Our ability to share information relates to our ability to impact and grow

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My introduction to Tufte was a gift back in 1999-2000 as we finished up the first version of IBM‘s Next Generation Internet site. Mike Nelson, currently the Director of Internet Technology and Strategy, sent the team The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. It was not until recently that I ordered two more Tufte works, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint and Envisioning Information. James inspired me to revisit these views on effective use of the high-bandwidth visual channel.

I read all the reviews on on The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint before succumbing to the “add to cart” button. I figured for $7, if I learn one thing from the short essay, that it would be worth the purchase of what ended up something anyone who is already aware of the overused boiled down messages, bumper stickers for stupid people and irreverent use of cheap clipart trash knows. The value is in the thorough academic review and argument of what you might understand intuitively. It is either a validation of your current perspective or an enlightening read, because you are one of the world’s PowerPoint sinners.

Creating presentations is a necessary evil. I say evil because if we had enough time and a more literate workforce, we would have conversations and share papers. In fact, anyone who has given any number of presentations will tell you that it is all about the interaction in the room or on the call – otherwise it is just a one-way experience with limited value and increasing boredom. Yet, businesses and authors offer education on how to better deliver messages through presentation packages, regardless of their impact to ideas. There in lies the key to presenting – no amount of visual distraction or simplicity makes up for the lack of quality thinking. Fluff sounds like fluff even if it is animated.

One of my first internships was with VSI Communications Group in South Norwalk, CT an interactive production house (now called Mentor). These guys made their bread and butter on impactful communication presentations that companies were not capable of producing, but were willing to pay for. Every presentation had an art director, artists, content authors, project managers and developers looking to assemble and deliver a final self-running, cross-platform product in Macromedia Director. What made them successful was their ability to mix art, experience design and marketing to deliver a total package. If a handout was needed or a 3D animated exploratory walk through was required, it was all part of what the client was paying for.

I might be particularly sensitive to effective communication through some of my design background or general business knowledge. I have often thought of writing a book on the effective display of software architecture. An area that is often seen as a complicated series of boxes, arrows and notation that no one but the technical folks need to understand. If you have had the pleasure of being shown these types of diagrams, it usually takes at least one person or an additional thousand words of text to understand what is being depicted. I suggest this is an indicator that, regardless of standards we might adopt to represent architecture and software design, we need more focus on making these diagrams effective beyond our narrow target audience. If we can communicate our intentions to those who do not speak our language, then surely we will all understand what we are trying to do even better. There is nothing wrong with domain specific notation, but our impact is limited by our ability to translate it to those who do not understand us. If it takes special acumen to appreciate my message then I am almost literally talking to myself, something I would like to think is a rarity – after all I am not interested in thinking alone.