American Medical Writers Association

Indiana chapter

Presenting Data and Information; One-Day Course by Edward Tufte

Guest post by David Caldwell;  Notes on attending Edward Tufte's one-day course.

Edward Tufte, a pioneer in the field of visualizing data, touched lightly on several topics in his 4 books (The Visual Display of Quantitative Information; Envisioning Information; Visual Explanations; and Beautiful Evidence) during his recent presentation in Indianapolis.  My favorite of his examples was his opening video showing a lullaby by Chopin as a Microsoft Project timeline.  Here are a few highlights of his presentation.

Tufte’s main theme was that design should be simple and content should be complex.  Writers have the important job of leading their audiences through content.  This is fundamentally about thinking, not fashion.

Design is about reasoning about content.  Annotate parts of every graph to help the reader understand the display itself and understand the cause and mechanism that the graph’s content explains.  Other than that, leave design to the pros.  Weather maps by The New York Times, dashboards by ESPN, statistical graphs by The Wall Street Journal, and road maps by Google have been tested in the wild and work.  Use software like Python, R, LaTeX, D3, or Origin to create and stick with about 8 templates that are practical, discipline-specific, and tested.

Warm-up reading makes presentations more efficient.  Let audience members personalize the content of verbal presentations by providing them with a dashboard (electronic or paper) of each presentation and with time before the presentation to review it (e.g., 12 minutes for a presentation lasting 30 minutes).  Jeff Bezos uses this method for staff meetings at  The same idea applies to a doctor visit: list the symptoms of 5 medical problems, put this on top of the medical forms filled out in the doctor’s office, and have the doctor read the whole thing before the actual visit.

Rather than know the audience, know content and respect the audience.  Apple doesn’t do market research; it creates the best product possible, releases it, then looks at the response.

 When looking for content, try searching Google images.  Quilt, Tufte’s free open source software for collecting images, is available at

Additional information about Tufte’s work is available on his Web site (

Renewal in San Antonio

Attending the Annual AMWA Conference in San Antonio was a rejuvenating experience. I find this time of year to be stressful with deadlines and family obligations, so it is easy for me to feel burned out every day as I turn on my computer. The events and the AMWA members I met in San Antonio, however, reminded me of why we give our best every day: to help others.

The conference kicked off with an inspiring keynote by Jay Ingram, a Canadian broadcaster who was host of the Daily Planet on Discover Channel Canada from 1995-2011. He talked about how vital and important it is for medical and scientific communicators to be able to express abstract concepts in a clear and precise way. For example, a study conducted found that only ten percent of Americans can read a scientific article in the New York Times and understand it. Medical and scientific literacy is key to finding success in all sorts of medical fields and debates from determining the ethics of stem cell research to determining the significance of global climate change.

Beyond the fantastic open sessions, and workshops, I enjoyed meeting new AMWA members and interacting with the board members from other chapters. The national headquarters staff is fantastic and they are all working on new ways to deliver educational opportunities to AMWA members that better suit our hectic lives.

One of the reasons I joined AMWA is because every member I met was so welcoming and helpful to me as I had questions about the profession or needed advice. I have been involved with other groups throughout my life, but I cannot think of another one that rivals AMWA in terms of the openness of the members and their willingness to help. I hope you will find that as well, and I hope to see you all at events that we have planned throughout the year.

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