January 24, 2005


Edward Tufte came to San Diego today, offering one of his day-long design seminars.

Edward Tufte (initials: E.T.) holding up a model of the space shuttle, mishaps of which he spent a lot of time talking about during the day. He also reminded people that the shuttle's "external tank" had the abbreviation E.T.

There wasn't a lot that was new (I've read two of his three design books), but it was fun to see original, hundreds-of-years-old, first-edition bound editions of books by Galileo, Newton, and others. If only such old books could talk: what stories they could tell.

Tufte complains a lot about the lack of resolution in computer displays, compared to what is possible in print (and what was possible even in the 1500's). How long do you think your website will last, he asked at one point.

This theme of leaving traces -- audit trails, something that could be archived -- popped up again and again during the day. In other words: use paper, he seemed to say. Leave a sheet of paper with all the people you give a PowerPoint presentation to.

The theme reminded me of the ongoing nagging feeling I have about the lack of library indexing of online publications -- online magazines, forums, you name it. Take Salon for instance. Still not indexed in the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature, and there's no print archive in libraries that I know of. Where will Salon be in 300 years? Or Slate, or any blog for that matter?

Experiencing Tufte
My Tufte experience began with a bad design: the registration tables had four or five people behind them, and I walked up to the second person from the left. Oops, mistake. That person only handled registrations for people whose last name began with "E" through "I" or something. There were three or four people behind the "A" through "D" table to the left. The problem? The visual cues were high above the tables, taped on the walls behind. Well, when you walk up to a seminar registration table, what do you look at, the table and the registrar seated there, or a little sign taped high up on the wall behind?

My next Tufte experience was to walk into the hotel conference ballroom and notice there was a line at the front of the room, a long line, with people holding identical books open. There was Tufte, seated at a table, doing, he would later explain numerous times, "office hours".

"Office Hours" is a cute euphemism for "sign autographs". He offered "Office Hours" during every break, during lunch, and even after the event ended at 415pm. By then nearly all of the 300 attendees seemed to have gone through "office hours" (300 people x $320 per person . . . not bad for a day's work, and he's got two days in L.A. starting tomorrow).

Tufte during one of the numerous "office hours".

I decided when the day was over to go get in line. A woman stood in front of me and a bunch of people filed in behind. We waited for Tufte to set up a table and sit down. Just then Tufte's student assistant came over and swiftly placed a cold bottle of Corona beer on the table. Tufte took one look at it and waved it away indicating he didn't want it. The assistant quickly and quietly removed the bottle.

Every Tufte seminar attendee receives a bunch of expensive Tufte books, and mine were in a plastic bag. Tufte seemed surprised when I got to his desk and did not hand him a book for him to sign.

"I'm not here for an autograph, I just have a question," I said. I am certain I was the only attendee that day who did not request an autograph.

He quickly looked up to me, annoyed. This was not protocol. Then he looked to the next person in line behind me and told him to step forward, that he would continue signing autographs while I asked my question.

While he busily continued signing autographs, I attempted to ask my question. It was hard to tell how he could possibly be paying attention given how fast he was signing, handing a book back, signing again, handing the next book back, etc.

I asked him, given how he'd spent much of this afternoon trashing PowerPoint, what did he think about VCs like Guy Kawasaki urging entrepreneurs to follow a strict 10-page PowerPoint format when pitching a startup idea? Given that he'd spent much of today's seminar railing against the evils of PowerPoint, what advice did he have for entrepreneurs trying to communicate to VCs?

He looked up to me, annoyed. I'd asked a stupid question, I guess: wasn't it obvious, his body language seemed to say, that the answer was to dump PowerPoint altogether? He shrugged, continuing to write autographs.

"Just give them something to read on a piece of paper," he mumbled. "It has five times the resolution!" He went back to signing books.

I paused, wondering if he was going to say any more, but he wasn't. So I said thank you and walked past the long line of autograph-seekers behind me, out of the huge ballroom, out of the hotel to the parking lot, and drove back to the office, to finish polishing up a PowerPoint presentation for three VC meetings over the next two days.

Posted by brian at January 24, 2005 09:37 PM


Though Tufte may lack a few social graces, he does have a point. (No pun intended).

I recently sat patently through a GLP (General lab Practice) training seminar…4 fricken hours long!!! The trainer was an outside consultant, whom I’m sure was handsomely paid for her time. The problem was all she did was read from her Power Point slides. The worse part was she handed them out and it only took me 20min to read what took her 4 hours to explain. You would think in 4 hours there would be some small morsels or even a nugget of information outside of her Power Point presentation. But there wasn’t. Why? She makes a great living as a consultant…she’s been a GLP for over 15 years. So aren’t there any anecdotes she can share? Back in my days at SDSU, before the rise of graphically laden visuals programs like PowerPoint, I had to read for queue cards. When giving a presentation I learned the more graphics oriented the presenter’s subject matter was the true lack of substance there was in the presentation itself. The same could be said with modern news organizations. If the story is lack any real substance the network will simply lay on all the intense graphics and dangerous sounding music.

I found a happy medium. I still rely on, and heavily use queue cards, however I also augment my presentations with PowerPoint. I only use Power Point as another tool in my tool box, but not the only tool. As the saying goes, “if you only use a hammer then every problem becomes a nail”. I save the true information, the real meat of my subject, for the queue cards and use PowerPoint only to reach the entire audience. That way the audience is more focused on me and what I’m communicating rather then all the flash and pazzaz of what is on the PowerPoint slide.


Posted by: levin at January 25, 2005 09:34 AM

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