Learning from the man who hates PowerPoint

Edward Tufte has a lot to say about PowerPoint. Not much of it is good.

The retired Yale professor’s 2003 commentary for Wired magazine, “PowerPoint is Evil,” remains one of the most forceful arguments against that program and other slideware. PowerPoint, Tufte says, does more to help presenters organize their slides than it enables audiences to understand them.

But PowerPoint hasn’t gone away, of course, despite the fact that Tufte’s fundamental argument is proved every day by the crowded, confused, and incomprehensible slides all of us see. So, we are fortunate that he doesn’t just complain about PowerPoint, he wrote a handful of books about how to make those slides better.

Tufte’s Visual Display of Quantitative Information is a remarkable book that will help you improve not just your PowerPoint slides, but any medium that illustrates data. Tufte’s premise is simple, but difficult to execute: audiences benefit from seeing slides with a clean, clear design that comes from using the least information required to support your point coupled with uncomplicated graphics, charts, or other illustrations.

Tufte’s advice is not entirely earthshaking. But no one has worked more brilliantly and passionately to improve the experience of PowerPoint audiences than he has. As brilliant as Tufte is, though, there needs to be more. We need a strong, complementary framework that can be used to think about the content that should go on every slide before determining its design.

Here’s a recommendation. The headline of each slide should articulate that slide’s argument. The body of the slide should be used to support the slide’s argument. Tufte’s admonitions should serve as our guide for what goes in the body. This framework is called the assertive-evidence (AE) approach. It was originally used for presentations about scientific research and has several important influences on a presentation.

AE forces the presenter to make his or her arguments clearly and concisely throughout the presentation. No longer can the slide title be a description. It must actively support the thesis of the presentation by making an argument. By doing so, it takes the textual discussion of the argument (and lots of bullets and sub-bullets) out of the body of the slide and leaves it vacant for the good stuff: the argument’s proof.

Some hate to change their presentations. A well-worn presentation, while providing temporary comfort to the presenter, quickly loses its effectiveness with the audience. Edward Tufte has spent the last 20 years or so coaxing presenters out of the dense, cushy, script-like slides that are easy for us to lean on. He wants us to create presentations with content and design that are so clear in their sparsity that our arguments are digestible, compelling, and memorable for the people in the room who matter most: our audience.

Rod Hise is president of Rod Hise & Co. Ltd., a strategic communications consultancy.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.