Edward Tufte: Assign Homework Before Your Next Meeting
Because I work with data and visual displays, I was thrilled when asked to join a team enroute to New York City last week to hear from Edward Tufte, the man The New York Times calls "The Leonardo da Vinci of data." I attended his one-day "Presenting Data and Information" course.
I figured Tufte’s presentation style would be unique enough to warrant the meme I stumbled across a few years ago about him having a strong dislike for PowerPoint. Turned out the meme was well-founded — excepting the part about the kittens.
What I didn’t expect, though, were the similarities between how Tufte prepared us for his presentation and the recommendations provided in Al Pittampalli’s Read This Before Our Next Meeting.
Tufte and Pittampalli agree about empowering people to be efficient when working in a team environment. Better put, they both believe in empowering individuals to bring efficiency into their teams. Tufte estimates that by sharing content with team members in advance of meetings, the length of those sessions could be reduced by some 20% to 30%. For Pittampalli, the approach turns sessions into more useful discussion time rather than mere presentation time.
In addition to covering the expected topics of data and information, Tufte also demonstrated how providing content in advance makes for a more thorough and engaging session. When the Colle+McVoy team checked in at the Manhattan Center, we received an 11x17 duplex-printed sheet containing our pre-session homework. In the hour we had before Tufte was to take the podium, we were required to read the following lengthy excerpts from his books:
• The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, chapter 1 and chapter 9.
• Envisioning Information, chapter 2.
• Visual Explanations, chapter 1.
• Beautiful Evidence, introduction and pages 12 - 45.
It didn’t matter who we were or where we came from. Tufte wanted his audience to attend his study hall so they would be better prepared for his session. I can’t speak for the hundreds in the room with us, but I thought the reading was time consuming. However, once Tufte began his session, we were all better prepared to actively listen rather than feverishly jot down notes.
My Edward Tufte experience has encouraged me to consider sending out relevant materials to my colleagues the next time I schedule a meeting with them — regardless of whether or not the subject material will cover data and visual displays. What's more, the “Presenting Data and Information” course has given me some ideas about what form those materials might take to best convey the story hidden away in them. All in all, it should make for more invigorating meetings. Tufte left us with plenty of inspiration to make it happen.