The size of your deck is not important
Talking at them vs. talking with them

Can you be an objective advocate of ideas?

Brent Edwards posted his impressions of a recent Edward Tufte seminar he attended. (I can't wait to attend one myself.) I found this comment by Mr. Edwards on the seminar worth noting:

"In his seminar, he (Tufte) advocates that you view a presenter skeptically, making sure that they are a "detective" without bias rather than an "advocate" of their ideas. Tufte certainly sounds like an advocate in much of what he preaches."

Interesting. If we are an advocate of our ideas, does this mean that we necessarily lack objectivity? Is advocacy of an idea and rational objectivity impossible? Is "objective advocate" an oxymoron?

Tufte_1I was not at Tufte's seminar, but if in fact Prof. Tufte expressed something similar to what Mr. Edwards reports, then perhaps what Tufte is saying is that we should not let the advocacy of our ideas overwhelm our reasoning or skew the evidence we are presenting. That is, we must not let our belief about the idea obfuscate the evidence in support of that idea. Obviously Tufte recognizes that we carry around biases with us and that true objectivity is difficult to achieve. And if I remember correctly from my undergraduate days studying philosophy, Aristotle also knew that objectivity can be difficult. Aristotle, of course, put great emphasis on the importance of objective reasoning and appealing to logical argument. Maybe this is why today we are also concerned with sound logical argument, at least in most Western cultures. But Aristotle knew, too, that people are emotional creatures and that we can not ignore that fact.

Logic, emotions, ethics
Aristotle said that good rhetoric (arguments, presentations) can be broken into three separate artistic proofs: appeals to reason (logos or logic); appeals to emotions (pathos); and appeals based on the character of the speaker (ethos or ethics). The logical construction of the argument and supporting evidence, the emotional reaction of the audience, and the character of the presenter are all important elements of a successful presentation. Aristotle says, for example, that ethos and pathos are so important that if ignored the greatest logical appeal in the world could still be for naught. And while emotional appeal is necessary, Aristotle deplored the idea of using only emotional appeal to sway audiences at the exclusion of reason (and often truth, I might add).

AristotlePerhaps Tufte's concern today is that too many presentations ride on the speaker's personality or on the speaker's enthusiasm and conviction about the idea rather than on solid, logical reasoning and evidence concerning the idea. Because people are emotional, as well as logical beings, do we not need to take great care to avoid taking advantage of people's emotions? Certainly marketers — and governments too —  appeal to our fears to "persuade" us to take action, usually with a great obfuscation of "the facts."

Open mindedness and objectivity are paramount. However, I think being an "advocate of an idea" does not necessarily make me incapable of objectivity. And I believe a demonstrable passion for the presentation topic is indeed something good for a presenter to possess. However, it is also true today — especially in the political arena — that emotion, conviction, and strong beliefs have replaced an open-minded exploration of the truth. And this is not a good trend at all.

Books by Edward Tufte
I highly recommend Tufte's books. Tufte's books will teach you a lot, and they will also make you question conventional wisdom about how "evidence" is displayed. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is my favorite.

Visual_dis       Visual_ex

Envision       Dog

Tufte's seminar
Tufte has a limited seminar schedule, and charges $320 per person (including his books). $160 for students. This sounds like a pretty good deal. Wish he'd come to Japan.

If any of you have attended one of Edward Tufte's seminars, please share your thoughts. Love to hear from you.

    The Tufte photo is a public image from typeweight at Flickr.


Roy Blumenthal

There's an added subtlety to what happens when all three of Aristotle's pillars aren't present in an argument: negative takeout.

Takeout is the resonant feeling a receiver (of an argument, presentation) is left with when the dust has settled. This feeling is often NOT open to interrogation, and is most often not even cognitively accessible to the receiver.

An example of badly managed takeout would be Michael Moore's works. On the surface, almost everything about what he says makes sense. It resonates. It makes people angry at what's happening in America. But put the book down, or press pause on the DVD machine, and his arguments FEEL wrong.

That's because his arguments ARE wrong. Not cos his facts are disputable, but because his reasoning is faulty. So with all of his enthusiasm, and all of his ethical correctness, his stuff doesn't work.

The takeout is negative. Despite Moore's passionate electioneering, Bush still got elected.

The lesson here is that Aristotle's rhoetoric needs to be looked at for the synergy that the three pillars provides. That synergy is not a good-to-have. It's a must-have if your takeout is to be positive.

Blue skies


I recently was at Prof Tufte's presentation and it was a thought provoking day and worth the price of admission.

His rant against powerpoint and powerpoint thinking was quite on target and fits with many of the points made on this blog but frankly went on too long. Felt like old news to me. Maybe it was new for some.

His alternative, as it boiled down for m,e was leaving paper take-aways (bi-folded 11X17s) with all a deep description of the points you wanted to make and ~only~ projecting very few, rich complex data sets as necessary. He even suggested having your audience read the paper to start the meeting as a more efficent way to convey the data. This seems reasonable for some cases but certainly not all. Trying to employ that in a deck oriented company is difficult. Frankly there is not time to properly prepare all that and a simple powerpoint template with is just expedient. It feels like there is simply no time to "do it right". Terrible thinking, I know. But with the flow of "presentations" required the only way to break out is to say "no".

My overall impression of the day fits this same theme. His data is beautiful and I am a huge fan of beautiful data. In most cases beautiful may not be possible or feasible. I guess I need to move towards a place where it is...

Todd Dailey

I recently took Tufte's seminar as well (in San Jose), and I believe the context in which Tufte was speaking from in Brent's point was a critique of the validity that a presentation tends to give to the evidence, specifically the oversell and overspin of the presentations that led to the space shuttle disaster.

Brent may have missed Tufte's opening point, where he said the point of the course was an introduction to his material in three books, and that no one should rely on their notes or summaries on the web. They should instead read the source material. I think Tufte would completely agree with Brent's point, everyone should be a bit skeptical of the presenter, even Tufte.

Daniel Mick

I attended one of Tufte's seminars a few years ago as a student. I was interested enough to travel half way across the nation on my own vacation time to hear him. It was well worth the time and price.

He clearly embodies the ideals he espouses in his beautiful and detailed books. But a quick response to his advice is, "Easy for you. You've been giving the same polished seminar every other week for years." But a weekly meeting doesn't have to be a synergistic work of information and art. If one applies some of his core principles, or even nifty tricks, the information is more clear and the end goal has been more thoroughly accomplished.

Every detective must be an advocate of the information they glean. The onus is dual-sided: the receiver should be critical of the presenter's information, and the presenter should prove to the receiver that not only is his information sound but his conclusions are also. The principles of courtroom debate are the most obvious example of this.


Garr, beautiful analysis and extension of Tufte's teachings to the broader concepts in the art of rhetoric. You are correct that Tufte was asking audience members to be on alert when data is presented and for the presenters to not cherry-pick data. "The single biggest threat to the credibility of a presentation is evidence selection or cherry-picking."

I resonated to that last point because it's crucial in science to question interpretations of data (and scientists are always interpreting, often wrongly) and important for the data presenter to show all relevant data. I've seen people listening to (or reading papers by) a scientist and believing everything that is said as "truth," not realizing that the scientist's colleagues all have differing theories. Tufte advised that if you only show some data, you make the complete data set available elsewhere such as on a website--I might try that in the future.

AH, you are right, I wasn't thinking that Tufte's presentation was just an overview of his books, although it obviously was (I think I would not have been happy if I was already familiar with the books). I've started reading them and hope to see more data supporting his theories, such as when he said that the most usable web design is to have 90+% of a website's viewable space contain content.

Dave Gray

I think it's wise to be somewhat skeptical of any expert or presenter. At the same time I don't want to listen to someone who doesn't have passion and energy for their ideas.

I don't care how right they might be. Can you imagine a more boring way to spend an evening?

Logic plays a much smaller part in our decisions than most people think. I have read research that demonstrates that we look for evidence AFTER we make decisions -- not before. We look for evidence because we want to support what we already believe.

Speakers play a valuable role and their personal credibility and passion is just as important as the logic in their arguments.

The reason to go to hear a speaker is not to understand their logic, which can usually be found more easily in books or magazines. It's to experience the things you can only experience in person: Energy, passion, sincerity, confidence, resolve.

I speak a fair amount, and what I want to convey is the energy and passion I have for the subject, the "why you should care." If the passion can be conveyed, then people are more likely to DO something.

The function of a speaker is not to tell you what to think (at least I hope it isn't!). The function of a speaker is to tell you what the SPEAKER thinks -- and then you should make up your own mind.

John Seiffer

I attended a Tufte seminar several years ago. Certainly a good value, the books are wonderful to have. He spoke in a huge room - 400 people at tables and he was on the same level not up on a dias. He did walk around a bit but I wonder if those in the back could see him well. I was close to the front so it didn't bother me.

There were two huge screens next to him which were blank most of the time. Occasionally he would project a slide or a video, to illustrate his point. A couple times his point was about an ancient book from his personal collection, and an assistant would walk around the room showing the book. By the time they got to most of us, Tufte was illustrating another point.

Most of the time our visual focus was either on him, or on one of his books which we had at our table which he referenced frequently.

It seemed like he was taking random points from his books and illustrating them for us. It didn't seem like the points were in any particular order. And it seems to me that much of the stuff in his books is easier to understand having seen him explain it than if I were to read it on my own. But the disclaimer below may apply to this paragraph.

Disclaimer: As a business coach, I'm only marginally interested in this field - in other words I'm not a pro.

I enjoyed myself greatly and am glad I went.

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