A great presentation is the opposite of a what a stage magician does: Edward Tufte (1997)

“Explaining Magic: Pictorial Instuctions and Disinformation Design” is the title of Chapter 3 in Visual Explanations (1997) by Edward Tufte.

Visual Explanations (1997)

The chapter provides one of the best accounts that I’ve encountered anywhere about how to make a presentation. In essence, Tufte says: “Do the opposite of what a stage magician does.”

I came across a May 3, 2008 Boston Globe article while doing an online search for information about the above-noted chapter about stage magicians.

The Boston Globe article is entitled: “How magicians control your mind: Magic isn’t just a bag of tricks – it’s a finely-tuned technology for shaping what we see. Now researchers are extracting its lessons.”

The opening paragraph reads:

  • In September of 1856, in the face of a growing rebellion, Napoleon III dispatched Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin to Algeria. Robert-Houdin was not a general, nor a diplomat. He was a magician – the father, by most accounts, of modern magic. (A promising young escape artist named Ehrich Weiss would, a few decades later, choose his stage name by adding an “i” to “Houdin.”) His mission was to counter the Algerian marabouts, conjurers whose artful wizardry had helped convince the Algerian populace of Allah’s displeasure with French rule.

[End of excerpt]

Perception and memory

The Boston Globe article notes that perception isn’t like a movie camera recording a scene. In that context, I’m reminded of memory research suggesting memories aren’t like a movie camera recording a scene, either.

Other public speaking resources

Other works worth noting are Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds (2014) and How to Be a Presentation God (2011).

As well, Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less (2014) may also be of interest. With regard to the latter study, I’m reminded of the power of blurbs and brands in the organizing of our thoughts and responses.

Visual Display of Quantitative Information (2001)

Of related interest is The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (2001) by Edward Tufte.

A 40-page PDF document highlights key points from the latter work.

You can also access excerpts from The Visual Display of Quantitative Information at Google Books.

You can find quotes from the book here.

Edward Tufte put a second mortgage, at 18 percent, on his house in order to self-publish his books on design

In a 2004 interview, Edward Tufte notes that in the 1980s, he realized that he would need to self-publish his books in order to maintain control over their design. With regard to a manuscript that he had finished in 1982, he refers (p. 452 at the above-noted interview link) to the second mortgage that he took out on his house:

  • The bank officer said this was the second most unusual loan that she had ever made; first place belonged to a loan to a circus to buy an elephant!
  • My view on self-publishing was to go all out, to make the best and most elegant and wonderful book possible, without compromise. Otherwise, why do it?

[End of excerpt]


In the chapter on presentations, in Visual Explanations (1997), Edward Tufte is referring, as I recall, to academic or similar presentations that seek to convey accurate and balanced information on topics of interest.

I read this chapter with close attention, at a time when I was making keynote presentations at national and international conferences in support of my volunteer projects. This was the one piece of writing, among all the large number of resources that I encountered, that really hit home for me.

Presentations that seek to advance a brand or further a political cause, including presentations by university administrators, inevitably have characteristics in which the work of the stage magician serves other purposes than what Edward Tufte may have had in mind when he offered advice in Chapter 3 of Envisioning Information about how to make a great presentation.

Fair Trade Coffee

To express these matters in broader terms, we can – by way of example – consider how information is shared with regard to Fair Trade Coffee. We can say that Fair Trade as a brand is simple and evocative. We can say, as well, that the back story – as outlined in academic studies, such as Fair trade and a Global Commodity: Coffee in Costa Rica (2008) – related to Fair Trade is complicated and equally evocative.


A Huffington Post article, downloaded July 19, 2015, is entitled: The Myth of the Ethical Shopper. We’re still trying to eliminate sweatshops and child labor by buying right. But that’s not how the world works in 2015.

Also of interest: The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (2004).

A March 2018 CBC article referring to a  March 18, 2018 CBC briadcast is entitled: The science of magic: What magic has taught us about how the brain works.”


1 reply
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A Nov. 15, 2023 BBC article is entitled: “Magicians less prone to mental illness – study.”

    An excerpt reads:

    He said that what also distinguishes magicians from many other creatives is that they “not only create their own magic tricks but also perform them, while most creative groups are either creators or performers”.

    “For example, poets, writers, composers and choreographers create something that will be consumed or performed by others. In contrast, actors, musicians and dancers perform and interpret the creation of others,” he said.

    “Magicians, like comedians and singer-songwriters, are one of those rare groups that do both.

    “Magicians scored low on impulsive nonconformity, a trait that is associated with anti-social behaviour and lower self-control.

    “These traits are valuable for many creative groups such as writers, poets and comedians whose creative acts are often edgy and challenge conventional wisdom.”


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *