Signal-to-Noise ratio and the elimination of the nonessential
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Slide design: signal vs. noise (redux)

Mackey A few weeks ago, the CEO of Whole Foods Market, John Mackey, gave a presentation called "Past, Present, and Future of Food" for an audience of 2000 in Berkeley, California (watch the video). You can read about the context and content of Mackey's presentation here in this UC Berkeley News article. Essentially, John Mackey was there to make a presentation and have a conversation that would persuade Michael Pollan (who was critical of Whole Foods in his bestselling book The Omnivore's Dilemma) and a skeptical Berkeley audience that his large company still has the credibility to lead the food movement into the future. Mackey (see his blog) gave a 45-minute talk "aided" by 67 text-filled slides followed by an on-stage conversation with the host Michael Pollan. Most people felt that the evening generally was successful given Mackey's sincerity, honesty, and general likeability, but John Mackey's "multimedia presentation" as it was billed, could have been so much more.

Live and learn
Mackey's presentation in Berkeley is a wonderful example of a presentation by an intelligent, personable, and passionate leader that easily could have been insanely great but was not. "[Mackey] raced through the slides like a Ph.D. student presenting his dissertation," said the UC Berkeley reporter in the audience. It was not a disaster by any means, based largely on Mackey's sincerity and the courage it took just to show up at all, but it's a shame the presentation itself was not better planned and delivered given the importance of the topic and the profile of the speaker. Frankly, when you're trying to change the world, there is no excuse for being dull.

How could it have been better?
There are so many ways in which John Mackey could improve his presentation. Here are just three:

  • It's a story. This topic screams "Story" yet there was no story that I could follow. There were bits and pieces (some of it interesting) and way too much history and data-without-purpose.

  • Make it shorter. Cut the presentation part of the evening to 20-25 minutes and spend more time discussing on stage with the host, taking questions from the audience, etc. This is when the evening really got interesting.

  • Make it visual. There are no boring topics, but this topic is especially interesting and provocative. There is no reason in the world to make this dull visually or otherwise, but he did. (Although the movie he showed in the middle was shocking and provocative.)

There are numerous other things to consider too, but I'll focus just on the slides here as it is a good follow-up to our discussion last time on the signal-to-noise principle.

Signal-to-noise ratio (redux)
Last time we were talking about the advantages of a high signal-to-noise ratio in presentation visuals. Mackey's slides are a great example of slides that did not really do anything to help the audience. The slides were stuffed with text, small photos with superfluous animation, and Excel-generated charts so bad and so ugly it's hard to imagine a cheetah with only a cursory understanding of PowerPoint making anything worse. Here you can download the slides (PDF) used in John Mackey's presentation.

A couple of samples

This slide was on screen for 10 seconds. John Mackey's only point: Mexico is first in organic tropical fruit production; Paraguay second, Ecuador third. Perhaps there was another way to support his point visually during that 10-second period? Did people remember this fact (among the scores of other facts), and how did it contribute to the story?

"In our excitement to produce what we could only make before with great effort, many of us have lost sight of the real purpose of quantitative displays — to provide the reader with important, meaningful, and useful insight."

                                                             — Stephen Few

It would not have been hard at all to simplify Mackey's visuals so that they augmented his talk better. The slides below, for example, I generated in Keynote in just a few minutes (the same could have been done in PowerPoint 2007).

Break up the bullets

Many of John Mackey's slides were packed with several small bulleted points. Usually he only touch on one or two of the points written in each slide. The slide below (left) is not unusual in today's business world either. This is a poor visual (and a poor document). The slide on the right is an attempt to highlight just one of the points from the original slide to complement the narrative.

Profit  Sustain

No pie for you!
Few I am not against pie charts outright. In business, for example, we have become quite used to showing simple data like market share (our share of the pie). However, it is true that pie charts are over used and often inappropriate. Rather than making data easier to see, a pie chart (especially a 3-D rendering of one) can make data harder to understand visually and quickly. In Show Me the Numbers by Stephen Few the author says "I don't use pie charts, and I strongly recommend that you abandon them as well." Few says that pie charts communicate poorly. I tend to agree with Mr. Few. Take a look at the example below from John Mackey's presentation.

"Europe accounts for 66% of the world's arable land in organic production" — I think that was the main point. This was on screen for a very short time. Can you tell which slice is "2%"?

            "I come to a food event for pie, not pie charts!"

                        — from coverage in the UC Berkeley News

Let's look at a few example of alternative ways to show the same information below (though the best design choice may have been to omit the use of this and perhaps all charts entirely).

The colors were derived directly from the Whole Foods Market website using the eye dropper tool in Keynote's color picker. Asia, Africa, Oceania were combined because 1%x2 plus 2% were difficult to show without clutter (though it is very possible to do so).  A declarative sentence would be better, but I was not sure what the key point actually was.

A pie chart with many small "slices" can become tedious and cluttered. Below I put the data in the form of simple bar charts while experimenting with colors.

V_bar1  V_bar2
Generally, if the bars are a different color, there must be a reason. On the right N. America is highlighted.

H_bar1  H_bar3
Using horizontal bars to show the data it seems easier to make quick comparisons, but my designer wife disagreed favoring the pie chart for giving one "the feel" for how one part compares to the whole. Pie charts are ubiquitous in Japan as well.

Another possibility. This has good contrast, but the image may add noise for some audiences. Or does the image add an appropriate "emotion" and interest or serve as a kind of mnemonic which aids in memory?

The pie chart
Apple_ad Virtually every presentation book on the market recommends the use of pie charts to show how parts make up a whole. Some experts in the visual display of quantitative information, however, strongly recommend against using pie charts. The use of pie charts is ubiquitous in today's world, but we may want to re-think our usage of such charts. Sometimes the use of pie charts can indeed seem ridiculous such as when used to show 12-15 "slices." This Apple commercial pokes fun at the pie chart, and below is my version of the Pac-man pie chart that has been circulating around the internet for some time. Again, I think pie charts can be used from time to time, especially in business, but it's worth reexamining our old charts to see if there is a more appropriate way.


An example of a different way
Take a look at these slides below on the Sustainable Food Laboratory website (Keynote and PowerPoint versions available for download).  These slides were used in a similar kind of presentation to the one John Mackey gave in Berkeley. I would love to hear the presentation that goes along with these visuals.

Sustain1  Sustain1a

Kicking it up a notch
I have a lot of respect for John Mackey and I was a loyal Whole Foods customer when I lived in Palo Alto and Cupertino, California. If the Whole Foods CEO is going to do a lot of public presentations like this in future, with just a little coaching and presentation redesign, he can kick his overall impact up several notches. I'm hoping that he does.

"My Letter to Whole Foods" (by Michael Pollan)
"An Open Letter to Michael Pollan" (by John Mackey)
Many Eyes
Tons of great articles by Stephen Few


David Kolar

I see a big difference between the pie- and bar-chart versions of the "Arable land in organic production" slides.

I see the pie charts as showing each continent's share of the world's organic production. The continents' shares will add up to 100%, which is inferred though the use of a pie chart.

I see the bar charts as showing what percentage of each continent's arable land is being used for organic production.

The pie charts are telling me that Europe is the source of most of the world's organic production while the bar charts are telling me that Europe's land is more likely to be used for organic production than other continents' land.

johnmoore (from Brand Autopsy)

It’s no wonder Mackey’s slides weren’t as dazzling as his stores are. The company culture within Whole Foods Market (WFM) disdains PowerPoint.

I spent some time at WFM as a marketer and remember being told not to use PowerPoint when putting together marketing strategy documents. WFM prefers verbal discussion and two-page overviews instead of visual PowerPoint presentations.

Garr … excellent job on doing a PowerPoint makeover for Mackey’s slides.

Rick Turoczy

John: I'm a firm believer that people who claim to "disdain PowerPoint" are under a far deeper obligation to make their presentations better than those who "adore PowerPoint."

Disdain for the medium should result in your improving the medium, not wallowing in it.

Garr: When I first read the data points, I envisioned a world map, where the continents were blown out of proportion, based on the metrics. I thought this would drive home the point. Good or bad idea?

Rowan Manahan

Really strong and thought-provoking post Garr. My one question - if this presentation was important to Mackey, why didn't he sit down with a design prefessional and hammer out even a handful of ideas such as those you've so excellently scamped out here?

The presentation either matters or it doesn't. If it doesn't, then DON"T make a presentation.

Rishabh R. Dassani

Nice review of the presentation, Garr. I wonder what Steve Jobs would say if he saw this presentation. Personally, I can't even stand the look of these "ugly bill gatish" presentations; I know I am not alone. Jokes apart, I think presentation basically comes down to story telling and telling it in a way like you would to a friend and not present per se. Now, the use of pie charts is quite subjective. I liked the pie chart you came up with, its SO much better than the one in Mackey's presentation. I also liked the 2d pie chart SJ used in his presentations to display the market share for iTunes, etc. It subtly conveys the message that less is more.



Will you give some comments on my recent post?

the add is:

It's also talking about the numbers,and how to use a different way to show numbers in presentation.:)


You often seem to think that putting a large photograph in the sterile picture bank style in the background of a single sentece is "the" way to put together presentations.

However, the way you put pictures of anonymous people in the background just makes the message weird: you're pulling them out of context in an effort to make them represent a general idea or a thought, and it doesn't work.

What's the message in putting an Asian woman in the background of your slide that says sustainability is good: I say it screams out loud "look, we've got this one Asian and also a woman here to illustrate what sustainability really means".

You don't see a problem with that, at least in the sense that the photos are cliched to say the least and just make the slides dull.

Sorry about the broken English.

Garr Reynolds

>the way you put pictures of anonymous people in the background just makes the message weird:

I think you may have misunderstood my point. The point was that it is often (not always) better to segment a bulleted slide into several slides. That is, to breakup bulleted slides with many points into visuals that come in behind the speaker as he focuses and elaborates on one key idea at a time. The one point in this slide is *not* "sustainability is good" as you say (that is hardly a point). His point was that "sustainability necessarily includes profit," that is, it is *a business.* It's a business, that's his point. Showing one of his workers in the *background* (with the text message prominent in the foreground) is not out of context, nor does it make the message "weird."

Are you saying, then, that the 10-second display of a dense text-filled bulleted slide with several different items that were not touched on is better than a visual with one key point at a time? You could just go with nothing more than the text in this particular slide as well. The image of the store clerk taking inventory (doing business) is just an example, an option, one idea among many possible treatments. And I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, but I must say I am not sure why the store worker being Asian and female is so noteworthy and "weird." This particular image is from some stock CDs which I purchased last year for an organic food store project. It is just a sample -- If Whole foods ever used an image like this obviously they can take snaps of their own stores.

Cheers! -g

Alan Pritt

"When I first read the data points, I envisioned a world map, where the continents were blown out of proportion, based on the metrics. I thought this would drive home the point. Good or bad idea?"

Could work very well. The cortical homunculus... certainly very memorable and follows the same idea.


It's interesting to see your versions of the slides and I do feel that they have a stronger visual impact and convey the message better.

However, I don't have the same disdain for pie charts. Well, maybe the 3D ones with ugly colours that are difficult to read. Could this be a corporate thing? I do feel that your pie chart conveyed the message as efficiently as the bar charts.

Bruce Miller

"When I first read the data points, I envisioned a world map, where the continents were blown out of proportion, based on the metrics. I thought this would drive home the point. Good or bad idea?"

I have always found this type of chart to be a poor communication tool. It suffers from some of the same problems as the twisted, 3D graphic. It's very challenging to compare the mass of multiple irregular shapes.

Rick Turoczy

Thanks, Garr and Bruce, for the response about the map concept. I was wondering if it was too esoteric to communicate the information. And I fear that it may be.

On that very point, I just happened to stumble across Worldmapper ( which provides a number of "distortion of geography based on metrics" examples.

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