Thursday, 26 February 2009

6 ways to improve data presentations

Business communications often include data: amounts that are quantifiable to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy. Quantifying things goes to the very heart of what a business does – generating sales, maximising profits, inputting inputs, delivering outputs, measuring response rates / interest rates / business rates. Little gets changed unless the benefits can be quantified.

Using relevant data in your pitch can make a case more strongly than just words ever could: providing you get it right. Too often we spend time gathering the data, then fling it together the night before hoping that the “figures will speak for themselves”. Well they might – if everyone was awake to hear them.

In any presentation you are looking for that “ah-ha” moment. The point where individually and collectively your audience think to themselves:

NOW I see the problem! How long has THIS been going on?
THERE is the opportunity! How come we didn’t see THAT before?
THIS is what we have to fix. Let’s get a project manager onto it!
THAT is what we need to improve! And fast – this could be important …

Putting together a presentation with that kind of power and persuasion will ensure backing for your proposition and make life a whole lot easier.

But how do you do it?

1. Figure out what you want your audience to do as a result of your presentation. Then work back from the end point.

2. Use data that is relevant, credible, and supports your message. If it has deficiencies, decide whether they are important and whether better data is available. Show your data sources, admit deficiencies, and make recommendations based on the picture as you see it.

3. Interrogate the data until YOU understand what it means. Numbers represent things – behaviours, estimates of behaviours, actual or imagined sales, whatever. Understand the numbers, ask the data difficult questions, and consider the probability of your numbers being right.

4. How can you present the data to communicate the message? Consider graphs, timelines, maps, diagrams or symbols that let the data tell a story. Do you need the actual figures to support a graphic? Do you need a graphic at all? Where should your “ah-ha” moments show up?

5. Stand back and squint. Through half closed eyes you will see the patterns in the data and the graphic. What does it communicate from a distance? Consider the order of your data to ensure it shows your audience what you want them to see.

6. Edit, revise and amend until the data is convincing. Only then add the words.

Then enjoy the ah-ha’s as they ripple round the room.

As I drove to work this morning I heard an interview on the radio about a public services reform report. The organisation that had produced the report was asked, very reasonably, what data it was that supported their recommendations. “Oh, a study done some years ago” was the quick response before she swiftly moved on to other points. It was a far from convincing reply which the presenter kindly did not press. It left me feeling that this report did not stand up to scrutiny, and that the organisation had missed a big opportunity.


  1. Good stuff, data is hard area to present partiuclarly to larger groups and maintain their interest.

    Important not to over complicate as this will lead to confusion and loss of control of key message

    Where wil audience becoming from, like your point one but see from their perspective

    You can always supplement slides with handouts of details after meeting.

  2. I so agree that not over complicating the message is important. You make some good points - particularly about considering the audience's perspective. Thanks!