Tell More Stories

Cherish the days when some top-shelf designer delivers a keynote address and releases his slidedeck online. Here today is Matthew Ericson, Deputy Graphics Director at the New York Times (maybe you’ve heard of it?) and his presentation, “Visualizing Data for the Masses: Information Graphics at The New York Times.” [70 mb, zipped pdf]

From Information Aesthetics:

He explained how a 30-person team creates the impressive infographics and visualizations we see on the newspaper every week. Matt emphasized their role as journalists (instead of illustrators) and explained how they get from raw data to finished graphical pieces that make information understandable for more than a million readers.

One Cool Thing

Check out how this design super-stud introduces the thirty members of his team.

Okay, so the Simpsons avatar thing has made the rounds, but that isn’t what’s so sick here. What’s awesome is how he plays with opacity to draw his audience’s eyes to individual members and departments.

Nice, nice move.

The Full Content Conjecture

Ericson’s slides are heavy with image, not information. Out of 120 slides, only 17 are textual, and between them, there are only 39 words.

That’s an average of two words per slide over seventeen slides over an entire keynote. I’m a terrible audience, an inveterate fidgeter, a doodler, and deeply critical to boot, but that eye-candy orgy would’ve kept me raptInfoVis was in Sacramento and I knew about it. What was I thinking?.

Now it’s real tempting for a math-minded fella like myself to come up with some sort of rigid ratio, a litmus test like the 10/20/30 rule to determine if you’re balanced too heavily or lightly on images but I’ve got a conjecture that’s sturdier:

  • If I can look at your slidedeck and determine the full content of your presentation, it’s carrying too much information.

If your slidedeck reads like a script, bullet points marking off your progress while you read them, you’re a) inducing multimedia dissonance cognitive overload and b) using a low-resolution medium (PowerPoint) to display high-resolution data (text)Recall Tufte: “[An 11 by 17 inch] piece of paper shows the content-equivalent of 50 to 250 typical PP slides.”.

You have only a few hundred thousand pixels up there and they prefer to consume pictures, charts, and words, in that order.


  • Use your voice to tell a story.
  • Use your handouts to convey information.
  • Use your slides to draw a picture of the story.

Corollary To The Full Content Conjecture

  • Bloggers are dangerous presenters.

Bloggers are as excited about posting their slidedecks to Slideshare after their keynotes as they are about the keynotes themselves. The audience gets shortchanged in this transaction ’cause for the keynote to function effectively online, where there is no voice to tell the story, the blogger compensates with bullet points.

Vicki Davis recently released some slides from a presentation of her cool Flat Classroom Project.

Moving through the presentation online, I found it pretty easy to determine its content since she used bullet points and text to literalize most of it.

Scanning her slides, I realized that the problem is one of approach. The best way to approach a speaking engagement is as a storytelling engagement. So you toss the meat and potatoes of your speech (URLs, bullet points, references) onto a well-designed handout. You toss illustrations onto a screen behind you.

And then you tell a story.

This is why I cast my most recent presentation with an imaginary stock-photo protagonist.

Because stories stick where bullet points do not.

I imagine that if asked to recall the most successful intervals of her presentation, Vicki would cite the moments when she was telling stories about kids collaborating across continents and the tools they used.

Whereas (for example) a slide like this …

… is the storytelling equivalent of this:

I’ve internalized my own preferences so fully on this matter that if I suspect even for a second that a slide is functioning as a script, a crutch to keep me on message (which is to say, if I find myself glancing back each time I click open a new bullet point) I delete the slide on instinct and double up my efforts at notecarding or memorizing. Anything less and I’m transferring my burden to my audience, to say nothing of poor storytelling.

An Exception:

An exception to the Full Content Conjecture:

Vicki drowns this slide in bullets to a really nice effect. This is a lot like Ethan Bodnar’s prizewinning entry in the Four Slide Sales Pitch contest awhile back, a slide meant to be looked at, not read.

If I was presenting, I’d toss that list plus URLs plus a brief statement of purpose for each into a handout, which would complement and compel her visuals. Her story would then be unfettered by information and she would be free to tell a cool story: kids are connecting with each other around the world.

Also, I would’ve built this slide:

In Keynote I can build an animation that with one click pops each logo up sequentially over a matter of two, three, seven seconds — however long I need to tell the story. (Quicktime of what I’m talking about) Regardless, this example of visual storytelling remains a strong point in Vicki’s presentation, and is worth emulating in your own.


  1. Duarte, designer of Al Gore’s Oscar- and Nobel prize-winning Keynote presentation, has a strong portfolio which they share online. (Click through.) If you aren’t pursuing the best, how can you dodge the mediocre?
  2. How to Present Well: Introduction
  3. How to Present Well: Find the Through-Line
  4. How to Present Well: Think Less. Type More.
  5. How to Present Well: Build Your Handouts
  6. How to Present Well: Start Over
  7. How to Present Well: Build Your Slides
I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.


  1. You “delete the slide on instinct” if you find that you are reading it to keep you on track.

    Two things:
    1. If only we could get our students to instinctively do the same! But how many of them, a) create their slides moments before the presentation? b) have seen models of effective use of PowerPoint (what-have-you) by their teachers?
    2. Humans do not have ‘instinct’. Oh, and we can’t multi-task. Thank you, O great Psych Dept @ U-HA

  2. A couple of insights as this is a passion of mine as well.

    First I like guidelines over rules. Kawasaki’s rules are nice guidelines but would never feel compelled to follow them too strictly.

    Yours of:
    * Use your voice to tell a story.
    * Use your handouts to convey information.
    * Use your slides to draw a picture of the story.

    are great guidelines.

    Second, slideshare for me is a nice place to find exemplary decks…not presentations. As you suggest without the voice, the deck can’t stand on its own. Very few, are using the .mp3 option…likely because it’s easy to upload a deck..most are willing to sync an audio file.

    But as Ken laments…tag a few good decks in SlideShare and send kids over there to have look see.

  3. One thing to remember about looking at someone’s powerpoints or in this case, slideshare is that you DO NOT get the stories. I actually leave the PowerPoint and go into the wiki itself at several points to show videos and tell the story of the students.

    So, as you evaluate presentations, be careful not to “judge a preso by its slides” slides just don’t get it anymore.

    Great presentations use video, internet resources, AND a backchannel in my opinion!

    Thanks for the feedback, I really like the slide you did with the graphics on it of the WEb 2.0 items.

  4. Um…something above seems to go against your ‘use less, get more’ credo (the U. of Chicago app.).

    You lead a rough and tumble life.

    How much time do you spend having to clarify your points???

  5. Seems like nowadays a presentation isn’t a presentation unless you tweet your network a “tell Maine hello!” halfway through and blow your audience’s mind when ten people tweet back right away. Point taken but FWIW I think the ideal slidedeck (to whatever extent you use one) will leave me mostly clueless to the content of the presentation.

    Ken, not sure what you’re referring to above.

  6. you mention that a lot of whiz-bang can actually diminish the presentation (the slides). i just find it amusing that vicki notes that good presentations use video and so on.

    I’ve read some of your past posts that address the issue of simplicity. I agree with your philosophy.

    In fact, with your permission, I’d like to use your 3 recommendations from your previous post as guidelines for my students.

  7. My non-classroom professional self does a fair amount of workshop presentation on improving literacy instruction for those good ol ELLs. These presentations are like 20% paradigm shifting, new principle presenting. I haven’t pushed myself on images, although the “teach-for-Kelly” thought-line kicks some ass. Instead, I go for one big idea, one cool line, something that I can leave up behind me as I go. [And man, there’s nothing cooler than standing in front of a big black slide with the words “Defy The Myth” in white text] The other 80% of my presentation are the resources to get it done. The 20% lends itself well to the principles of design you’re promoting, and my work here has benefited from reading this here blog and seeing your OTF work last summer.

    The 80% is more problematic, because I’m showing the actual organizers, 2-column cloze notes, tracking systems, etc. that make what we talked about in the 20% part possible. An early solution was to only do slides on the 20%, provide hard copies of the 80% and work from there. This was unsatisfying, because holding up paper and pointing to it just felt lame.

    Recently, I embedded all the 80% content into the 20% slides. This was more functionally satisfying, but esthetically problematic, because I had all these lame icons floating around my slides. That sucks.

    So I don’t know. It’s maybe not a big deal, because my 80% is good, hard-hitting stuff, I get real fired up about talking teaching, and I play “Eye of the Tiger” before every presentation. After that, you can’t really go wrong.

  8. Yeah, “Defy the Myth” in inverse text sounds pretty awesome. I’m imagining you popping it up on the screen and walking off without looking back while everyone’s brains explode.

    For showing charts, handouts, etc., (which were a part of the OTF presentation) I’d copy & paste the actual PDFs into PowerPoint/Keynote and then scale the graphic up to zoom in on what I wanted to talk about. A copy for the audience in a handout is pretty mandatory but I don’t see the conflict otherwise.

    You ever give a presentation that’s both a) offline, b) in California, and c) public, you oughtta let your public know about it.

    Ken, go for it. I think in talking about technology, Vicki’s absolutely right to demo the tech. As far as simplicity goes, though, were her presentation mine, I would’ve condensed and, in some cases, cut out a handful of slides and nearly every bullet point.

    That’s basically what I’m driving at here.

  9. PDFing the stuff and placing it inside the presentation is probably right on. Part of the value of some of my presentations (especially the ones to new teachers) is the sheer of volume of stuff I’m throwing out. Here, I’ve got your entire grammar program, with homework/ classwork/ quizzes/ notes for the entire year. I need to show more exemplar stuff and move forward in that vein.

    I’ve got a gig coming up in your neck of the woods in January. More details when the folks send me the goods.