Edward Tufte – read his books

In my latest monthly newsletter to past trainees, I explored the presenting of data in ways that would better grab the attention of the audience. Subsequently one reader enthusiastically told me about the work of Edward Tufte, so I went looking for him. I was told that he fills auditoriums to capacity with people paying high prices for tickets, and that he is a genius at the conveying of data in new and interesting ways. I couldn’t wait.

I found this speech that he made at the 9th MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Friday February 27, 2015 in Boston, MA, and settled down to learn.

What I found was probably the prime example in my experience of how not to speak in public. He may be the world’s top expert in packaging data for optimum effect, in fact he must be. To draw audiences as he apparently does, there must be something of phenomenal value to compensate for his abysmal delivery. In terms of relating to an audience he is a stranger to basic principles.

This speech is stupefyingly boring, and for one reason only. It is not a speech: it is a reading. Whenever I see a speaker reading a script, I want to tear it away. That script represents a huge gulf between the speaker and the audience.

There are a very few sections when his eyes lift from that bloody paper, and suddenly that gulf is bridged. At 6:19 there are a few glorious seconds. At 7:26 a few more. At 12:15 he sustains it for around a minute. At 29:50 he actually indulges in an anecdote. He narrates an anecdote: he does – not the wretched paper. It makes the communication so much better

Whoever filmed the video refuses to show us his slides. Perhaps there are copyright issues. At any rate the chance to relieve the tedium is squandered. The irony is that Tufte is on record as saying that PowerPoint sucks, yet the only thing that would salvage this disaster for me would be sight of his slides.

And I’m afraid that even when he does look up from his script we are too conscious that Antaeus-like he perceives a need to return to his paper to recover his strength; so there is always an underlying feeling of negative stress getting in his way.

For me the most frustrating thing is that paperless speaking is ridiculously easy, and everyone can do it – I’ve proved it countless times. It improves the bond with the audience to an infinite degree.

This video is just so awful that I went hunting for other online examples of his speaking. Surely he can’t always be this bad! There is a keynote speech at a Microsoft summit where at least we get to see some slides. Sadly I was too short of time to watch that one, though I skimmed enough to see that he was still looking down at his script. I was also faintly amused that the script was on a MacBook.

Edward Tufte cannot possibly have developed his reputation without being very good at his specialist subject. His speaking being of Olympic standard dreariness, I conclude that the way to learn from him is to read his books. I might give that a try. It could not but be an improvement on this.

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