Jon Schwabish is an economist, writer, teacher, and creator of policy-relevant data visualizations. He is considered a leading voice for clarity and accessibility in how researchers communicate their findings. His Twitter handle is @JSschwabish.
In this conversation, Jon discusses his new book, Better Presentations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers, and Wonks that helps people improve the way they prepare, design, and deliver data-rich content.
Geetesh: Jon, can you tell us what motivated you to write your book, Better Presentations? Was this a gradual decision or did you have a moment that made this decision for you?
Jon: The short version of the story is that Columbia University Press contacted me to write a book about data visualization, following the publication of my article in the Journal of Economics Perspectives in the early part of 2014. But I was resistant to writing a book strictly about data visualization, mostly because I thought it was a hard topic to cover thoroughly, from data extraction to exploration/analysis to visualization/communication (but it turns out that others--such as Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic and Andy Kirk--have covered different chunks of those processes to great success).
By that time, however, I had developed a keen interest in presentation design and techniques, and knew there was an opportunity to write a book on presentations for people who deliver data-rich content. The book is written for that audience—researchers, scholars, analysts—anyone who works with data and who needs to present it to an audience. In my experience, many people who work with data and conduct research simply take their written reports and convert them to presentations—they copy their graphs and tables and paste them into a slide, and turn their text into bullet points. But there is a better way and it starts with recognizing that a written report and a presentation are two fundamentally different forms of communication. The goal of the book is to help presenters all the way through the process: From presentation construction and design to building the presentation, to ultimately delivering the presentation.
Geetesh: People have different perspectives when they present, or when they attend someone else’s presentation. How will your book help presenters understand that they need to look at their presentations from the eye of the audience?
Jon: Throughout the book, I try to make the case that there is only so much information our audience can absorb at the same time. It’s very difficult for an audience to absorb the information you want them to when you are asking them to read 5 dense bullet points and listen to you talk simultaneously. We’ve all sat through these terrible presentations, so we know there is a better way to communicate our work, and this book is hopefully a step in that direction.
I admit right at the front of the book that you don’t need to have a background in graphic design to deliver a great presentation. You may not have the time to create a custom color palette, scour the Web for the perfect image, or learn a whole new set of design skills. The book is not meant to turn people into graphic designers; however, if you can learn to recognize good, smart design (and utilize things you like and things you don’t like), then you can become familiar with some basic aspects of great design such as color, font, and layout, and use these approaches in your presentations. What the book is meant to do is show you why you should create more effective slides, and how to do so in easier and faster ways.
So I take the reader through the entire process of planning, designing, and delivering a presentation. I start by demonstrating how outlining and sketching can help you cut to the core of your ideas and figure out the best way to communicate your ideas to your audience (I’ve put a downloadable version of the worksheet I use in my own process on my website). I then walk you through how to choose and use colors, fonts, layouts, and good data good data visualization principles in your slides. Finally, I talk about the actual act of presenting—what supplies you may or may not need when you speak, why you should smile, why not to pace, and so on.
Overall, I pull the book together by encouraging presenters to follow three guiding principles:
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