Garr Reynolds

Avoiding the Data Dump – Building Better Technical Presentations

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Death by PowerPoint

Garr Reynolds over at Presentation Zen has pulled an old skeleton from the presenter’s closet: The Technical Presentation: “Who says technical presentations can’t be engaging?” Scientific and technical presentations are often put in a separate class because they tend to be highly specialized, dense, and often a bad match for the limited bandwidth of PowerPoint. This, in combination with a variety of other issues (poor preparation, bad graphics, lack of clear purpose, no regard for the medium) often results in what is commonly known as the “Data Dump.” Too often we fall prey to this abuse, even when we are paying for the privilege of the presentation. Reynolds cites an essay by geologist J. Lehr (1985) who reminds us of our primary burden as presenters:

“Failure to spend the [presentation] time wisely and well, failure to educate, entertain, elucidate, enlighten, and most important of all, failure to maintain attention and interest should be punishable by stoning. There is no excuse for tedium.”

Avoiding the Data Dump requires work. Far too often presenters are pushed to deliver reams of data and complicated charts and graphs without the assistance of (or time for) a design(er). It’s almost unheard of (and perhaps ironic) that technical people have any background or knowledge of information design to help them prepare media. What’s worse, this blind spot is just as common in technical writers and instructional designers who fashion presentations for others to give. This is certainly one instance where good design can pay off.

With that said, what can we do to avoid inflicting a lethal PowerPoint presentation on a trusting audience?

  1. Prepare in advance
  2. “Own” the material
  3. Simplify the look and content
  4. Don’t read the slides
  5. Avoid gratuitous anything (this may be a comment on 3. above)
  6. Connect with the audience
  7. Adapt the presentation to the audience
  8. Tell a story
  9. Rehearse the talk (this may be a comment on 1. above)

How to give the worst possible presentation

Presentation Zen Design (the Book)

Garr Reynolds is in the throes of a new book titled “presentation zen DESIGN” due out at the end of the year. It follows on a previous title “presentation zen” and drills down deeper into material specifically related to visual communication. From his blog post:

“For many of us, there is a hole in our education when it comes to communicating visually, and knowledge of even the basics of graphic design is missing for most people. This book intends to do its small part to help fix this problem by focusing on concrete graphic design principles and techniques in the context of presentation design, though the concepts and knowledge can be applied to other areas of one’s professional life. This book is a deeper exploration of the Design section of PZ (chapters 5-7). The underlying guiding principles are the same — restraint, simplicity, and naturalness — but this time applied strictly to visual communication in general and graphic design in particular. My aim is to help the non-designer become a bit more savvy of a visual thinker and to give him or her the tools and understanding to apply this knowledge in concrete, practical ways immediately in presentations (and beyond).”


Reynold’s work should be required reading for anyone who teaches or gives talks with PowerPoint and the like. His emphasis on clarity, simplicity and naturalness is a balm to the tired soul deluged by dreary stacks of slides that drone on in endless succession.

The author also requests suggestions, stories and examples from his readers. Please write to Garr Reynolds at this address with suggestions for “presentation zen DESIGN.”