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. He is currently writing a book with Columbia University Press on presentation design and techniques. Jon tweets on @JSchwabish.
In this conversation, Jon discusses his session at the Presentation Summit 2015 series.
Geetesh: Jon, you are doing a session this year at the Presentation Summit called Give a Nerd a Number: Improve how you visualize your data. Can you tell us more about this session, and what takeaways can the audience expect?
Jon: The data visualization field combines data analysis, graphic design, journalism, and statistics in a way that can help analysts in a variety of fields provide their audience with greater insights into their research and their products.
In my presentation at this year’s Presentation Summit, I am going to lay the groundwork for how presenters can use data visualization to more effectively communicate to their audience. I will demonstrate the different types of visualizations and their uses, as well as how to avoid creating graphics that result in ineffective and inaccurate perceptions of data. The basic guidelines I will lay out will help presenters create clearer, more accurate, and more visually appealing graphics. I’ll also have a few freebies for a lucky few in attendance.
Geetesh: Can you tell us more about yourself – and how do you approach good design for slides, especially when there are many numbers involved?
Jon: My background is in economics—I have a PhD from Syracuse University—and spent the first 10 years or so of my professional career conducting research on Social Security, Disability Insurance, food stamps, and immigration for the U.S. Congress. I became interested in data visualization and more effective presentation techniques a few years ago when I realized that many of our reports and analyses did not seem to have an impact we desired. I think one way in which researchers and analysts can get their work to have more impact is to more effectively visualize their research and think about how the reader or audience will receive the information.
When it comes to presenting research and analysis, I try to follow 4 primary principles:
- Visualize the information. Bullet points and dense tables only serve to make your audience lose focus and not buy into your content. By visualizing data and information, your audience will be more likely to recognize and recall that information.
- Unify your presentation, in how you speak, how your slides look, and how you present your work and conclusions. Unifying design and content is not about “dumbing down” the presentation or sacrificing content in the name of making things “pop” or “look pretty.” Better design is about supporting the speaker with slides that help the audience better understand your work. Without consistent-looking slides and consistency in how you speak, your audience will be lost in the randomness and be less likely to embrace your content.
- Integrate what you say and what you show. Your presentation slides are there to support you, not to supplant you. The aesthetic of your slides—colors, fonts, and layout—should be used to help reinforce your content. Whether you are presenting your research about global climate change or drugs and crime in cities, the images and colors you use should reflect those topics and not be drawn randomly from the internet. Each should be chosen strategically to help you convey your message.
- Focus your audience’s attention on your specific argument and visuals to support your argument. As a presenter, you can control what your audience sees and when they see it. Many presenters pack their slides with as much information as possible and this ultimately leads to a lower transfer of information. Your audience’s attention should be where you want it to be. Highlight the important message and important numbers; reduce the numbers on the slide and the columns in the chart and highlight the most important pieces of information.
These themes drive the book on presentation skills and design I am currently writing with Columbia University Press. I’m focusing on researchers and analysts who too often seem to think that the work ends when the research report is written and submitted to the academic journal or published on the website. But I think researchers can really improve their presentation skills by thinking first about the needs of the audience and not about their needs as the speaker. One of the core messages of the book is that a presentation is a fundamentally different form of communication than a written report. Treating them as the same thing—moving text into bullets and copying and pasting tables and figures from the paper to the slides—misses this important distinction.
What is the Presentation Summit?
For many years now, Rick Altman has been hosting the Presentation Summit, a highly popular event that is geared towards users of PowerPoint and other presentation platforms.
Date: September 27 to 30, 2015
Location: Astor Crowne Plaza, New Orleans, USA