Monday, November 1, 2010

Power-point has no place in an analytics presentation

Most of us have heard about the 'paralysis by power point' in the US Army and how it has resulted in miscommunication and a lack of attention to detail. The display of statistics and results has become a scientific discipline in itself, and for us O.R./analytics practitioners, there is much to learn, and quickly.

Most of us in the world of O.R. run our optimization models, simulations and statistical programs and once we are done, we pay scant attention to how it is presented to an executive or non-technical audience. Boring and static charts, mind-numbing M x N matrices of numbers culled from spreadsheets accurate to the 3rd decimal place, all embedded within power-point slide after lifeless slide only serves to underwhelm the audience. Worse, it threatens to undo all the months of hard work we OR types have put in and undermine the cool results we obtained. The audience tends to shut down and fall asleep after the first couple of ppt slides. The art of the analytical presentation is by far the most neglected aspect at O.R. graduate programs, where unlike the real world, a PhD (candidate) only present results to another PhD, and then mostly within the same department.

O.R. does not end with model building and numerical results. It ends only when we can de-mystify analytics so our customers can truly comprehend what all this means to them in the limited amount of time we have to make our case. Toward this, smart people are coming up with innovative ways of displaying data, results, and statistics. For example, you may not grasp what "4.3689 meters" really means, but if I told you "twice the height of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar", that would give you a better picture.

Let's look at three great examples of presentations of analytical and statistical content.

Exhibit One: Hans Rosling, founder of gapminder, doing a presentation that in less in 20 minutes of power-packed slides and animation, gives the audience a fantastic and insightful overview of socio-economic and standard-of-living data for the world from the past (all the way from 1858) to the present. He then extrapolates this information to predict future economic prospects of key Asian countries (India, China, Japan) relative to the U.S. and the U.K. Watch it till the end. There is a wealth of useful information packed into each slide that integrates into a vivid narrative that is easy to understand. Within a few minutes, he has the audience eating out of his hand.

Exhibit 2: This is a simpler one that in a single picture shows the true size of Africa in way that most of us immediately grasp. The 'relative size' approach again works well. As a side note, the way the different countries fit into the continent of Africa seems to be a great approximate solution to the corresponding non-convex set-packing problem!

Exhibit 3: The well known single chart of Napoleon's disastrous Russian campaign of 1812-1813. Recognized by many as the "best statistical graphic ever drawn". It tells you pretty much everything relevant to the topic. Now imagine the mayhem that would have been caused by using 57 power-point slides filled with numbers and separate charts for attrition, time, temperatures, geography, etc. to show this same thing.

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