What Public Speaking May Look Like In 10 Years

Let’s say you have to present a detailed financial report to your company’s board of directors. If you’re like most presenters, you’ll prepare a PowerPoint deck complete with charts, graphs, and key points in text form.

That’s all wrong, argues Edward Tufte, a Yale professor best known for his landmark book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. (I attended one of his full-day seminars in New York City earlier this month.)

The problem is that PowerPoint is hierarchical—one slide follows the next—and not “flat.” As a result, audience members are forced to listen to the information in the manner and order the presenter desires—which may or may not match the audience member’s preferred cognitive style. 

The solution, according to Tufte? “We should break out of the hierarchical one slide at a time system and be flat.” 


To make his point, Tufte displayed a news story from ESPN.com about a baseball game. The article was full of different types of information—blocks of text, a box score, charts with player statistics, an inning-by-inning timeline, a call-out quote box, and links to additional information—all presented on a single “flat” page.

But even with that apparent deluge of information, Tufte argues people can easily make sense of it, as evidenced by the millions of people who navigate the site with ease each month. And each person has the advantage of navigating the site with his or her own preferred cognitive style.


ESPN’s website has a lot going on. And that’s good, says Edward Tufte.


In practical terms, here’s what he’s suggesting.

If you’re presenting complex information, prepare a handout for your audience. When your presentation begins, hand the printout to each person, tell them you’re going to begin with a “study hall,” and direct them to read the document.

Or, you may prefer a more advanced version of that technique–something Tufte sees becoming much more common in the near future. Soon, he theorizes, it may become common practice to provide everyone with an iPad (or similar device) on which your “flat,” multi-media report is preloaded for their perusal. They’ll navigate the iPad report themselves, but while seated in the meeting room during the allotted meeting time. He calls this a “high resolution information transfer from your report to the audience.”

Only once you’ve given everyone sufficient time to complete their review of your document or iPad report would verbally expand upon the meaning of the document’s key points–without repeating them verbatim. Finally, you would end with a brief Q&A session.

Tufte argues that this “Read-Listen-Question” format would make most business meetings 20 percent shorter. Amazon.com, among other companies, has instituted this format for many of its internal meetings.

I like his idea, and it’s worth adding this structure to your list of possible presentation formats. But this format clearly has more of a place during an occasional internal business meeting than a persuasive speech; more of a place during data-heavy scientific or financial briefings than presentations to potential clients. I’d also stay away from this format if you’re trying to lead the group to a powerful “a ha!” moment.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. (Photo credit: Aaron Fulkerson)

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