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 Amazon.com.  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 www.imagequilts.com.

Additional information about Tufte’s work is available on his Web site (www.tufte.com).

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