a copy that was printed in 1973.

The first 16 pages are about written reports, the last 9 pages are about verbal presentations. The author assumes that the slides will be charts and graphs, not bullet points.

-- Ron Bean (email)

Blackboards (or white ones) are vastly underappreciated these days. A wide blackboard has far more space than a PP slide as well as numerous other advantages. The act of writing on the board requires that you focus on the most important items first. But you can then fill in as much detail as you like. In the classroom the progress of going from the general overview of, say, a graph, to the specific details is an important clue to the critical points; that is, is the most essential element the line shape? the numbers? the scatter of the points? the steepness of the slope? the relationship between two slopes? Is the drawer concentrating intently on one aspect of the image? Students have hundreds of examples of detailed images in their books; there is no need for me to reproduce every one on a slide in class.

A sketch on the board is much more useful than a slide for engaging students because most questions can be addressed by elaborating on the existing sketch, making an enlargement of one part, or by drawing a second one directly next to it. Students (individually or in groups) can be invited to draw their own interpretations or to work problems on the board for the class.

When there's a nice expanse of board I try to start from one end and work across the room. In that way latter points can be related back to earlier ones (which are still visible, not 10 slides back!), examples can be contrasted, and plenty is laid out for anyone who needs a while to digest a particular point. If I remember to write a brief outline (with bullets?!) on one side at the start, I can check items off as a visible mark of progress.

Finally, I find that on the blackboard I spend much less time formatting boxes, adding curlicues, shadowing fonts, and fine-tuning background patterns! So, I spend more time thinking of good diagrams and analogies to communicate the material.

Unfortunately, I am still not as good at blackboard technique as I'd like; I'm more disorganized than I should be, my writing isn't always clear or straight, and my artistic talents are not great. But, even when I've used overheads or slides, I've always found myself reverting to the board for real communication- that is, answering questions or elaborating a point. In an interesting hybrid I've discovered that a slide can be projected onto a whiteboard and then further illustrated with colored pens.

Many conference rooms and some classrooms these days lack any writing surface at all. So if there are questions that cannot be addressed by pre-existing slides we end up passing around scraps of paper to diagram our thoughts. I feel like I should bring a tray of wet sand or maybe an etch-a-sketch to these sites!

-- Sarah Green (email)

A helpful essay by William Germano, "The Scholarly Lecture: How to Stand and Deliver," from The Chronicle of Higher Education


-- Edward Tufte

The advice is mostly well-taken. I do take exception to the "only write to the time you have," because often conference presentations are as much a discipline to write your research down (and get feedback from discussants) as to talk about it. I've written for the time allotted, talked from an outline or notes without writing a paper, talked from an outline or notes after writing a longer paper, and painstakingly edited a longer paper down to the time I had&mdash;and no method is inherently worse than another, though presenters' comfort working with any particular method is a different issue.

The column reminded me of one of my first conference presentations, when I wanted to put a few tables on transparencies for an overhead projector. The program chair begged me not to, because the organization would have to pay quite a bit for the use of one overhead for one hour out of the whole weekend. I agreed to make copies to hand out instead. What happened? Everyone had her or his copy of the table to pore over, instead of a transparency with type that was too small, and conversation continued after the session, with one colleague talking to me in detail about my work&mdash;with tables in hand to refer to.

-- Sherman Dorn

Responding to Edward Tufte's comment well upthread: "On the contrary, the best handouts are given out in advance of meeting. Why turn our students into stenographers recording our dictation? Instead let's try something new in class: thinking."

After nearly a decade of taking college classes (a frightening realization!), I'm pretty sure it doesn't work that way for me. I've had classes in which I took notes from the board, and I've had classes in which the professors gave out handouts, and almost universally the result has been that I was much better able to think about the material in the classes where I was taking notes.

This may be, in part, specific to the field of mathematical derivations; when I'm taking notes from equations written on a chalkboard, the professor is presenting the material at a speed at which it's possible to derive it, and so I can follow the thought process through the material as it's being taught. On the other hand, in cases where there are overheads and projected equivalents, the material is almost always discussed in a somewhat higher-level manner, and so I don't develop the familiarity with the details of the equations to be able to usefully think about them until I go home and reread the handouts.

Aside from the level-of-presentation issues, I think it's also fairly significant that, with virtually all mathematics, I think by writing. I can see some things, and talk about them, just when looking at the equations, but for any in-depth thought I need to have the equations under my pen where I can move them around. Even if all I am doing are the same manipulations as the professor is doing on the board, it still activates the same thought-patterns. More than that, the fact that I don't have a copy of the material in advance means that, as the professor is writing out the equation and I'm following along, I'm also thinking about what might come next -- which means that, when I see what does come next, I have an understanding of it that I wouldn't have had without thinking about it on my own for a few seconds first.

I think this last point is one of the reasons that I particularly find handouts-before-the-class an ineffective teaching tool. The process of going through something step-by-step, and continually attempting to anticipate the next step before it's described, works very well for me, and having the handouts beforehand short-circuits that; I merely read ahead rather than think ahead, and in the process am distracted from listening.

-- Brooks Moses (email)

On learning math, review cognitive psychology literature and see the thread "PowerPoint and Bad Teaching" started by Jennifer Snow Wolff, particularly this link

University of Toronto - UPSCaLE: Pedagogy

More to the original question: Professor Tufte's advice is good (got the books, haven't been to the course): go with handouts. I had become so numb to PowerPoint, I'd forgotten what a rich experience the exchange of ideas can be. Since stubbling across this site from Phil Greenspun's (and there from photo.net) I've begun relearning the elementary tasks of presenting information. One nice thing about experiencing all the bad PowerPoint letdowns: I unlearned everything, so now I can observe the parts come back into place, rather like filming the demolition of a building and then running the film backward: I'm seeing my abilities redeveloping. It's fascinating and sad.

An anecdote: I decided to not use PowerPoint. Cold turkey. I had a presentation the next day. I shifted the work to a Word document (it's easier to write sentences than hack them apart). I was scheduled for an hour. I didn't finish the hand-out until moments before the presentation. I handed it out; the audience sat and read. The first question came in about 2 minutes. It was deep, probing, and based on information halfway down the second page. The questions skipped around after that, but everyone was able to move back and forth. And paragraphs... wow, what a visual cue! "Third paragraph, second page, 'The ratio declined...'" We were out in half an hour. Sure I e-mailed the document out afterwards, and I'll e-mail hand-outs in advance in the future, but I'll put the information in their hands while they're in that room, at the point of need.

I might suggest a wide margin to encourage note-taking, and the 11x17 seems like a good idea too, if you've got a printer that can do it. As for software, I'd concentrate on gaining in-depth experience with a good word processor and some layout software. Consider a chalkboard on wheels: it offers more tactile sensation and visual texture than a whiteboard.

-- Niels Olson (email)

I have recently completed my usual, annual course on scientific writing and communication. I do this for fun, and consequently, I modify it every year. I came across the PowerPoint discussions at this site midway through the course, but in time to raise an interesting discussion. Sure the point of "why blame the tool and not the user" came up to which I said something along the lines that: there are tools and there are people. It is people who use the tools but if there are so many examples that people using these particular tools come up with a lot of rubbish, then there is an incompatibility between the two. You either change the tool or change the people. Usually the former is easier. Therefore, change the tool - do not use PowerPoint. Obviously it is difficult to use it in an intelligent way. Re. note taking vs. handouts. There is a lot of literature on effectiveness of learning, note-taking and so on. Being active is better than passive - active note-taking is better than being handed a finished copy. I usually hand out a sketch that I myself use for the talk, and encourage people to write their own notes to personalise the handout. Taking personal notes is even superior - but in many situations one cannot make sure the audience actually follow sthe advice. Handing out sketchy notes at least goes half-way between having a pre-prepared record and being actively involved in note-taking.

-- Gabor Lovei (email)

Recently this thread and the "PowerPoint and Bad Teaching" one started by Jennifer Snow Wolff has had some discussion of a little paper I wrote a few years ago on the delivery of information.

This year I was confronted with lecturing to 1100 first year Physics students in one huge hall. Here I share how I tried to use some principles discussed in that paper in this environment.

The hall has a huge screen and projector, and 2 smaller screens with separate projectors to the sides of the big screen, but no blackboard. I don't think a blackboard would have been an option anyway, since I would have had to write on it with letters nearly a foot high to be legible from the back.

The compromise I came up with was that I bought a Tablet PC, which I projected onto the main screen. This became my pseudo-blackboard, and I wrote on the tablet much the same way that I write on a blackboard. The presentation, then, was not "canned" like PowerPoint, since the development was being done in real time.

Since even the huge screen had nowhere near the visual field of a real blackboard, when I developed an important result I would put that on the side screens so the students could (and did) easily refer back to it. (The information for the side screens was usually pre-prepared and I often used PowerPoint. I never used PowerPoint on the main screen, but did project Flash animations, figures, etc. there)

Many of my students also take an even larger first year Biology course in the same hall. That course uses PowerPoint exclusively in lectures.

Throughout the year I ran weekly "focus groups" with small groups of students, where we discussed any and all issues of effective communication. The students were unanimous that the Tablet PC was much more effective than the PowerPoint used in Biology.

Note that I am not saying that a Tablet PC with 1100 students is as good as a much much smaller class with a blackboard: it is not. I am saying that given 1100 students, my approach was reasonably effective.

-- David

-- David Harrison (email)

You sound like an amazing professor, and I congratulate you in dealing with the situation presented to you.

Is this the direction of University education ... one teacher and 1100 students?

Michael Round

-- Michael Round (email)

I use a web browser as my presentation tool.

I co-teach a grad school course on computer networking and telecommunications for K -12 teachers at CUDenver.

We script out our topics for the nights and then make bookmark lists of web sites that relate. While one of us is "lecturing" on the topic (I say lecture in only the most general way - it is more of a highly guided discussion) the other is using the projector to show the relevent sites.

After the class we email the list of URLs to the students. They LOVE it. We get the most positive feedback from anything I have ever taught by not having a presentation or handout at all.

We actually spend an hour or so talking to them about alternatives to powerpoint - which shocks them.

- Just a thought.

-- Chris Pultz (email)

What are some recommendations for imposition software? I would like to make a folded 11"x17" handout containing 4 complete 8.5"x11" pages. Is there software available to help me effectively manage the proper sequence of pages?

-- Mark R. Drutowski (email)

Try looking for options within your printer's software. My HP1220C's software has a "booklet" option under a "features" tab. This easily allows printing a 4-pager from Word on 11x17 paper - just remember to turn the paper over.

-- Mark Kasinskas (email)

I regularly compose 8.5" x 11" pages in Adobe InDesign (or PageMaker) and then export 2-page spreads at 11" x 17" to PDF. This produces "facing page" spreads on single sheets of paper.

There are also plug-ins available for both applications which will automatically impose/rearrange pages prior to printing and assembly. See:

http://desktoppub.about.com/library/weekly/n112697.htm http://desktoppub.about.com/library/weekly/aa112697.htm

Or Google: desktop publishing imposition.

-- Mike Christenson (email)

If you don't have access to adobe applications, a good alternative is to use MSWord. Simply create a text box that is the size of the print area of each page and import any graphics. You can then,through a combination of document paste and printer driver setup, make your duplex printed 11X17 handouts. Set the printer driver for 2 pages per sheet and play with the orientation as necessary. Depending on the resolution of your printer the results that you obtain can be very good.

-- Ed Mikula (email)

This is an excellent practical point. Many PP users just don't know what else to do; and when I tell them about the 11 by 17 page folded in half and then about page layout programs, the eyes glaze over. It is very good that the presentation handout can be done easily enough in Word, a simple cure for PP.

-- Edward Tufte

I just attended Tufte's training seminar in Philadelphia, PA. It really opened my eyes about the concept of information resolution, and lack of within traditional PowerPoint presentations.

I'm really interested in trying the 11 x 17 handouts at my next training session. Which printers to you guys use to print out an 11 x 17 sized paper? The maximum width my HP accepts through the manual feed tray is 8.5 inches.

-- Michael (email)

Passing out handouts prior to a talk is essential in the environment I work in. I work with Deaf students in colleges (that's high schools and technical schools on those of you on the left-side of the pond) and universities providing communication support; sometimes I act as a "note-taker" so that the student is free to watch my colleauges who are translating the English into sign language. Too many times teachers and lecturers have said "I've got a handout for you all and will give it out at the end". Those who who have worked with a Communicator before know to give us the handouts at the start of class. Yet typically the handout is nothing more than PowerPoint slides squashed 6 or 8 to a page. Occasionally the teacher thinks they are smart and will print the slides in one column with the other column free for students' notes. Neither approach is acceptable as there is insufficient space to make notes. If all I will have is a PowerPoint printout then please print them in the lecturers notes style (the one with the slide at the top and space for the presenter's spiel at the bottom). By leaving the lecturer's spiel blank at least then there is space for me to write.

Of course, what I really want is that proper well-reasoned handout to mark up using highlight pens or to scribble all over to reflect the emphasis of the teaching. Similarly I also expect the teacher to have made "reasonable adjustments" to their teaching materials to accommodate the Deaf students I work with --- under British law they will have to do this from October 2004. Yipee!

What surprises me about many of the university lecturers I work with is their lack of knowledge of anything in Visual Display, Envisioning Information, or Visual Explanations. I took a university course myself this summer and could not believe the presumption that all presentations are to be given using PowerPoint. Indeed it was promoted as "best practice"! A requirement of the course was a reflective essay on what I'd learnt during the course (nothing) but it gave me the opportunity to promote the books and especially The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, my copy of which arrived just in time for a cogent replevin to the presumption.

On another module (in the same degree programme) the assessment was to produce a timeline of Deaf education. Most students turned in multiple sheets of paper stuck together in landscape upon which they had drawn a single line with call-out boxes on either for the milestones. My version was modeled after Minard's timeline; not quite as well organised as Minard's but different from all the others. (Lecturer now has a laminated copy to show students in following years.) My fellow students all used Microsoft Word for their timelines; I used a graphics package instead. Their's were linear (event, after event, after event); following Minard's example my had several different dimensions on the chart --- indicating the influence of Oralism or of signed language communication upon specific events. Come time for the show-and-tell on submission day mine required little explanation despite the quantity of information it contained.

Anyway, if only teachers would do their homework first and prepare handouts not slides then my Communicator work would be so much easier.

-- Trevor Jenkins (email)

Regarding 11x17 handouts: Most recent photocopiers can produce an 8.5x11 booklet on 11x17 paper from 8.5x11 masters. The photocopier settings do the heavy lifting regarding sequence, etc. Simply create the handout master in any word processor in the standard 8.5x11 format. Then feed it in page order through the photocopier loaded with 11x17 paper and set for booklet production: the chips in the photocopier will do the rest.

-- Roy Kenagy (email)

Terry Teachout, who long ago reviewed my Visual Display of Quantitative Information for the National Review (!), and who is more famous for his arts reviews and his always interesting weblog http://www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight/ has some good advice about making presentations (for authors on bookstore tours, and others as well):

"A speech&mdash;and this includes a reading&mdash;is a performance. It's theater. The people who came to hear you don't want you to shamble up to the podium, mumble a few unintelligible introductory words, open up a store copy of your book, and stick your nose in it for the next half-hour. They expect you to look and sound prepared&mdash;and you'll feel more comfortable if you do.

To that end, here's how I do my readings, step by step:

(1) Don't read too much. No matter how good your book is, you don't want to spend all your time reading from it. You also need to make direct contact with your listeners, which is harder to do when you're reading out loud from a text written for the eye, not the ear. If you've been asked to perform for thirty minutes, speak for ten, read for just short of twenty, then deliver a prepared coda at the end of the excerpt from the book.

(2) Write your speech out word for word. If you're an experienced public speaker accustomed to working from sketchy notes, fine. If you know you can wing it like a virtuoso, more power to you&mdash;but in either case, you wouldn't be asking for tips from me. If you're anybody else, write the speech out word for word, then practice reading it aloud until your delivery sounds natural and conversational. (See below for instructions.) Otherwise, you'll get lost in a thicket of likes and you knows and ers and ahs&mdash;and you'll talk too long.

Which brings us to

(3) Time the speech exactly. Do not under any circumstances exceed your allotted time. In fact,

(4) Never speak for as long as you're asked. In my experience, thirty minutes is ideal, especially if you're new at this. Go on for much longer and people will start to squirm, which is contagious. If you're asked to speak for forty-five minutes (including the reading), hold it to a half-hour, then go straight to questions from the audience. You don't have to ask permission from the presenter!

(5) Choose a fairly self-contained excerpt from the book. It doesn't have to begin or end neatly&mdash;you can set up the excerpt as needed in your introductory remarks&mdash;but do take care that what you read will be intelligible to those who haven't already read the book. (Don't be afraid to leave 'em hanging at the end!)

(6) Don't read from a printed copy of the book. Not only does it look awkward, even unprofessional, but too many things can go wrong (i.e., dropping the book and losing your place). Instead, I printed out my speech and reading text in a single manuscript set in large, bold type, big enough that I could read it without my glasses if need be.

(7) Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse! Read the speech and the book excerpt aloud, at least twice and preferably in front of somebody else. Then pay close attention to what they tell you.

(8) Strive for vocal emphasis and variety. Most authors are ineffective in front of an audience because their delivery is dull. The goal is to sound like you're talking informally, not lecturing (and that includes whatever passages you choose to read from the book itself). Each sentence should have its own point of emphasis. Find it and mark it in your manuscript. Don't trust your memory&mdash;underline key words, or highlight them in boldface. And be sure to keep your energy level high. If you don't sound excited, your listeners won't feel excited.

(9) When you can, look at the audience. You don't have to look at them all the time, though. If you've done what I told you to do in (8), your oral delivery will be sufficiently varied that you can hold the audience's attention without making constant eye contact. Still, do try to look up from your speech at least once on every page. The more direct contact you make, the more books you'll sell.

(10) After you've read the speech out loud, change it. A speech is written to be spoken. The point of reading it out loud in advance of the performance is to discover what sits naturally on your tongue and what doesn't. Remember that the audience isn't following a printed copy. They must understand every word you say. Whenever you stumble over a word or have difficulty picking your way through an over-complicated phrase, change it.

While you're at it, don't hesitate to change the text of the book excerpt if you find you have similar problems reading any part of it out loud. Your listeners won't know the difference. (You can also make cuts without telling them.)

(11) Start with something funny. I know, it's the biggest cliche in the world, but it really does loosen up the audience&mdash;and you, too, which is at least as important.

(12) When quoting someone else for more than a phrase or two, hold up a page of the printed speech and "read" from it. This is a visual aid intended to make it obvious to your listeners that you're not reading your own words. It's amazing how this will increase audience comprehension.

(13) If at all possible, e-mail copies of your speech to the various presenters before leaving town. This isn't so they can review it and ask for changes&mdash;it's to ensure that there'll be a copy of the speech on hand in case you lose, misplace, or forget yours. (That happened to me once, in Philadelphia. Don't ask.)

(14) Before you leave town, double-check your printed copy of the manuscript. Make sure it contains each numbered page and that the pages are in the correct order. Do the same thing before you leave your hotel room to go to the place where you're speaking. Do it every time. The one time you forget to do it is the time that pages 16 and 22 will be switched, thus causing you to crash and burn.

(15) Arrive early enough for a soundcheck. Don't trust the presenter. Make sure there's a podium (yes, it's happened to me), that it's deep and wide enough to hold your manuscript, that the sound system works, that the microphone can be raised to an adequate height, and that there's a glass of water&mdash;without ice&mdash;within easy reach.

(16) Never apologize for being nervous. The only time you should do this is if you are visibly nervous, in which case a self-deprecating remark will help to put the crowd on your side&mdash;but only do it once.

(17) Never apologize for stumbling over a word. Correct it, then move on.

(18) Make sure the audience knows when you're through. You don't have to say "thank you." Just pause, then lower your head. That way they'll start clapping.

(19) Be sure to allow enough time for questions. If the presenter doesn't oblige, take matters into your own hands. Audiences love to ask questions (except for students&mdash;they usually clam up tight, especially in a classroom setting).

One last thing:

(20) Be polite with hecklers&mdash;but be firm. If you're polite, the audience will back you all the way. That gives you permission to be as firm as necessary. Point out that other people also have questions to ask. If you run afoul of an obsessive, over-persistent questioner, politely suggest that he speak to you privately afterward, then go straight to the next question."

Post at http://www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight/archives20040620.shtml#81172

-- Edward Tufte

I've enjoyed ET's material and had the pleasure of taking his seminar several years ago. He and this thread confirm my feelings deveoped over two decades of leading seminars throughout the US and Canada. In 1988 my "Confessions of an Heretical Seminar Leader" [http://bryce.com/confess.htm] anticipated many of ET's and other's ideas expressed here. In that article I mention a technique I've found very useful: As they register I ask my attendees to fill in a form describing their interests and expectations. I then use this to target their interests and personalize the presentation. I also gather similar information during the course of the seminar to determine how close I am to their goals; I adjust both the content and delivery accordingly. I also flip "sharpshooters" by turning them into resources with special information thereby both defusing them and feeding their egos in a helpful way. Of course these methods are more difficult with groups larger than 50 or 100, but the same ideas can be scaled-up and applied across multiple large speaking engagements where the responses begin to level out into a handful of statistically significant concerns.

-- Jim Bryce (email)

I had the best lesson in presenting material at my very first professional conference in my subfield in history, when I asked the program chair about overhead projectors. He e-mailed back and asked if I could distribute handouts instead, since my one request would cost the organization additional money from the hotel for the overhead. I privately grumbled about my needing to pay for twenty copies of a few tables.

But when I got the conference and was one of three or four presenters, I discovered that I received the vast majority of questions. Why? Because the audience members all had copies of tables in their hands to look at and think about.

-- Sherman Dorn (email)

E.T., in his forums, suggests that a double-sided 11x17 inch paper handout is, in general, the way to go. I agree when the environment is a physical meeting. My intent above was to spur a discussion about providing information in different environments, specifically an environment in which almost nothing is known about what the attendees are experiencing except that they are on the phone. Seems like some things can be said that are generally true. What would they be?

-- Dan Connors (email)

If people are drawing while they are listening they are probably comprehending more- not less. There are some interesting studies of artists MRI's - while drawing. It's the "interplay" between the hemispheres which gets the juices flowing.....

Then there are Mr. Geiger's research on dyslexia- which tends to show (unfamiliar) hand/ eye tasks increase the comprehension of symbols. Plowing new furrows in the brain so to speak....

Maybe we should insist everyone knit while listening.....

-- Ziska Childs (email)

What about using PowerPoint only to show image files in place of slides? I will be giving a presentation at a conference shortly and there will not be a slide projector on-site and I certainly don't have my own, nor do I have slides of the images. I have handouts with thumbnails ready in case there are technological glitches, which of course there usually are, but I had planned to show my images as a slide show through PowerPoint. Is there a better way if digital is my only option? If not, what would be the best size, resolution, etc. for me to use in PowerPoint?

-- Miriam (email)

Yes that is exactly what PP is good for: as a full-screen slide projector, just like the old 35mm projector. No bullet lists, no branding, no templates, no PPPhluff, no cognitive style.

-- Edward Tufte

While I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Tufte about how poor PowerPoint is , has anyone a decent solution when you are presenting remotely over a computer. The company I work for is geographicaly diverse and most meetings are held by sharing your computer screen. Often we have to present methodologies, financial reports, and the like and PowerPoint is the dominate tool used. There has got to be a better way to communicate remotely.

Thanks for any advice.


-- StephenLL (email)

pdf files

Word layouts.

Handouts sent in advance, or printed out live from pdf files.

-- Edward Tufte

Presenters should contemplate how their audience thinks about meetings. Here is Stanley Fish on real meetings: http://chronicle.com/jobs/2004/01/2004010901c.htm

-- Edward Tufte

A short taxonomy of meetings:

One-way transmission: dog & pony show, sales pitch, lecture.

Two-way transmission: staff meeting (we hope!), committee meeting, ad hoc meeting (the best! Only occurs because of a perceived need).


I think the first three are self-explanetory.

The staff meeting derives its agenda from the institution's need for self-preservation and derives its power from the senior member's authority. It is fundamentally heirarchical, like Yahoo, or the executive branch.

The committee meeting derives its agenda from democratic processes: citizens or other peers on an equal footing meet and items are submitted for consideration, triaged, debated, and resolved according to self-imposed rules. Senate rules, House rules, Robert's rules, Parlimentary rules are well established sets of rules from which to start. Equal footing may be graded by seniority, positions adopted within the rules for the purpose of effective self-governance, etc. The power of a committee stems from the powers each member brings to the table. Literally. It is fundamentally not heirarchical, despite any rules that create heirarchy internal to the group. Like Google or the legislative branch.

Ad hoc meetings are most often one party perceiving a need that can be fulfilled by another party, actively seeking that second party out, although they may be spontaneous. A staff meeting or committee meeting may spark an ad hoc meeting between constituents. Constituents may be peers or tied together in a senior-subordinate relationship (this is as often a point of frustration for the senior as it is for the subordinate).


These can mix and match in all sorts of ways:

1) Staff meetings may be called to present a sales pitch, a lecture, or to get progress updates (which can, of course, quickly devolve into a dog & pony show if the junior members perceive a lesser stake in the objective at hand than in their own self-preservation). Staff meetings may be ad hoc (you walk into your subordinate's office). Staff meetings may be called under the guise of a committee, but the constituents of the meeting can never act under truly democratic processes because the power still derives from the senior member.

2) Customer Service meetings (including doctor's visits and consultations with lawyers) are generally ad hoc committee meetings. It is a meeting of commitors: those who have committed or are interested in committing. The committee has a membership of two and may never merit a name, but it does form and dissolve, have items of business, priortize those items, debate them, and resolve them, like any other committee. And, like any other committee, the members are free, perhaps within the bounds of the committee's agreed rules, to end the relationship. "Committee's agreed rules" may well be contract.

-- Niels Olson (email)

After taking a Tufte course recently, I found this PowerPoint presentation on how to make PowerPoint presentations too good not to share. (I was especially impressed by the sixth slide: "Amount of Information.") http://cit.information.unl.edu/tips/Webpage/saveasjpegs/index.shtml

-- Georgia Wright (email)

Georgia's example is wonderful. Reading it, I was struck by the similarity between the rules for bullet points and those for newspaper headlines. I read a number of newspapers each day and can generally know what is in the body of the article by matching the political stance of the newspaper to the headline. As a cursory further check I may look at the by-line. Occasionally I may find a headline that appears to conflict with the political stance and almost inevitably I am not perusing the paper I thought I was, or the article is by a guest columnist of a different political persuasion. If this analogy is valid, then bullet-point presentations are similar to the litany of a religious service: principally for the purposes of emotional reassurance. If bullet points challenge existing thought, then there is no alternative to reading and debating the issues in full - which renders the bullet point redundant.

-- Martin Ternouth (email)

I recently took E.T.'s course in Crystal City, VA. I need to comment on the advice regarding the briefing of Admirals. If you only have 5 minutes to brief an Admiral, walking into his office with a 4-page technical document and expecting him to take 3-4 minutes to skim it will get you thrown out of his office quicker than you can say Sparkline. It is true that you also don't walk into his office with a 65-page Power Point briefing either. First, you do not brief an Admiral (or General, etc.) without first sending him a read ahead. This could consist of the 4-page technical document with one or two high level Power Point slides with the key points you want the Admiral to get. Your five minutes with him should be the time to point out the key points. I feel the advice given was misleading in a town where briefing high-level officials occurs everyday and there were many younger people in the audience that could get into trouble by going this route. I understand the point of trying to more effectly present information but this advice is not real world. I have briefed Admirals and Generals as have my co-workers so we have been there and done that and know of what we speak.

-- Kathy Buono (email)

This is a very scary admission! What is it these admirals are being "briefed" on, if you do not have even 5 minutes of their time?

Michael Round

-- Michael Round (email)

If giving a five minute brief, the four-page report would be the read-ahead. Take additional copies in with you. Don't generate a second "briefing" document, especially don't generate a briefing PowerPoint. Briefing documents only separate the discussion from the original report. Walk in and take a minute to introduce the report, discuss (the admiral will have read ahead or will at least appreciate having rich data available). Expect to leave with some decisions that require action, either on your part or someone else's. One reason the admiral would like to have the data-rich document is the admiral may rely on it at some other point during the day, the week, the month, the year. Printed PowerPoints are very heavy and bulky compared to a report.

-- Niels Olson (email)

I posted the link o the Expasy biochemistry chart in the Design of causal diagrams: Barr art chart, Lombardi diagrams, evolutionary trees, Feynman diagrams, timelines thread on 9 July 2004. What is far better from my perspective as a medical student are the printed versions of the charts, which, at that time, were available free from Roche. Sadly I tried to replace mine after the flood and found the printed posters are no longer available.

-- Niels Olson (email)

Expasy Biochem Posters Still Available from Roche

I did finally receive the biochemistry wall charts, although Expasy's site says they are no longer available. If you order them, expect a rather vague e-mail that says

Thank you for your request, which will be taken care of by your local sales organisation. The following list contains your chosen items.
Don't expect the local sales organization to contact you. The charts will simply arrive in the mail, in my case, eight weeks later. Their arrival was timely, however, as we are about to start metabolism in Biochemistry. The most recent (4th) edition of Lehninger's Biochemistry refers to a different chart of similar information, surely inspired by Boehringer Mannheim original, assembled by the Kyoto Encyclopedia of Genes and Genomes. For the student, nothing compares to the posters.

-- Niels Olson (email)

The "Lessig method"

I have found no comments in the forum about the "Lessig method" for Powerpoint presentations.

It is inspired by presentations made by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig.


When I see the black background, old typewriter font and slogan-like phrases and the first thing coming to mind is Orwell's "1984". Maybe it is intended, as the subject of the speech is free culture and copyright control.

Do you think is it a valid "general" method or is it too tied to the message?

-- Carlos Garcia

Re: The "Lessig Method"

It seems to me that Lawrence Lessig's slides complement his presentations very well because he has a very clear idea of what he wants to say. His talk is highly structured and clearly well rehearsed. Many other speakers do not have such virtues, and would fail badly if they tried to copy Lessig's method.

Lessig's technique would be bad for people who improvise somewhat while talking, because you cannot be spontaneous when synchronizing what you're saying to what's on the screen requires almost split second timing. There is very little leeway in the format.

Lessig's technique would probably be limited in use for presentations that use graphed data. Most graphs take some time to decipher, and some are complex enough that they probably need to be up for a few minutes for an audience to have a chance to understand what it's showing.

What I do like about Lessig's method of giving presentations is that reminds me that presentations are what you can get away with. For instance, I've used the "one slide per minute" rule of thumb per years. Lessig uses far more slides and blows that guideline out of the water. It was really freeing to me to see that rule so completely shattered. It made me think where I could use that approach to good effect in some situations. The trick, of course, is not to mimic Lessig's style wholesale, but evaluate it and use it thoughtfully and when appropriate.

Creativity, a clear voice, and lots of practice win every time.

-- Zen Faulkes (email)

On the page to which Carlos Garcia directs us, this (http://lessig.org/freeculture/free.html) is provided as a good example of the Lessing Method.

I tried this quick experiment. I started the presentation, minimized the browser, and only listened to the speech. Then I started the presentation again and watched as well. Except for a minor joke about the presentation technology itself and a list of Disney movie titles, I didn't find anything in the visual presentation that wasn't in the speech. Nothing else in the visual presentation was useful and at times it was a distraction from Lessig's speech.

Lawrence Lessig is a excellent, thoughtful, and passionate speaker with an interesting topic worthy of his passion-- and that outshines the display.

-- Dave Nash (email)

At the seminar Edward Tufte taught in San Francisco, I was really delighted by the "visual music" video that was the final part of the presentation. Being the "finale" of the seminar, it created quite a unique "after-experience."

In the class I will be teaching myself to our office staff, about our corporate brand and design standards (which are very minimalistic) I am going to show this video at then end:


It is entitled "Microsoft Re-Designs the Ipod Packaging."

-- Tatiana Pechenik (email)

Project Manager Leaves Suicide PowerPoint Presentation (from the Onion)

-- Rob Mahurin (email)

A recent entry on Bug Bash (a satire of ongoing software development oddities - based at a company that resembles Microsoft - that all too often hits closer to home than many of us at the company would like to admit) has an amusing take on what happens to information when it's mangled by bad PowerPoint authoring. The artist explores what one's thought patterns might (do?) resemble after spending too much time developing a slide deck.

See it at http://www.bugbash.net/comic/47.html

-- Rob (email)

When my editing business tanked briefly after 9/11, I took a part-time job as assistant to the manager of the mechanical engineering department at Stanford - 35 years after getting my MA. The university was converting to an Oracle-based financial system, and we admins were forced to endure many dreadful PowerPoints.

Perhaps my 35 years as a meditator helped me understand that the worst thing about PowerPoint is that it splits attention. I discovered that if I simply closed my eyes and opened them only when the speaker said something I couldn't register audially, I got a lot more out of the presentation. My brain felt clear and fresh - the result of concentration. From then on, those sessions became mildly enjoyable.

-- George Beinhorn (email)

George makes an interesting point, one that I seem to have come to in a slightly different way.

When I lived in Raleigh, the local news would "simulcast" the TV on a local radio station. As such, I could listen to the local infobabe tell me about the stories that obviously were impacting my life. I found that not being able to see the video and only listen to the audio did very little to reduce my comprehension of what was being presented. The only parts that were difficult were when the weatherdude would say "... and the cold front is pushing in from over *here*...". Ovbiously, I couldn't see where he was pointing.

So, what does this mean? In order for the audio and the video to create synergy, they have to deliver different types of information. For those who like the leftbrain/rightbrain model, I seem to remember that the audio is leftbrain and the video is rightbrain. As long as there are pictures that augment the audio, everything works fine.

But when the video is simply a bullet list (as is often the point in the dreaded ppt presentation), the reading of the list (visual) actually interferes with the listening to the speaker. They are both leftbrain activities. Meanwhile, my rightbrain is looking for something to process and usually ends up with things like "Wow, he should have used hanging punctuation on that slide" or "If I squint, the bulleted statements look like a duck driving a Volkswagon" or "Gosh, I hate that Arial typeface".

Instead of producing synergy with the audio and video, ppt bullet lists actually produce antagonism because the text on the screen and the voice in my ears are actually two different things. I challenge anyone to try to read while listening or listen while reading. All we get is leftbrain channel-flooding and rightbrain pattern-searching.

Sometimes I get snotty in meetings and say things like "I'm sorry, could you repeat what you just said? I was busy reading your slide." Hee, hee.

Of course, I'm not a doctor of psychology (but I play one on TV) so I don't have any hard data to back this up. My only evidence is that I cannot read and listen at the same time, unless both texts are the same. In that case, what's the point in reading it to me when I can read it faster than someone can read it to me?

-- rafe donahue (email)

The Takahashi Method

Another interesting take on presentation materials: http://presentationzen.blogs.com/presentationzen/2005/09/living_large_ta.html

Large, short words, text only.

-- larry (email)

When you look at the "Takahashi Method" as discussed in the link above, the information density in each slide is about as close to zero as you can get. True, it may be Japanese minimalism. But my question is then "Why bother with the slides at all?"

There appears to be such an overwhelming desire to use a projector regardless of whether or not you need it.

-- Andrew Nicholls (email)

The only - mildly - interesting point to make in evaluating the Takahashi method is the difference in how one perceives an ideogrammatical script (japanese & chinese, hieroglyphics) compared to an alphabetical script (latin and cyrillic alphabet based languages, arabic, thai, korean ... ).

Information density of ideograms is fairly high: you need only one or two in order to convey an idea / word, and "Newspaper Headline" style writing in Japan dispenses with most grammatical structure altogether.

ET has long used examples of Japanese flyers, timetables, etc ... as good design, and rightly so. However, I've always felt that in this respect the Japanese (and Chinese) "have it easy" in the sense that their mode of writing lends to tweaking and design integration which is impossible for western designers. Hence more opportunity in the West for PowerPoint-induced failures(or, depending on how you look at it, more opportunity for creative breakthroughs)

On the other hand, this "easy design integration" has allowed for a pervasive sense of "goodness" in everyday design in Japanese culture, which is highly refreshing to me.

Apart from that, the "Takahashi method" looks suspiciously like an outbreak of the magical number seven disease.

And please, a computer programmer with NO access to powerpoint, or a drawing program ?

-- Paul Atlan (email)

Mick Jagger uses a tele-prompter to cue lyrics.

Many years I saw George Jones and Tammy Wynette show with scrolling words near their on-stage monitor speakers. Last week at the Manhattan Center Rosanne Cash and Steve Earle made a video recording with scrolling lyrics nearby. The article linked above suggests that Autocue or similar is widely used.

In my lectures, the hardest thing to remember and keep in proper order are changes in subject, and so I have notes on my table showing the sequence of material for the day. Maybe this is why some speakers like PowerPoint, since it essentially shows sequential prompts. Most performers like to conceal those prompts, however.

-- Edward Tufte

Earlier this year, as part of a law school class on Estate Planning, I had to give a 15 minute oral presentation on the relationship between the Federal Estate Tax and the state estate tax in the context of the marital deduction. As a budding disciple of the anti-PP movement, I was determined to come up with a non-PP visual aid to express the approach one takes in allocating the marital deduction, the objective being to explain how to draft a document that empowers the trustee to make the needed allocations.

My solution was an extra-large, rectangularly-shaped pizza freshly ordered from a nearby pizza parlor. I made the first slice about 1/3 from the right border, and called the larger portion the federal allocation. I made the second about mid way, and called it the state allocation. Then I asked a fellow student finish slicing and hand out the pizza to the class while I wrapped up my discussion.

Corny, but it was good for an A, both in the presentation and the course.

The lesson, I suppose, is that simple, even corny solutions sometimes work.

Regards, P.

-- Peter (email)

The NASA report mentioned far above (Clarity in Technical Writing) is still available, but the recommended URL is:


-- Keith Conover (email)

Edward, in his most recent post to this thread, talks about subject transitions being the most difficult to remember during a memorized presentation.

I believe that almost any leading actor would agree.

So would most musicians.

That is why the "set list" is almost as ubiquitous as a spare set of guitar strings.

A few years ago I memorized a 30 minute talk to be given multiple times over the course of three days. The talk included a performance by a professional musical group.

On one very unpleasant occasion, I locked up at a subject transition. Seeing the look of terror in my eyes, my stage manager bailed me out with a whispered prompt from offstage.

After the show, the sax player said to me, "Why don't you write a set list and put it by your feet?"

I've done this ever since.

And have never needed it.


-- Kenneth Jacob


I went to ET's lectures twice; once for the information and once to observe his presentation style. On the second lecture I put the books away to watch ET. I saw that he could finish a point, look at all of us to make sure we got it, and then return to his notes to find his next point. I have used that ever since. Take a breath. Your presentation is not Top 40 radio.

-- Dave Nash (email)

I work for a small company with a very limited budget and general aversion to printed documents. It is preferred to have everything written, read and commented right on the computer. I have found out that the documents prepared following the standard recommendations are very hard to read in the screen and that peopleo tend to prefare those prepared in "PowerPoint style". I have come to the compromise of preparing MS Word documents in landscape orientation, two columns, using a rather loose line setting, with fonts like Georgia or Tahoma that are easier to read on screen while trying to avoid simple sentences and the sadly love bullets.

Does anybody have experience with designing documents for the screen? Any recommendations?

-- Javier (email)

Here's a few thoughts:

Use the horizontal layout; it fits the screen, generally, and with most contemporary monitors can be seen and read without difficulty as a full page. There's been a fair bit of thought put into this by pdf practitioners and they all seem to agree that the horizontal format makes for the better screen document. Search pdf horizontal layout best practices for a number of commentaries.

Use just one column. This leaves plenty of room for your own in-context side notes or graphics within the source document, and also for reader comments.

Here's two examples. Below is one of 1700 pages from a pdf document I produced to be read on the screen.

Another example, in a more business news vein, using a 3 column approach. This page is from an English langauge commentary on the business climate in China.

For best results for both text and graphics, use good page layout software: InDesign, Quark Xpress or even a copy of PageMaker if you've got one. And then distill the document to pdf. Word is just OK with type and maddeningly finicky with graphics. The fonts you mention are fine, but using a page layout program and converting to pdf will allow you to use a wider variety of fonts.

Don't limit your investigations to just digital documents. A lot of these issues have been worked out in print too, from early manuscripts to music scores to Richard Feynman's Lectures to our host's exceptional volumes. See this here on Ask E.T.: Sidenotes or footnotes or what?

Also look into Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style and a related web site, Richard Rutter's The Elements of Typographic Style Applied to the Web.

-- Steve Sprague (email)

I gave a presentation early June to the Apple Keynote engineering/UI team in Pittsburgh delineating my presentation style in the hope of encouraging the team to consider taking on some of my desires in the next version of the software. One of the things I emphasised was how to convey authenticity while maintaining attention.

Instead of constructing Powerpoint-style slides, I used as much original material as possible: screenshots from websites, book covers, journal articles complete with their headers, abstracts, and main paragraphs, which I then enlarged as "callouts" in the style of contemporary current affairs programs. This included animations and motion where I believed it added to, rather than subtracted from, the main message, and added to the combined desire of earning authenticity while maintaining audience attention.

This is such a different style when compared to the cognitive style of Powerpoint, that some of my science-based colleagues, while acknowledging for themselves its effectiveness, are still too apprehensive about emulating it for their own presentations. Me, I enjoying challenging scientists to shift from their style of presenting based not on evidence but social conformity.

-- Les Posen (email)

It seems that the NASA report "Clarity in Technical Reporting" has moved again. I found a link to it through the NASA Technical Report Server


Searching for the title (Clarity in Technical Reporting), author (Katzoff), and or report number (SP-7010) all lead to the correct document -- for the time being.

-- Sean Garrett-Roe (email)

Google says it developed Wave to answer the question, "What would email look like if we set out to invent it today?" It would look like this:


The screen shot makes me sea-sick.


-- B Wasserman

In the early days of pen writing, scrolls were used. Bound books came along later and were easier to store and to skip around in. With a few exceptions, pagination in books is largely an artificial layer imposed by publishing constraints. The writer and reader do not operate pagespace, but in chapters, sections, paragraphs and so on.

Overhead projectors used to allow scrolls of acetate. I never used these, myself, but what I and many presenters would do is try to put the bottom of one sheet on the projector together with the top of the next. Often pens and coins would be employed to keep gravity from pulling the overhanging ends of the sheets off the projector. An even better system used two overhead projectors. When the presenter finished with an overhead, it went onto the second projector.

The advantage of scrolling over flipping is especially marked when the reader doesn't control the rate of scrolling or flipping. Often some of the audience isn't finished with the bottom of one page before the presenter is ready to move on to the top of the next. With scrolling, the screen acts as a first-in-first-out buffer. Further, the presenter often needs the context of the previous slide: It is good to have the statement of the theorem visible as one starts to discuss the proof. ET's review of the iPhone shows the advantage of scrolling over flipping in low bandwidth media.

When LCD projectors started to be used in the classroom, I saw no reason to change from scrolling to flipping. On the contrary the technology now made it a fair contest. (No more impromptu paperweights or sheets falling on the floor.) In most of my notes, new sections start at the top of the page, but each section is a scroll of information that fills as many screens as needed. Pagination may still there but it should fade into the background. (Use tight top and bottom margins; avoid or minimize headers and footers.)

Of course PowerPoint can't be used as the projection software; it doesn't scroll. But the equally ubiquitous Acrobat Reader can. (Acrobat can also show two slides side by side, which almost emulates two projectors; unfortunately, in this mode, it always flips by two pages!) WYSIWYG document editors (such as MS Word) can also be used as projection software; Word has a display mode that makes page breaks almost disappear. Web browsers can also be used; if your notes are prepared with HTML, then scrolling is the natural mode. (Indeed you then have the opposite problem of ensuring that the printed version paginates well.)

I should note that my context is the university classroom and my subject is computer engineering. (And in a discussion of presentations, context is crucial: university lecture / workshop discussion / professional presentation / conference presentation. What is the size of the room? What is the size of the screen? Will there be a white-board? Is the white-board behind the screen?) In that context, the projected notes must serve several purposes. They serve as the skeleton of the oral presentation. They also serve as a written record of the lecture. For me that means that my notes have a lot of formulae, algorithms, and most importantly sentences that link and explain. I try to make my hand outs and my slides one thing.

A single development of an algorithm, proof, or formula or a single example rarely fits on a single screen and rarely lends itself to being chopped into equal sized frames.

Scrolling vs flipping is just one axis of rhetorical style. But I think it's one worth taking seriously.

-- Theodore Norvell (email)


this falls under display technologies, or thwarting display technologies:


-- BW (email)

Earlier today I decided to take a look at the evolution of my teaching materials for a course I've taught every other year for about 12 years. I ended up making an annotated timeline, including some references that may be interesting to this discussion. Picture at:


The two transformational events for my teaching were the Tufte seminar and Harvard's Participant-Centered Learning seminar. The outcome is essentially a teaching devoid of slides for the most part.


-- Jose C Silva (email)

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