Canine Accountants and Technical Presentations

by R. L. Howser on November 2, 2010 · 1 comment

I’m often asked about the best way to present dense technical information in a PowerPoint presentation. The basic principles of visual presentation, of using visual images with just a few words or simple graphics, seem at odds with the need to communicate detailed data when presenting a technical subject. But those who ask the question are missing the point.

Asking how to better present technical data in a presentation is like asking which breed of dog would do the best job preparing your income taxes for you. There is an answer to the question – Border Collies tend to be smarter than most other breeds and would probably do a better job than Cocker Spaniels – but it begs the question of whether a dog is the best choice of financial adviser in the first place.

PowerPoint style presentation simply isn’t the best means of communicating detailed technical information. In fact, it can be counterproductive to the point of damaging your interests.

I’m far from the first to realize that. Edward Tufte, in The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, Second Edition, and the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman, in What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character, among others, have demonstrated this with far greater distinction and authority than I can. But the message doesn’t seem to be getting through. Dense screens of text, numbers and complex flow charts and graphics are still far too common in the conferences rooms and lecture halls of the world.

A far better approach is to present your data in a high-resolution, time-independent venue, such as a good old fashioned Word or Excel document, either digitally or on paper, and forgo the presentation altogether. Your audience will then have the time to delve into your data as deeply as they like, at their own pace.

If you must give a PowerPoint style presentation, use it to do what it does well – tell the story.

Talk to any good accountant, engineer or mathematician and they’ll tell you that there is always a story in the numbers, a story that tells you what is really going on. That story, not the numbers, is what presentation is good at getting across.

Highlight key points and use them to pull the story out of the data. Then back up the presentation, after you finish, with paper or digital handouts that give the full range of the data.

Trying to work around inherent limitations of presentation and presentation software, in order to convey detailed data, is a recipe for frustration and failure. Let presentation do what it does best.

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