Edward Tufte on Public Speaking

Tips on presenting and speaking in public.

Editor's Note: After the most recent WebVisions conference my mind fished out a memory of a set of rules or tips that Mr. Tufte laid down regarding public speaking, but more importantly, about how to support speakers when they are about to give a presentation.

A quick Google seach told me that it wasn't Mr. T's own words that I recalled, but the notes of one of the attendees. Having fished them out of the Wayback Machine from the Internet Archive, I present them here. (Not the only one it seems.) I have made a few edits to make it work a bit more easily to read. Some of the changes I've made are noted in [brackets].

"These are some of the notes I took during Edward Tufte's course on Envisioning Information. Don't redistribute without attribution." - Ted Romer (romer at

Edward Tufte was in town this week. (He's the author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Envisioning Information (Graphics Press), two great books about how to go about presenting your data in graphical form intelligently -- anyone who's written a paper or given a talk with a graph in it should own at least the first volume).

He talked about a lot of material that you could glean from his books, but he also gave some tips on public speaking. I've heard some of this before from other sources, but it's always good to get a refresher course.

  1. Show Up Early
    • You can fix any mechanical problems that might arise: no lights, no water, someone else has the room, etc.
    • You can mingle with your audience.
  2. How To Start
    • Tell the audience:
      • What's the problem?
      • Who cares?
      • What are you going to do about it?
    • The stumble-bum method (a high-risk approach): Tufte described a talk given by a humble high school math teacher to a lecture hall full of mathematics professors. On his first slide, the math teacher had a simple proof, with an error on the third line. Naturally, the professors leaned forward in their chairs to point out the flaw. For the rest of the presentation, the audience hung on every word, waiting for the next slip. Of course, there was no slip. Caution: if you use this technique, you had better know your stuff.
  3. Explaining The Complex
    • When explaining a complex figure, follow the Particular-General-Particular principle:
      • Particular: use an example to explain what the numbers mean.
      • General: explain the overall structure of the figure.
      • Particular: return to an example to reinforce the interpretation of the figure.
  4. Speak From Notes
    • Don't read a prepared text.
  5. Use Handouts
    • Handouts can convey far more information than can be represented on overhead slide.
    • Handouts give your audience an opportunity to be engaged by your material, rather than being passive. When their attention drifts, they can read ahead in your handouts, and find the part that interests them. I noticed that the affiliates, when bored, would [page] through whatever material they had in hand -- the program for the next session, for example. If they had a preview of what you were going to say next, they might be more motivated to pay attention. Your audience can think a lot faster than you can talk, so you should give them material to think about.
    • Handouts can provide depth of material omitted from your talk that will interest the specialists in the audience.
    • Handouts leave a permanent record when the audience goes home, rather than allowing your talk to disappear without a trace. This lends a sense of having faith in your topic and your work.
  6. Target Your Audience's Level
    • Information content should match the level that you would find in the NYT or WSJ.
    • Your audience didn't suddenly become dumber when they walked into the room to hear you talk. Plus, familiarity with a presentation style helps them focus on what you're talking about.
  7. Avoid Overheads
    • An overhead can convey only a fraction of the information content of printed material.
    • If your slides are just misshapen trapezoidal note cards for your benefit, why not speak from note cards?
    • If you want to give the audience something to pay attention to when you're saying "er, ah", give them handouts.
    • Tufte did concede that overheads are useful for color images that would be impractical to hand out -- but the information content of most color overheads is pretty low, unless it's a photograph or an artistic reproduction.
  8. Never Apologize
    • Don't explain how nervous you are and what the probability is that you'll throw up midway through the presentation. Unless you call attention to yourself, your audience will be much more concerned about their own physical and emotional state than yours.
  9. Use Humor That Is On Point
    • Don't unnecessarily offend part of your audience with humor that is irrelevant to your topic.
  10. Avoid Masculine Pronouns As Universals
    • Alternate examples with "he" and "she", or use "they".
    • This is another method to avoid alienating people.
  11. Work Hard
    • Prepare.
    • Practice for a critical audience.
    • Practice for a group, to spot flaws and mannerisms and idiosyncrasies.
    • In addition to developing notes for your content, develop "metanotes" to remind you to make eye contact, or not to mumble, or not to play pocket pool, or to drink your water, etc.
  12. Innovate
    • Don't be trapped by the conventional forms of the presentation. Be creative: find ways to take the presentation beyond a linear presentation of facts, and instead make it become something like a dialogue with your colleagues.
  13. Dealing With Questions
    • People's opinion of your work may well depend more on the way you answer questions than on the content or quality of your presentation. Often the person who is asking wants to know, "What about me? How does you work solve my problem?"
    • Don't humiliate or embarass your questioner.
    • If you anticipate aggressive interruptions, establish ground rules: say that it'll take n minutes for you to present the basic material, and then there will be plenty of time for discussion. Having established the rule, when the unnamed interrupter speaks, remind of the rule, and say it'll be n-x minutes more.
    • If you're worried that you won't get any questions, or that you won't get asked the crucial question, get a confederate in the audience to ask the question.
    • Be patient: after you finish speaking, you'll probably get a question before you can count to 10.
  14. Show Your Enthusiasm
    • Don't hide behind a lectern.
    • Use gestures.
    • Walk around, directly engaging audience members' attention. (Tufte did this remarkably effectively.)
  15. Finish Early
    • Everyone will be happier.
    • "How often have you heard some colleagues walking down the hall saying, 'That talk was great, I just wish they'd gone on for another 15 minutes!'?"
  16. Avoid Dehydration
    • Make sure you drink enough water during the talk.
    • Make it your responsibility to make sure you have water.
    • Avoid dehydrating beverages: caffeine and alcohol.
    • The two most dehydrating things you can do are travel by airplane and speak in public. So if you fly to Atlanta to give a talk you need to compensate.

Finally, throughout the class, Tufte reminded us to:

  1. Respect Your Audience
    • Treat them as colleagues who are interested in helping you solve a problem.


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