Interview with Presentation Skills Expert Jonathan Schwabish
Jon SchwabishJonathan Schwabish is a Senior Research Associate at The Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center. He is also a member of the institute’s Communication team where he specialises in data visualization and presentation design.

Prior to his time at Urban, he spent the previous 9 years at the Congressional Budget Office conducting research in such areas as earnings and income inequality, immigration, disability insurance, retirement security, data measurement, and other aspects of public policy.

In addition, Jon is the author of the book "Better Presentations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers, and Wonks" which is due to be released in November. Jon stopped by our website to talk about his work, as well as the art of presenting, and improving one's presentation skills.

Hi Jon, thanks so much for stopping by our Expert Insights corner – could you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?

Hi and thanks for having me. I live in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington, DC with my wife and two kids. I work at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. There, I spend half of my time conducting economic research in such areas as nutrition programs and the Disability Insurance program, and the other half of my time in the Communications Department helping people with their data visualization and presentation needs.

I also have my own data visualization and presentation firm, PolicyViz, where I help researchers and analysts do a better job processing, analyzing, sharing, and presenting their data and research. I teach data visualization and presentation skills at Georgetown University and the Maryland Institute College of Art, and have a number of projects including my own podcast, The PolicyViz Podcast, where I chat with great, smart people about data visualization, data, and open data.

I understand your background is in economics, how did you find yourself where you are today?

Yes, I have a BA in Economics from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a PhD in Economics from Syracuse University. My first job in Washington, DC was at the Congressional Budget Office, where I initially worked on Social Security projections. I then branched out a bit and worked on immigration, food stamps, inequality, and other areas. About five years in, I felt our work wasn’t getting the attention it deserved, and I realized that we were probably not thinking hard enough about communicating the work instead of just publishing the work. I discovered this field of data visualization and ways of thinking carefully about making graphs that more effectively communicate the analysis.

So I started exploring better visual ways to improve my own work and that of my colleagues. I worked with some great teams to create graphs, infographics, and new report types, all with the goal of improving how we communicated our work to the U.S. Congress. It then seemed like a natural pivot to think about improving how I and others present our work to an audience, so I’ve spent a lot of my time lately working in that area.

Your book, Better Presentations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers, and Wonks, is coming out later this year – could you tell us a bit about it?

Better Presentations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers, and WonksYes, I’m very excited about getting the book out the door! It’s been consuming for more than a year, and I can’t wait to get it in people’s hands and see how they can improve how they communicate information. The book is for people who work with data and present their analysis to an audience, be it in around the office, in a seminar room, or to a large audience.

Unfortunately, researchers and analysts too often pack their slides full of tables and numbers and bullet points — I want to help those presenters improve the way they think about a presentation and how to deliver their content so that it will be remembered and acted upon. I tried to make my approach very practical too, and easy to implement. Deep down, I’m still a researcher, so my goal was to write a practical book that others could use to design, create, and deliver great presentations.

Why do you enjoy helping others with their presentation skills?

There is so much interesting research going on out there and too much of it doesn’t get the attention it deserves because researchers don’t know the best way to communicate it! Researchers will spend weeks or months or even years on some really important question. Then, they’ll stand in front of an audience and give a presentation in which they’ve converted the report text to bullet points and copied the figures and tables into their slides without thinking twice. I really believe there is a better way and I believe anyone can do it.

What really drives me is when a researcher tells me their boss (or, more likely, bosses) aren’t going to buy into this different way of presenting: a style where they use less words, fewer bullets, and more images. In these cases, I’ll encourage them to try, maybe start slowly and just tweak a few slides here and there. Without fail, my next conversation with that person is about how the presentation was a success, everyone loved it, and how the audience couldn’t keep their eyes off the speaker. That’s why I enjoy helping others with their presentations — because I know they and their audience are going to be better off.

Are you working on any new projects? What’s next for you?

I have a very busy fall coming up with lots of exciting workshops and presentations to deliver, as well as some research projects at the Urban Institute that I plan to release by the end of the year. I’ll also be coaching my kids’ baseball and softball teams, which is just a whole lot of fun. I’m also working with my friend Severino Ribecca on some extensions to our Graphic Continuum project, which is a large library of different graphic types. Maybe my most exciting event this fall is the TEDxJNJ talk I’ll deliver in early October in Philadelphia.

What are the three top tips you would give to someone wanting to improve their presentations?

I follow three guiding principles when I present, and it works for just about everything you need to do in a presentation. First, Visualize your content. Get numbers out of bullet-point sentences and tables and turn them into graphs; add images, pictures, or icons; and use colors and fonts to engage the audience.

Second, Unify your content, both in how your slides look throughout your presentation, and how the slides support what you say. The slides are there to support you as the speaker, not supplant you.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Focus your audience’s attention where you want it at all times. Don’t pack your slides full of numbers and sentences and bullet points—your audience can’t read all of it and listen to you too—break up those slides and have a single goal for each slide and your entire presentation. I use these principles as a common thread throughout the book, applying them to each stage of the presentation conceptualization, creation, and delivery process.

Speaking in front of an audience is a fear for many people – how can one feel more at ease when giving presentations?

The number one thing I can recommend to calm your fears is to practice your presentation. And practice again. And again. And don’t sit there mumbling what you’re planning to say as you flip through PowerPoint on your desktop. Close your office door, stand up, get a clicker, and really rehearse your presentation. You may feel like an expert in your content area because you’ve done the research, analyzed the data, and written the report, so now you need to convert that knowledge into an effective presentation. Remember this: Presenting is a fundamentally different form of communication than writing.

After that, there are lots of things you can try to master your fears and reduce your nerves. Try stretching your arms up and breathing deeply. This will trigger a relaxation response in your brain. You can also try slow, calm breathing techniques (one technique I like is to breath in for 7 seconds, hold it for 7 seconds, and breath out for 7 seconds). You might also exercise or stretch to help reduce your anxiety. And arrive early for your talk. You can address any technical or logistical challenges you might face and spend the rest of the time focusing on your talk. I talk about these and other techniques in the book.

Jon Schwabish

What advice do you find yourself repeating over and over in regard to presentations?

A few things come up again and again. First, as I mentioned earlier, practice your presentation. This will make you more familiar with your content and confident in your delivery. Second, don’t pack as much as you can onto each slide. At the very least, break your dense slides up into multiple slides, something I call “Layering” and discuss in detail in the book. In this way, you will focus your audience’s attention where you want it at all times. Plus, having 30 slides instead of 20 doesn’t cost you anything more!

How has the art of presenting changed over the years? And how do you hope it continues to change?

There are two things I’d say here. First, presenting has always been, and always will be, about communicating information to people. So while there are more and newer software tools—for example, Prezi, Canva, Slides, Zoho, and the old standby, PowerPoint—that may help you create better looking slides or add different animations, presenting is still about communication. So it’s not the tool that makes a great presentation, it’s the presenter. The presenter needs to know what content to present and what content to leave out.

Second, more and more people now recognize the value of delivering a great presentation, and, importantly, that anyone can deliver a great presentation. For people who work with and analyze data, who may not be as comfortable or seasoned at giving presentations, they can learn to do so. They can learn to deliver their content in the best way possible so that their work is used and acted upon.

And finally, is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

Improving the way you communicate your data — be it in a written report or in front of an audience — is crucial to getting your message out there. People are recognizing the increasing value and availability of data, so if you can improve the way you communicate your work, you are going to be so much more likely to get people to adopt your ideas and act upon your message.

Jonathan's book, Better Presentations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers, and Wonks is published on 15 November, 2016, and is now available to pre-order from Amazon and other online retailers. If you'd like to connect with Jon, you'll find him on Twitter at @jschwabish.