PowerPoint / Presentations / Data Visualization

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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:

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?

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3 Comments


  1. “Sounds like a bit dry”!! I heard Nancy use words like “cool,” “engaging,” and “a good read” – where did you get “dry”? Admittedly, she said that my book was somewhat more analytically-focused, but why did you assume “dry” – or “niche” – from that? You are after all “Gilligan on Data,” not “Gilligan on Fluff,” so I assume that you would approve of an analytical approach to presentation design 🙂

    To your questions at the end of the post – yes, I think you can take the same rigor you have taken to data visualization and apply it to presentations, and no, you cannot push the envelope gently — you need to make that radical break!

    You can do it, I know you can, Tim. And if I can be of any help, let me know.

    Best regards,

    Andrew Abela
    Author of Advanced Presentations by Design, and presentation trainer to Microsoft (makers of PowerPoint) and other fine corporations.

  2. @Andrew My apologies — I think it was clear that I was making a pretty quick judgment based on my impression of one person’s video review. I went back and watched Duarte’s review again, and I think the phrases “like a doctoral thesis” and “real commitment to get through it” were what stuck in my mind. But, you’re right, in that she did use the phrases you pointed out (“cool” multiple times), and she closed with a “highly recommend.” Clearly, I need to order a copy and get firsthand knowledge! It’s on my list!

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