PowerPoint and Data Visualization

… a core concept used in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107

Concept description

Leslie Pal (reference below) comments on the strengths and weaknesses of PowerPoint-type presentations, and developments in data visualization.

Pal writes (p. 376-377):

“In most democratic states … the written text has been complemented if not supplanted by other media of communication. In some cases it is simply a matter of a different vehicle – tweets are still text, as are most blogs, and most Web pages still are heavy with text. Indeed, the great advantage of the Web is that almost all government documents are available online, so it is not a matter of digital technology replacing text, but simply making it much easier and cheaper to access it. In other cases, the form of the communication has itself changed. Most briefings to senior officials these days – indeed, it would seem most presentations of any sort – are done with presentation software such as PowerPoint or Keynote. This is more than a matter of taking text out of a document and pasting it into a slide – actually, the kiss of death for any competent or interesting presentation. Graphics, bullet points, animations, movies, and photographs – almost any type of information can be mobilized for a presentation. The grammar of visual slide presentations is thus different from textual ones, and mastering it is its own skill.

Limitations of PowerPoint

“One pioneer of the visualization of data, Edward Tufte (1990, 2001), published a short but stinging attack on presentation software, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (Tufte, 2003). Tufte had several critiques that still hold today. PowerPoint (PP) is presenter oriented, not content oriented or audience oriented. It has what Tufte called “low resolution” (not much space per slide) that induces overgeneralizations, imprecision, or mere slogans. Presentations, because of low resolution, rely on bullets, which are imprecise and linear, leaving out or obscuring important causal relationships. As well, bulleted hierarchies can make the information all but indecipherable.

PowerPoint tips

“Tufte is no friend of PowerPoint, but he did offer some tips on how to use it to balance some of its inherent weaknesses (also see Godin, 2001). He admitted that PowerPoint was a competent presentation tool for low-resolution materials, but “that’s about it.”

  • Avoid elaborate hierarchies of bullets.
  • Never read aloud from slides.
  • Never use PP templates to format paper reports of web screens.
  • Use PP as a projector for showing low-resolution color images, graphics, and videos that cannot be reproduced as printed handouts at a presentation.
  • Paper handouts at a talk can effectively show text, numbers, data graphics, images.
  • Printed materials, which should largely replace PP, bring information transfer rates in presentations up to that of everyday material in newspapers, magazines, books and internet screens.
  • Thoughtfully planned handouts at your talk tell the audience that you are serious and precise; that you seek to leave traces and have consequences. And that you respect your audience. (Tufte, 2003, p. 24, Pal text formatted in bullets)
Data visualization

“This advice represents a somewhat dismal analysis of a tool that is ubiquitous. A more optimistic approach (that is not alien to Tufte’s emphasis on strong visual representations of data) is the current work on “visualization.” Lindquist (2011) argues that there are several reasons to be hopeful about the potential of visualizations for policy analysis and policymaking.

  • First, the technology has improved immeasurably, is widely available, and most people these days (especially younger citizens) are quite familiar with it.
  • Second, he notes that policy problems as well as solutions are becoming increasingly complex (see the discussion

[Lindquist] sees visualizations as an IT tool that can present complex issues in new ways, often by mashing different types of data and providing arresting and informative (what Tufte would call “high-resolution”) images. Lindquist delineates the broad field of visualization into three distinct but overlapping approaches:

  1. data or information visualization, whose proponents and researchers are most interested in the ability to make sense of and represent very large amounts of data
  2. graphics and information display with the objective of producing visually pleasing images, and
  3. graphics recording and strategic facilitation, where the goal is to help different policy stakeholders share perspectives through visual diagrams and find ways to engage in cooperative collective action.

“At least for those outside of government, being able to develop visualizations of data means having access to data, and so the “visualization movement” overlaps with the “open data” movement.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Writing to Persuade (core topic) in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107.


Leslie Pal (2014), Beyond Policy Analysis – Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times, Fifth Edition, Nelson Education, Toronto. See Beyond Policy Analysis – Book Highlights.

Lindquist, E. (2011). Grappling with complex policy challenges: Exploring the potential of visualization for analysis, advising and engagement. Available at https://www.anzsog.edu.au/resource-library/research/grappling-with-complex-policy-challenges-exploring-the-potential-of-visualization-for-analysis-advising-and-engagement, accessed 8 April 2017.

Tufte, E. R. (1990). Envisioning information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 8 April 2017.

Image: fppt.com, at http://www.free-power-point-templates.com/articles/powerpoint-visualization-tools-tips/, accessed 8 April 2017.