Jon Schwabish is an economist, writer, teacher, and creator of policy-relevant data visualizations. He is considered a leading voice for clarity and accessibility in how researchers communicate their findings. His new book about presentation design and techniques, Better Presentations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers, and Wonks is now available.
We want to help our readers build their skills as presentation designers, speakers and coaches, learning from a wide range of our colleagues from across the world, so in this occasional series, The Guru’s Big Five Questions, we ask the experts the same five questions about their inspiration, their hopes and their role models in the ever-changing arena of world-class presenting. This is what Jon had to say:
What’s the greatest speech in history and why?
This is a tough one, but probably not for the reasons you think. I’m sure when faced with this question, most people think of JFK, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, or Lou Gehrig. But the best speech is one that rallies an audience to action. That action can be to go to the moon, fight injustice, or defend freedom. But it also might be to support a new policy, meet a challenge, or inspire some other kind of action. My view of the greatest speech, therefore, is one that inspires action, whether it be big or small.
What’s the greatest business presentation / sales pitch and why?
The best presentation I’ve seen in person is the one given by Scott McCloud at the 2014 Tapestry Conference in Nashville, TN. His talk about the foundations, artistry, and magic of comics was funny, sad, inspirational, and beautiful. The slides moved in different directions and drew from many different sources. If you want a taste of his talk, you can watch his TED Talk, but the longer version at Tapestry was quite magical.
Who is the best political/cause orator today & why?
For me, the best current political orator is Bill Clinton (I consider myself extremely fortunate to have met the former president twice). His speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention was an amazing tour through public policy and politics. No other politician I’m aware of can communicate the complexities of public policy in ways that everyone can relate to and understand in the way Bill Clinton can. (Even if you don’t agree with Clinton’s politics, if you take an objective view of his speech, you will have to admit it is a remarkable review of public policy.)
What’s the one most important thing that anyone making a speech should do more than anything else?
Always think about your audience. Always. I often work with people who present scientific or technical content. But they don’t always need to present all of the technical details, results, equations, and theory (in fact, they usually don’t need to). Presenting that technical information in an hour-long meeting to your colleagues is much different than presenting the same information in a 15 minute conference session or a 30 minute keynote address.
If you’re presenting to a technical audience at a conference, they may want to hear the specific details of your innovative new method. If you’re presenting your research in front of a potential funder, the results obtained (and further work you hope to do with those results) might be more important. So thinking carefully about who is in your audience will change what you present and how you plan to present it. Instead of focusing too much on the details of the methodology, you may need to ensure there is a bottom-line, actionable message for your audience to take away with them.
Who inspired you starting out in the business? Who inspires you now?
I started my work in the presentation field after I had spent some time working in the data visualization field (coinciding with my work as an economist working for the U.S. Congress). I had seen so many bad presentations (by myself included!) from people trying to convince others about politics, public policy, inequality, and more. So having spent some time learning better ways to present my work visually through graphs in my written work, it seemed a natural pivot to think about how I and others could improve the way we present our work verbally in front of an audience.
Early on, I was inspired by the presentation books by Carmine Gallo, Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds, and Robin Williams. I was also inspired by TED Talks from Benjamin Zander, Hans Rosling, and Ken Robinson. I read as many presentation books and blogs as I can get my hands on, and watch lots of TED Talks because they give me great ideas about how to present and how to design slides. I also read design blogs and books to help inspire my slide design.
But my real inspiration comes from the people I work with, people who ask me to help them do a better job communicating their content. I’m not a designer by any means, but there are very simple things presenters can do to help facilitate better audience understanding and (hopefully) adoption of the speaker’s ideas.