Visualizing data in PowerPoint and other types of presentations

This post has been brewing in the back of my mind for as long as I’ve been blogging. Over the years, I’ve translated, proofread, and sat through a number of fatally boring PowerPoint presentations weighed down with dull charts and riddled with bulleted information. During most of these sessions, the presenters peered intently at their little laptop screens, dutifully intoning the text word for word while the audience silently read the same information projected onto a larger screen. We have all become PowerPoint addicts, hiding behind our laptops like the Wizard of Oz hiding behind his shabby curtain. As presenters, we forget the rules of good communication and rely almost entirely on PowerPoint’s basic functions for visualizing data without creatively exploring its possibilities. As members of an audience, we struggle to read too much small print projected at a great distance, shift in our seats, and stifle yawns brought on by sheer boredom.

A three-day conference spent following one virtually identical PowerPoint presentation after another can be a mind-numbing experience. Edward Tufte, a celebrated PowerPoint detractor and author of the classic The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, estimates that unwitting humanity is subjected to trillions of PowerPoint slides each year. Although PowerPoint inventor Robert Gaskins is proud to point out in his personal website that by 2003 over 30 million PowerPoint presentations were made daily around the world, and that this software generated more than $1 billion in annual revenue for Microsoft that year, he’s also willing to admit that many people use his invention to grind out uninspired and insipid presentations. His website provides links to other sites that provide both commentary and critique, including Edward Tufte’s criticisms of the software and Ian Parker’s witty 2001 New Yorker magazine article “Absolute PowerPoint.

Considering that people make presentations with the motive of selling ideas, transmitting important information, or advancing careers, I must frankly say that many of the PowerPoint presentations I have translated or sat through have been counter-productive to the aims of their authors. Worse, people tend to apply their bad PowerPoint habits to presentations and documents they prepare in other media. As I make a special effort to make translations that engage the reader or listener, I have to admit that I’ve often wished that I could make my clients’ presentations a little more engaging as well. I’ve been compiling a file of presentations that have particularly impressed me and notes from various lectures given by presentation specialists. I’d like to use this post to share a few of them. Although some presentation techniques may be big budget and high-tech, others simply entail thinking out a presentation carefully and blending textual and visual components in an engaging and complementary way. Austin Kleon’s idea of thinking of a PowerPoint presentation as a series of comic book panels might seem ridiculous at first, but if one considers how comic strip artists communicate an entire idea in as few as five or six panels of images and text, it’s worth studying how  they manage to do it.

I learned a lot about mixing text and image last summer via a series of short lecture courses in subtitling taught by Paul Memmi through the translators’ Website. What do subtitled films have in common with PowerPoint presentations? Among other things, audiovisual presentations using text and subtitled films share the same mission of economically communicating complex messages to audiences that have very little time to capture and assimilate the flow of information and images presented to them.

Paul Memmi is a multi-faceted professional: theoretician, artist, linguist, professor, and translator all wrapped up in one very passionate and generous personality. I heartily recommend his online courses to anyone interested in the semantics of text and image. Although Memmi’s series of online sessions was devoted to translation for the audiovisual industry, he used various examples of word/image juxtapositions taken from other media such as painting and journalism to help participants understand the complex relationship between image and text.

Although the spatial limits imposed by PowerPoint software limit the amount of text that can be placed on a single page, it’s easy to ignore the temporal factor inherent to any presentation environment. All too many presentations drag on beyond the speaker’s allotted time or end abruptly because the presenter has failed to reach the final page before his or her time is up. Adopting a veteran film translator’s discipline of crafting a message to coincide with real or hypothetical “time code in” and “time code out” signals is a useful technique for ensuring that the content contained not only in each slide, but in the presentation as a whole, is consistent with the allotted time and a viable pace of delivery. Like  subtitled  footage of a film, a PowerPoint slide should not contain more text than an audience can read and assimilate during the time that the information is on view. The fact that the audience is looking a the slide while the speaker is talking doesn’t mean that the presenter should repeat all the words contained in the slide. An interesting image that establishes relationships like the graphic above  can serve as a springboard for any number of presentations on the implementation of technology  in the classroom. PowerPoint is a visualization tool and a good prompt, but it shouldn’t be the presenter’s script. Give yourself the flexibility to vary your presentation. You may want to avoid duplicating information provided in a previous speaker’s presentation or tilt your planned program to address an issue that kept everyone buzzing during a break. Conceptual graphics that illustrate the big picture will give you that freedom.

In a lecture given at the 2010 Mediterranean Editors and Translators conference in Tarragona, Spain, Jean-luc Doumont, author of Trees, Maps, and Theorems, seconded many of Paul Memmi’s ideas. Doumont holds an engineering degree from the Louvain School of Engineering and a PhD in applied physics from Stanford University. He has used his scientific and academic background to develop a lucrative international business focused on helping engineers, scientists, academics, and business people to hone their communications skills.

Any office that regularly uses PowerPoint to create presentations should have a copy of Doumont’s book Trees, Maps, and Theorems on hand. Doumont’s blog is an ongoing forum for analyzing the presentation blunders he sees everywhere. If you don’t have the budget to buy his book, at least have a good look at his blog. For example, are you guilty of piling too much information into a single PowerPoint slide? If you are, you’re in good company. Doumont uses this slide from a BNP Paribas presentation as an example of a slide that overwhelms the audience with too much text and too many graphic elements that add nothing to the presentation. The following excerpt from a recent post critiquing advertising Doumont saw in a Shell gas station in California illustrates his grasp of the principles of grammar and style and his missionary zeal to put an end to inappropriate and poorly formulated lists in corporate communications:

First of all, the above is a false list: its four items do not belong together, really, if only because the last item is about one grade
(V-Power) while the first three are about all three grades of gas. To challenge or to fix a list, identify the very nature of its items. Are these four qualities? Four benefits? Four customer actions? If the only nature you can come up with is “these are four things I want to say,” what you have is not a list: it is just a brain dump.
Second, the items are not grammatically parallel: the first item is a clause (subject + predicate); the second is a noun phrase; the third is an adjective phrase; the last is an imperative clause. To show that all items have the same nature, express them all in the same grammatical form, such as all clauses or all phrases. Doing so makes them easier to compare and to remember, too.
Finally, the whole thing is wordy and the emphasis, meaningless. At first glance, readers notice (in the list) the words “PROTECT,”
“ONLY at Shell,” and “maximum protection” which of course fail to convey anything meaningful. The last item could usefully place the objective before the corresponding action, too (not after it).
I am not sure the above information should be conveyed as a list, but if I were forced to use one, I would go for something like this.
Protect your engine against performance-robbing gunk with Shell’s unique nitrogen-enriched gasolines (all grades).
For maximum protection and optimum performance, use Shell V-Power premium gasoline.

While this example is not taken directly from a PowerPoint presentation, it is proof of how we transfer our bad PowerPoint habits to other media and a nice lesson on how to reduce a four-bullet list to two clean lines of advertising text. As the current trends favor the use of text and image combinations born on a computer screen for printed reports and billboards, Doumont’s wide-ranging critiques, like Memmi’s analyses of Magritte’s paintings and newspaper headlines, are useful references for those wishing to improve their presentation skills.

In a recent article for the website Design Taxi, Iliyas Ong wrote about the new discipline of data journalism, describing it as, “less opinionated than what a written analysis tends to be but more expository than a photo spread.” He also noted that data is “an incisive and neutral enough tool with which a writer can get down to an issue’s heart and explore all its corollaries.” The same article includes an interesting statement by Nathan Yau, a PhD candidate manager of the blog Flowing Data and author  of the book Visualize This: The Flowing Data Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics: “Data is a representation of real life, and charts and graphs can help you see what’s going on in the numbers. That said, I think words and visualization make a great combination.”

So what are some good examples of engaging data visualization? Just how far can one go in illustrating information? One example provided in another Design Taxi article is a chart illustrating the countries you might be happiest living in.

Another table I really like is a graphic representation of international Twitter traffic during the World Cup created by University of Maryland professor Jimmy Lin during a sabbatical spent programming for Twitter.

Lin’s original motive for tracking Twitter traffic during this crucial soccer championship series was, “to identify countries that could be promising new markets.” However, he believes that visualization of data can help researchers gain more insight from data analysis and sees this format for presenting data as an “’executive summary’ for the digital age.”

Social media reports combined with satellite imagery have been employed by researchers to create digital crisis maps that track and illustrate disasters, social upheavals, and refugee movements. In a short post for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Josh Fischman reports that these data maps are being used by the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to provide a bigger picture of the world’s crisis points for both relief workers in the field and interested people around the world.

Three fine examples of using visual mapping to illustrate scholarly projects are Erin Sell’s online, interactive map of the movements of the characters in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, created with Google Earth software, Boston College’s website Walking Ulysses that allows students and fans of James Joyce to compare the locations mentioned in Ulysses on period and modern maps of Dublin and filter for the author’s sensory references to smell, sound, taste, and touch, and art teacher Ward Shelley’s five-foot-wide painting that maps out the history of Science Fiction, part of Places & Spaces: Mapping Science,”

an international multidisciplinary project begun in 2005 for the purpose of providing a complete picture of “human activity and scientific progress on a global scale.”

Keeping in mind both Paul Memmi’s disciplined attention to time code points and Doumont’s analytic dismantling of Shell’s misguided reliance on traditional bullet points, it’s worth having a look at two short videos that creatively fuse data, text, images, and music to convey an amazing amount of information via very compact narrative presentations. Freed from bullet points, pared down to the essentials, and paced and edited to weave a maximum level of synchronicity between all their components, Cassidy Gearhart’s PSA video for Doc2Dock, a charity that collects unused medical supplies in the U.S. and redistributes them to needy communities throughout the world and National Geographic’s video “The World’s Most Typical Person” created to promote a year-long series of articles on global population issues in the National Geographic magazine are brilliant examples of how data can be visualized to create strong, engaging messages that linger in the viewer’s memory.