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Taking On Tufte

Last updated Mar 26, 2004.

Ever since I appointed (er, anointed) myself "Professor PowerPoint," people have asked me about what I think about the Edward Tufte theories on using the program.

When I first saw the graphic comparing the use of PowerPoint to Stalinism – see the Wired article written by him – I saw it as a clever graphic. In the main image, you see the thousands assembled in front of the dictator thinking in bullets and responding as though Stalin is presenting a slide show.

But in many of the conferences I attend, alternatives to boring bullets are discussed as being just as viable in PowerPoint. And, if you've been reading my updates, you know that I try (whenever possible) to expand PowerPoint to be a "media platform" with other tools.

What set me off this time was a serendipitous e-mail message from Gene Zelazny, the author of "Say It With Charts," whose work I've covered in the past.

Gene had seen a graphic that Tufte had put out, showing the famous Napoleon's March on Moscow, and he also sent along some PowerPoint slides that he and a colleague had created to show the same information.

(The colleague's name is Joe Pepitone, and he's the art director for Archie Comics. Incredible, since Joe Pepitone in my youth was a famous first baseman for the Yankees, but I digress.)

Gene laid out the challenge of trying to come up with another PowerPoint graphic to show the same information. At around the same time, I got a four-page flyer inviting me to take Tufte's course on "Presenting Data and Information" for $320, at one of several locations.

First of all, here's the graphic Tufte promotes as "possibly the best statistical graphic ever drawn."

I kid you not. If this is displayed on screen via PowerPoint or any other medium to an audience, I challenge anyone to make head or tail out of it without an explanation, which in this case is in French. (Hint: The thick band shows the size of the army as it invaded, and the thin band shows its retreat.)

Now, my contention is that PowerPoint is only as good as the stuff you present. If you, in fact, start reading bullets, that's bad. But projecting something as inscrutable as this is is probably just as offensive.

So I took a look at Gene Zelazny's treatment of the same material, and I was quite impressed. Gene has come up with theories on how to conceptualize data visually that help you create more descriptive charts and graphs.

Here is what Gene came up with: an animated timeline that shows troop strength and temperatures along the retreat.

As usual with Gene, it is straight to the point, with easy-to-follow visuals and clear text and labels. By putting it into a series of slides with different shadings, he animates the movement as well.

Here is the version of Joe Pepitone from a cartoonist's perspective, and you can see that he has a "visual voice" that is quite unique. In the presentation, the three panels are shown one after the other, and you can literally see the tombstones spilling over Napoleon as the troops are defeated over time.

I would submit that any sort of creative approach that goes beyond titles and bullets, and perhaps even staid timelines, is a big plus, because your audience will respond emotionally.

In contrast, I believe the only audience response to Tufte's graphic would be a loud "ZZZZZ."

What did I come up with? I am not as graphically inclined as Zelazny or Pepitone; I like tools and toys. So I pulled out Infommersion's Xcelsius, which I covered for InformIT back in October. Here's a link to that article.

Xcelsius takes static data in a spreadsheet and creates "dashboards," or interactive representations.

The first thing I did was input the "data" about the march into a spreadsheet in Excel. Since I couldn't even read the names of the various cities from Tufte's "graphic," I used Poland, Moscow, and Russia.

Then, in Xcelsius, I used the Radio Button component to create a Timeline of the dates in the spreadsheet. I changed the orientation to horizontal, and got the labels right out of the datasheet by using the rangefinder tool.

If you followed my previous article on Xselsius you know that what the control does is take the appropriate data from the spreadsheet, and for each value in the control puts the corresponding values into another range of cells.

Here I am taking the values in rows from the main spreadsheet and putting them into the highlighted range (on the click of the mouse in the final dashboard):

At this point, I add some gauges and sliders that reflect the various values when the timeline is clicked. In the properties panel, I indicate which cell in the spreadsheet holds these values, now that the timeline will put them there.

I use a slider for the troops, and a gauge and slider for the unGodly temperature.

For a final touch I add a Pie Chart to show percentage of troops left alive and some graphics I found online (don't tell anyone).

Now I'm ready to export the file to Shockwave, although I preview it first in Xselsius. My choices are e-mail, Web page, or PowerPoint, so I choose the latter. Here's the PowerPoint slide.

Notice that when I click on the middle date in the Timeline, the data changes accordingly, showing the temperature, number of troops left alive or lost, the location, and a percentage in a pie chart.

I know it's not as creative or graphically rich as Zelazny's version, nor as inscrutable as Tufte's. I'm not making a case for mine being the best, only another viable alternative that take advantage of the latest technology.

Personally, I like the interactivity of a dynamic set of data, and I am sure an Infommersion expert could do a much better job. Maybe a cool slider to show the levels moving up and down gradually....

But what I wanted to do here was to show that:

  • PowerPoint has as many possibilities as you have imagination to use them, and

  • You as the communicator are responsible for choosing the best mode of expression for your message.

Finally, I don't think you need to be a rocket scientist or college professor to know that showing the data clearly and definitively is better than showing it in tiny fonts and inscrutably.

And notice that none of the slides shown here had a single bullet. I'm no Stalinist, nor even a revisionist, just a technologist. What I love is to use the best available tool to tell my story.