I finally seized the opportunity to see Edward Tufte deliver his one-day workshop Presenting Data and Information. Due to his rockstar reputation, I had some overblown expectations—something more theatrical, with flashy graphics, head stands, perhaps a light show? I spent the first two hours feeling a bit let down until I realized how antipodal his message is to the marketing flash of someone like Seth Godin. Tufte’s presentation is all about delivering substantive content that is cognitively engaging—an approach that he modeled expertly, sans bells and whistles. While I had overestimated Tufte’s histrionics, he did not underestimate my (his audience’s) intelligence.

The workshop is directed more toward those in the business world who need to present data and information to address engineering problems, inform budget decisions, and the like. However, I found a couple of take-aways for trainer-facilitators.

1. The Super Graphic (or Return of the Handout)

There is a tendency (especially in online learning) to reduce data and information to a minimal amount per screen, or to stretch data sets out over a series of screens. This is driven necessarily by the compact pixel real estate of the computer monitor, but the outcome is to shrink information toward meaninglessness or to confound the viewer’s cognitive ability to make comparisons and draw conclusions by scattering the inputs and forcing super-human acts of memorizing.

Enter the SUPER GRAPHIC! This is a printed, efficiently annotated graphic, dense with data, legal size or larger, that allows the learner to scan the entirety of an information set, make comparisons from proximal visual, numerical and textual information, and derive informed, self-propelled conclusions. This kind of information presentation could/should accompany most online training. Many courses include downloadable handouts of resources as more of an addendum than an integral part of the learning. Why not design a course around a super graphic, using the online portion to direct the learner’s attention, inject probing questions, and allow interactions to demonstrate the successful intake of knowledge?

2. Give the learner time to think

Several times during the workshop, Tufte asked the audience to study a data set or super graphic in one of his books, which we all had stacked in front of us. And then he stopped talking. Attention was not focused on the stage but on the pages of our books. There were some low murmurs of people sharing observations but the room of 400+ was otherwise quiet. This went on for five minutes—an eternity of “dead air” in broadcast parlance.

This was an aha! moment for me. Not only is it okay to give learners some studying-thinking time during instruction, it empowers them to absorb, reflect, and contribute to the formation of knowledge. It allows real learning to take place. Isn’t that more important than filling up every second of audio space?

Do I recommend going to see Tufte’s presentation next time he’s in your neighborhood? Sure! Yes, you can buy all the books for approximately half the price of the workshop, but you would miss the directed tour through the material and you would miss Tufte’s modeling of effective delivery.