Gas station without pumps

2010 November 28


Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:07
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This post is not a list of tips for producing slides to support a presentation (maybe I’ll do a post on that some other time).  Instead, it is a reflection on a pair of essays by Edward Tufte and Jean-Luc Doumont.

I read and enjoyed Edward Tufte’s essay The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within. It is a hard-hitting critique of the “pitch culture” that turns all presentations into a series of bullet lists. I wanted to require it for my fall senior design class (which is largely about “soft” skills, such as team formation, management, verbal presentation, and writing), but I had a hard time justifying making the students pay $7 for a 32-page essay. Instead I required the free 6-page excerpt from the essay on Tufte’s web site that catches some of the main ideas, though it is not as well-crafted as the complete essay.  One of the main points that Tufte makes is that the choppy, bullet-list format encouraged by slides is destructive to longer narratives and connected thoughts, and that sentences and paragraphs are not evil.  Not in the excerpt is Tufte’s analysis of the spoof of the Gettysburg Address by Peter Norvig.

Edward Tufte is famous for his self-published books, particularly the first one, Visual Display of Quantitative Information, which is perhaps the best book around on presenting data graphically.  It should be required reading for every scientist, math teacher, science teacher, and journalist.  Edward Tufte also gives one-day workshops based on his books.  I’ve never been to one, but some of the grad students in my department have (Tufte gives a huge student discount: they get the seminar plus four of his books for just the price of the books).  The students report that he gives awesome seminars also, well worth the time and the money.

So Tufte’s credentials as a presenter of data are very, very solid, and people paid a lot of attention to his polemic against PowerPoint.  Perhaps too much so, as his criticism seems mainly directed at the use of slides to replace tech reports, which they clearly cannot replace.

Jean-Luc Doumont has written a good rebuttal to Tufte: “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Slides Are Not All Evil” (Technical Communication, 52(1), 64–70, Feb 2005), which Amazon sells for $6.  Doumont also gives a good seminar on presentation (I’ve heard the one-hour version), and so I respect his opinions also. I got permission from Doumont to distribute his rebuttal to Tufte to my class, but I put it up on a secure server behind password protection. It seems that other teachers either asked for more permission, or have less respect for authors’ copyrights, as the PDF file can be found on-line with a Google search (and not at Doumont’s own website, where it would be if he had truly meant for it to be distributed freely).

Doumont’s main point is that Tufte missed the point of slides:

Three commonsense considerations related to purpose thus invalidate much of Tufte’s case against the use of slides:

  • Oral presentations typically have a different purpose than written documents (different even than companion documents).
  • Slides in oral presentations are viewed while the presenter is speaking, not read in silence like written documents.
  • Tables and graphs, too, may serve a range of purposes, from analysis by oneself to communication to an audience.

The slides should support the speaker, not replace him or her. Both authors agree that (in Doumont’s words) “presentation slides do not double up effectively as [a] presentation handout,” because what is effective as a presentation aid is too terse to be of much use as a standalone document, and a useful standalone document is too wordy to be of much use as a presentation aid. I teach students that the purpose of an oral presentation is as an advertisement for the written document: to make the listeners aware of the ideas and interested enough to want to know more.  There should be just a handful of take-home messages from an oral presentation—trying to pack all the information of a detailed technical paper into a talk results in the listener coming away with nothing.

Doumont also criticizes Tufte for conflating the tool PowerPoint and the slides produced with it—many of the bad things Tufte points out are the fault of the presenters, not of the tool they used. His criticism here is perhaps a little too protective of Microsoft, as some of the common flaws that Tufte points out are indeed encouraged by the tool (PowerPoint provides many very bad templates).  Still, Doumont’s point is well-taken: it is possible to do good presentations with PowerPoint, even if it is not as easy as making bad ones.

Note: to create his own presentations, Doumont does not use PowerPoint, but uses \TeX with an idiosyncratic macro package, not a style many people will find easy to copy.  I also use \TeX, with the prosper package in \LaTeX, using Adobe Reader to present the resulting PDF files.  This is the only way I’ve found to include decent math formulas in presentations, something I often need to do.  (There are other \LaTeX slide styles, but I’ve been reasonably happy with prosper, and I was not at all happy with the original SliTeX program.)


  1. Beamer is a significant advance over prosper. In particular, using beamer, it is possible (and perhaps even ‘easy’) to program pictures, because it is built with TikZ. I switched to beamer a few years ago and it works well for me.

    Comment by plam — 2010 November 28 @ 06:45 | Reply

    • I’ve heard other people praise the “beamer” package for \LaTeX also, but I’ve not tried it yet myself. I’ll probably look into using it next time I need to prepare a new set of slides. I don’t use slides much in my normal teaching, and I’ve not done any conference presentations lately, so it’s been a while since I needed a new set.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 November 28 @ 12:33 | Reply

  2. Tufte has many architect fans by the way.

    “Slides in oral presentations are viewed while the presenter is speaking, not read in silence like written documents” – I must say that a perfect example of this Doumont idea comes from the move we have all seen a few times. An Inconvenient Truth provided us with riveting visuals that were highly dependent on the words being spoken, and the words being spoken were giving dramatic meaning. ‘Ted’ talks are the contemporaries who are riding this Gore created wave of highly effective public speaking with visuals.

    Either way you go, creating ‘powerful’ visuals with data is something in all of our grasps. In my blog, my very young blog, I’ll hope to make a good case that the data that we aggregate, disaggregate, represent and consume about student progress, is far more effective when the students themselves are consuming the data. And, yes, I have graphs to show that it is more effective.

    “There should be just a handful of take-home messages from an oral presentation—trying to pack all the information of a detailed technical paper into a talk results in the listener coming away with nothing.” – I wish you had helped out some presenters at the ECIS conference that I just got back from in Nice, France. Some were off the wall with information that I had no hope in remembering or using. So, that bit of advice will travel with me when I present at The ELMLE conference this coming January in Amsterdam. My gig will be 90 minutes and this presents quite a challenge for me to strike the right balance to make the audience enjoy and to get 90 minutes worth of conference value out of it.

    I’m interested in any ideas people have about format for those 90 minutes. Interactive, role play, lecture and more? So much planing ahead!

    Comment by Jim Ellis — 2010 November 28 @ 10:17 | Reply

  3. I’ve seen presentations done lately with Prezi ( that have really held the audience’s attention. Some of it is just the new gimmick aspect. I’m sure those types of zooming presentations are subject to some of the same problems as PowerPoint and some different ones. Sometimes the glitz of the Prezi is more interesting than the speaker. But, it does encourage you to be more visual in designing the “visuals”.

    Comment by Yves — 2010 November 29 @ 10:58 | Reply

    • I’ve looked at some prezi presentation on the web, but I’ve not seen one in the real world yet. The ones I saw on the web were more glitz than substance, and the moving and zooming nearly made me motion sick. It also seems difficult to take the “slides” out of order in Prezi, making the “canned” presentation even more restrictive.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 November 29 @ 11:04 | Reply

  4. I use mainly Word, Excel etc. and then create pdfs which I can insert other graphics into. Occasionally I use Powerpoint to create a couple of slides that I then pdf.

    Comment by David Stern — 2010 December 3 @ 15:29 | Reply

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