Designing outstanding data driven presentations


As consultants, data scientists, and machine learning experts, as persons knowledgeable about a subject we have to present our knowledge to others. How well we perform in doing so does not only influence our personal careers or the company we're working with, but might even impact our entire society: Political decisions are often based on the presentations of scientists - and before a contract is signed, the very last thing your business partner hears and sees from you might very well be a short presentation. How can we become better presenters? In particular, how can we deliver better data driven presentations?

Books I found inspiring and insightful

Books are probably some of the greatest resources of knowledge mankind has invented. Ever. Also for presentation design, delivery, and preparation, I think there are some amazing books out there (and some less amazing ones). Here is a list of books I liked and I did not like that much. Yes, I'll also list the not so great ones to spare you the time in reading these.

"Designing Science Presentations" by Matt Carter is a very quick read containing some very practical advice. You don't even need to read all of it, just look at the chapters covering slide presentations. I found this book helpful, especially if you cannot afford to spend the time to read the following, more lengthy ones.

"The Craft of Scientific Presentations" by Michael Alley is more in-depth. I highly recommend this book. In particular his explanation of the the assertion-evidence structure is pretty helpful for technical or scientific presentation. I really wish more technical talks would follow this structure. It contains interesting and surprising anecdotes and useful advice on about anything related to presentations.

"Visual Display of Quantitative Information" by Edward R Tufte is a true classic. This book is not that much about slide presentations but more generally about presenting data visually. You might or might not agree with Tufte's opinions on the value of slides and the advantages of print media (I disagree with some of his points), but even though his discussion of how to design visual evidence is entirely worth reading.

"Presentation Zen" by Garr Reynolds is highly regarded by some, but I did not like it that much though. I found the part on slide preparation, in particular the section on "planning analog" quite interesting. Maybe because I have read the other books before or maybe because this book is not quite my style: I found it hard to extract the important pieces of information from this book.

"slide:ology" by Nancy Duarte is my least favorite one, although many seem to like it a lot. Maybe I did not like it that much because it is very focused on layout of slides and does not portray the big picture as much as, for example, Michael Alley does. The, at least for me, most insightful part was probably the one on typography.

Learning from masters in action

Learn and copy from masters. There are incredible speakers, truly outstanding ones. Studying theses masters in action is probably at least as important as reading about presentations in books.

Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" is a documentary about global warming. It contains some of the most amazing, impressive, moving and lasting presentations I have ever seen. He is an extraordinary presenter and probably many of us can learn a lot about presentations from him. This is really a must watch.

Steve Jobs' presentation of the first iPhone is widely recognized as an amazing peace of craftsmanship, impressive and worthwhile watching. This is, however, less about presenting data (compared to Al Gore) and more about selling a product. I think Al Gore's presentations might therefore be more relevant in a scientific or technical setting, but Steve Jobs' presentations are nevertheless great.

David JP Phillips' "How to avoid death By PowerPoint" is an about 20 minute TEDxStockholmSalon talk with some very practical recommendations, mostly about slide design. If you don't have the time to study Al Gore, watch this one. Well, watch it anyways. I found him very compelling and the tips he gives can be immediately brought to production. Also, a must watch.

Tools I use

I think that the tools we use influence the presentations we prepare. Tools are usually opinionated and thereby facilitate one design or another. For example, PowerPoint makes it way too easy to produce bullet lists, no wonder we see so many of them day through day. That said, I think that a variety of tools - if used properly - can help to produce great presentations. In the end, most important are probably conscious design decisions as opposed to blindly following often weak default settings of software. I prefer tools which are free (as in freedom, not as in free beer) and open source.

Pen and Paper
Maybe the most important tool of all. I mostly start my presentations analog. Designing the story and the slides as a rough draft, first on paper, boosts my creativity.
This is really my work horse for slide design. Inkscape is a very professional vector graphics editor and my main tool to design slides. I think that indeed a drawing tool is the most important and adequate one for slide design; slides are visual, I don't need a tool which is geared towards producing bullet lists.
The scientific Python stack
Mostly pandas, seaborn and matplotlib are high-quality, very mature tools to visualize data.
Synfig Studio
Synfig is a very capable animation software, comparable to Adobe's Flash or Animate. For more complex animations this is the way to go for me. I export the animations as png image sequences to then convert these into a video with ffmpeg. Synfig can be buggy sometimes (so save frequently) and it can take some time to get used to the interface. But overall it gets the job done.
I use ffmpeg mostly to make videos out of image sequences and less frequently to convert or re-encode videos.
Natron is a powerful compositing software, comparable to Adobe After Effects. I use it for post-processing of animations exported as video.
An extremely powerful 3D modeling software. I usually don't do a lot of 3D because it is time intensive and slides are just 2D anyways, but when I do, I use Blender.
I use the GNU Image Manipulation Program to do mostly minor manipulations on images such as removing background and sometimes compositing images.
Reveal.js is a JavaScript and HTML based presentation software which runs in your browser. It can be tricky at times to get the slide layout right. But proper usage of CSS guarantees a degree of consistency which is hard to achieve with PowerPoint or LibreOffice Impress. Also, I've never experienced any problems with videos, I can play webm videos with alpha channel and thereby overlay them on the slide background. I have seen so many presentations where the presenter was embarrassed because the video embedded in PowerPoint did not play. This never happened with reveal.js to me.
LibreOffice Impress
I use LibreOffice Impress only for small presentations without videos or sophisticated animations. It does a good job in assembling a presentation fast. So if you're rushed, you probably won't like to use reveal.js. However, it has limitations when it comes to customization and heavy usage of media. Unfortunately it can also be a bit buggy at times. When I use it, I try to use styles as much as possible to achieve visual consistency.
Snakemake is a fancier GNU make. It is a great tool to automate all kinds of workflows It saves me a lot of time and makes my workflows reproducible. I use it together with reveal.js based presentations to parse the HTML file and automatically produce the linked media.
Wireless Presenter
Absolutely essential is a wireless presenter to advance the slides. I like to speak and stand freely, not behind a lectern and not behind my laptop.