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.
No pie for you!
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.
Generally, if the bars are a different color, there must be a reason. On the right N. America is highlighted.
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
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.
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