Improved Presentations with Two Lessons from Tufte

Having spent time in the Air Force and then developing software as a government contractor, I’ve survived more than my share of bad presentations. During this time I began reading the works of the statistician Edward Tufte[wiki]. I’d like to share two lessons for delivering technical presentations: 1) embrace handouts versus densely-packed slide shows and 2) avoid heirachical organization. You can implement these ideas immediately with the tufte-latex class.

With two examples, Tufte illustrates these lessons. His essay “PowerPoint Does Rocket Science” relays details of the 2003 Columbia shuttle accident. Boeing engineers had twelve days before re-entry to estimate the risk caused by foam insulation striking the shuttle’s wing and communicate the results to NASA. They opted to use PowerPoint, a common choice in the aerospace industry for technical communication. If you’re still unsure what Tufte thinks of this choice after reading that essay, you may find the answer here or here.

Tufte’s second example comes from a forum post on book design. He describes the layout of the classic physics textbook of Richard Feynman (who investigated the Challenger disaster):

“It is also notable that the Feynman lectures (3 volumes) write about all of physics in 1800 pages, using only 2 levels of hierarchical headings: chapters and A-level heads in the text. It also uses the methodology of sentences which then cumulate sequentially into paragraphs, rather than the grunts of bullet points. Undergraduate Caltech physics is very complicated material, but it didn’t require an elaborate hierarchy to organize.”

Tufte points out a number of problems with PowerPoint: low resolution, poor typography, linearity, heirarchical organization. Using LaTeX and Beamer certainly improves the typography situation compared to PowerPoint, but many of these issues remain. You can address all of them with a handout. Should you choose to create a handout for your next talk, I would highly suggest the Tufte/Feynman-inspired tufte-latex class.

Thoughts on improving your technical communication skills from other authors:

About Derek Smith

Former weather dude and scientific software developer. In the upcoming 2015-16 year I will complete my PhD at UCSB in nonlinear dispersive equations. I enjoy spending time with my two young daughters and running.
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