Communication Skills From The Master: Edward Tufte

Edward Tufte has suggestions on how to give good technical presentations
Edward Tufte has suggestions on how to give good technical presentations

If you don’t know who Edward Tufte is, then you really should. He is a Professor Emeritus at Yale University and his specialty is teaching people how to present data using information graphics. He is truly an expert on the best way to present complex information. A long time I was scanning the web when I ran across some notes that Craig Kaplan up at the University of Waterloo had jotted down on how to deliver great presentations after attending one of Tufte’s seminars. We’ve already talked about how to write a great presentation. I now share these suggestions on how to give a good presentation with the reverence that one must show to the words of someone who is really, really good at what they do:

  • Show Up Early!: Good things happen to those who show up early. Specifically, you can solve problems before they become unsolvable and you can take the time to introduce yourself to the audience as they arrive. This way when you start to speak neither one of you will be a stranger.
  • Have A Strong Opening: There are three questions that every opening must quickly answer: (1) What’s the problem?, (2) Who cares?, and (3) What’s your solution? Answer these questions and the audience will listen to your every word.
  • PGP: As you introduce a new sub-topic, make sure that you move from the particular, to the general, and then back to the particular. Although what you want the audience to take away from your presentation is the general info, the particulars will help make the info “stick”.
  • Know Your Audience — By What They Read!: This is Tufte’s twist on an old maxim of public speaking. He believes that knowing what your audience reads will help you understand what styles of information presentation works best for them.
  • Take Care When Answering Questions: There is a good possibility that your audience’s take-away impression of your presentation won’t be based on your presentation, but rather on how you answer questions AFTER the presentation. Allow for long pauses after the question has been asked and before you answer — this will give more weight to your reply.
  • Let Everyone Know That You Belive In Your Material: Speak with lots of convection! Clearly letting everyone know that you believe in everything that you are telling them is the key to getting them to believe it just as much as you do.

There you have it. Now please remember that Tufte also has the ability to use amazing graphics with his presentations that clearly communicate what lots of data has to say. However, even the best graphics won’t do you any good if you don’t remember these presenting rules from the master.


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