5 Rules for Creating Engaging Presentations

Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.”

-Edward Tufte

Edward Tufte is an expert in the field of data visualization. While his methods may seem quite simple, they can be difficult for people to grasp in our world of information overload. With the entire Internet at our fingertips and 24-hour news cycles blasting massive amounts of content at us all the time, a streamlined approach almost seems impossible. Nonetheless, E.T. (as he is known) is revolutionizing the way we get our ideas across to audiences.

This is not to imply that your average audience can’t handle large concepts or high-volumes of data when it is presented. Instead, what he focuses on is changing and perfecting how that data is shown to your audience. As E.T. has said, “If the statistics are boring, then you’ve got the wrong numbers.”

I recently attended one of his conferences and it was a fantastic learning experience! His main theme was reducing confusion in your presentations and making information clear and concise for your audience. He provided a lot of valuable tips and I will share a few of them with you here.

Encourage an Active Audience

One of the first assumptions presenters often make is that they have to speak “at” their audience. E.T. struck that notion down right away, because it is one of the classic presenter mistakes, which can lead to confusion. Instead, he stressed the importance of an active audience.

An audience that is more involved with your presentation, will be more present mentally, and more likely to remember your important points.  Let them read, encourage note-taking, and remind them to jot down questions to ask at the end. By bringing them through the presentation with you, step by step, they will be more engaged, and more active.

Another wrong assumption we make as presenters? Running too long. E.T. urged us to make our meetings 20% shorter than we normally would. People have a finite attention span, regardless of how interested they are. By ending sooner, you are actually helping your audience retain more information. Make your hour-long presentations closer to 48 minutes, and your half-hour presentations closer to 24 minutes.

Make Your First Slide a Data Dump

E.T. explained the impact the first slide should be a high-resolution “data dump”; something engaging like a piece from the New York Times, for instance. iPads are a fantastic tool to use when putting this strategy to work. It allows every person in the audience to have their own, high-resolution screen on which to read materials, and refer back to whenever needed.

Source: EdwardTufte.com

Even though you are putting a lot of information out there all at once, E.T. still reminded us to avoid taking questions at this point. Let your audience know that there will be a Q&A session at the end. This helps to keep the momentum going in your presentation, and avoids interruptions.

Give Your Audience Time to Read

As presenters, we often feel nervous about letting our audience silently read something for themselves, while we are standing in front of them, but E.T. urges that we do just that. Allow them 5-10 minutes to get through your introductory data dump slide. It is a good idea to highlight the sections you feel are most important, but otherwise, this is the hands-off portion for you.

Silent reading is really a great alternative to asking your audience to do “homework” ahead of time, because there is no guarantee that they actually read anything beforehand, and even if they do, there is a risk of them not remembering crucial information. Encouraging reading during your presentation gets everyone on the same wavelength, right here, right now. Remember that people can read two to three times faster than you can speak. This helps cut down on your overall run-time as well.

Those audience questions that you held off in the beginning of your presentation will come back around at the end. If there are somewhere around 30 or 40 audience members, E.T. recommends you take questions “press conference style”. This way, you can get through them quickly, while also making sure everyone gets a chance to speak.

About Your Audience

Something we often forget when planning a presentation is that your audience will most likely be remarkably similar to you.   Consider the motivations they have in attending your presentation. They want to see your presentation because it interests them. They can relate to you, because they have encountered similar situations. They already have a good base understanding of your subject matter Chances are, they have had many of the same experiences as you, and have the same questions you had as a result. <I don’t like this paragraph. Don’t ask questions, give answers.>

Having respect for your audience is of the utmost importance, and part of that respect means knowing your content. They are here to learn from you. This is not the time to throw confusing or half-understood information at them. Another great quote by E.T. is “Clutter and confusion are failures of design, not attributes of information.”

Avoid Getting Stuck

Over thinking your presentation is one of the main ways you can confuse or lose the attention of your audience. What E.T. suggests we all do here is follow a simple, all-purpose format. This is a presentation format that will work, regardless of the situation, and that will allow you to get as much information across as possible.

A great analogy he used is that of the doctor’s visit. Imagine you wrote down five of your concerns before you go to see the doctor. You give a copy of these five concerns to the medical receptionist, your nurse, and your doctor. Do you think your visit will go differently than the typical visit? Giving your doctor these clearly written out points will avoid interruptions, while also making sure you get to say everything you need to say. Think along the lines of a doctor’s visit when giving a presentation. What are the five things your audience must hear?

All that being said, E.T. is a huge detractor from Power Point. He has said that this is more of a reassuring “crutch” for the presenter, than it is a helpful visual aide for the audience. The higher up you go in the business world, the less Power Point you see. This is not co-incidence. PowerPoint makes for weak data visualization. You don’t need it, and neither does your audience.

Important Takeaways

  • Audiences can handle large amounts of data all at once, as long as that data is displayed with clarity.
  • Active audiences retain more than passive audiences. You are not there to talk “at” them. Encourage reading, note-taking and always allow time for questions at the end.
  • Make smart use of iPads or tablets, but avoid PowerPoint.
  • Your audience has a lot of the same experiences, questions, and base knowledge that you have. Begin by assuming that, and you can sidestep a lot of unnecessary clutter in your presentation.
  • Have an all-purpose plan, and follow it.

Remember that when E.T. said “… greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space,” he does not mean to dumb it down. Instead, trust your audience to be on your level, and convey information to them as though they are. When you look at your presentations through that lens, you will see that you can have shorter run times, you can cut down on handouts, and you can get information across without relying on programs like PowerPoint. It’s just a matter of making the data relevant, interesting, and streamlined.

Creating Engaging Presentations

Edward Tufte has authored a number of excellent books on the best methods for presenting data in interesting and effective ways.  I highly recommend all of his work, I think his first book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, is still the best.

This book is great for a number of reasons. The first is Tufte’s research. Providing examples of both good and bad graphic design, from as far back as the 1600’s, gives the reader an in-depth overview of the history of information display.

If you would like to take one of Tufte’s courses, you can follow this link for more information.