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Data-heavy presentations

How to include all the needed data in the presentation, without losing your audience

It can be tricky to set up presentations with a lot of data, but sometimes it’s necessary. Analyses, sales results, demographics, research – some meetings are about the cold hard facts, and visuals, stories and engaging objects is not the way to go. It may be beneficial to let your audience dive into the data and assist you in reaching conclusions.

Still, reading a lot of numbers, and reflecting on their impact on your business is a cognitive strain, and especially if the presentation moves on at the presenters own pace, not leaving time for thought or calculations.

What is the purpose of the presentation?

Start off by defining to yourself what you would like to get out of this presentation. Take a look at the points in the grey for inspiration, and ask yourself “Why am I presenting this? What do I need to get out of it?”. Presentation skills have a tendency to turn into habits, and we follow the routine and templates of earlier presentations. In fact, the word presentation itself frames the expectations of both you and your audience – it’s a presentation, of course you’re using Powerpoint to influence someone. We ignore the fact that a presentation is a tool – a means to an end. It’s like architecting a house around what tools you have, instead of getting the necessary tools after the blueprint is ready.

So, first off, define your purpose.

The tools at hand

Watching your presentation as a tool rather than your purpose is a good start. Now I want you to dive further into it, and see what your toolbox consists of.

Slides with numbers/tables

Yes, you can present numbers in Powerpoint tables or even directly in Excel, and sometimes it makes sense. If you are inviting your audience to discuss conclusions and solutions with you, working in Excel with formulas and watching the results together can be an efficient session. From a visual perspective, follow some basic rules to make the numbers easier to follow:

  • Remove irrelevant or unnecessary data
  • Clearly mark rows and columns so that it’s easy to follow the numbers you are looking at. Use a bold typeface or a different color to differentiate them
  • Get rid of decimals if they are not needed
  • Use a thousand separator to make numbers easy to read
  • Color coding your numbers can help draw attention to what’s important
  • Grammatically correct text is easier on the eyes, and errors make you seem sloppy

Notice how the subtle changes in the image below makes it easier to read, and by using a simple trick such as color coding, you can immediately draw attention to what should be discussed, such as the decline in profit in the US and European market in this fictional example. In the second illustration, it is solved by using symbols instead.

What is the purpose of the presentation?

  • Influencing/selling
  • Discussion starter
  • Status update
  • Showing conclusions from data
  • Let the audience help you to find the conclusions
  • Asking specific questions, based on the data (“Why are sales down in our US market?”)
Notice how subtle changes makes the right table more easy on the eyes, and the color coding draws immediate attention to what you need to discuss.
Here's another example of using symbols to draw attention towards the important numbers in the table.

Diagrams

Obviously, visualizing numbers is often the best way to go to see trends and conclusions. This article won’t go into detail on using diagrams, but some general rules can be applied to this as well to keep your data easy to read.

  • Again – keep it simple. Rid your diagram of unnecessary and distracting details
  • Fancy effects such as gradients, shadows or whatever Excel chooses to include by default are a nuisance
  • Read the points in the previous paragraph. The number formatting you use in Excel will follow into the diagram
  • Adding a trend line makes it easier to draw conclusions from data that fluctuates
Adding a trend line is a simple way to confirm that this organizations profits have indeed been declining, even if fluctuating.

Handouts

Powerpoint is but one of the tools you have available. Remember, your slides are there to support your arguments, not to do your job as presenter or carry the weight of heavy data tables. If your audience is squinting, it means your slides are hard to grasp. Handouts is another tool available. Keep your conclusions or questions on the slides, and the data on the handouts. Asking your audience to “Please direct your attention to page 3” is also a good way to ensure they are focused on your material, and not their cell phone or laptop.

Files sent prior to the meeting

Data can also be sent to participants before the meeting takes place. Make it clear that you expect your employees to get to know the data and that you will be discussing it during or after your presentation.

Whiteboard

Your whiteboard can be a powerful way to illustrate conclusions of your data, and start discussions by visualizing them. It’s more dynamic than printed material and slides, and it commands the attention towards you. Practice makes perfect on the art of using a whiteboard efficiently; if it makes you nervous, be sure to prepare.

Leaving the office

I once attended a meeting in an organization working within the luxury retail market. A well-meaning employee had meticulously photographed one of their stores, to convince the executive group that it needed renovations. The store was a short walk away from the office, and before anyone could speak up, the CEO did; “Why don’t we go down there?”. The employee was right. The store did need renovation to meet their standards, and the decision to do so was made quickly once pointed out and experienced by the CEO and his colleagues.

Conclusion

The internet will tell you it’s trendy to present like TED speakers; tell a story, engage your audience and surprise them. But in the daily life at work, it doesn’t work like that; the point of your presentation may be simply to inform or to get a discussion started. But there are ways to make large amounts of information more digestible, and to point your audience towards the most important parts of it. This article has given some examples, and they boil down to some easy pointers:

  • Less is more – if you want your audience to catch your message, keep your slides tidy. Remove everything that is not necessary
  • Design is important, not just a fancy idea – well-designed slides are easier to read and conclusions or questions are obvious and engaging
  • Spread your information out – do not stuff too much into one slide. You control the show, and can jump back and forth as you want
  • Remember that you have other media available – handouts, audio, video, files, whiteboard, objects, applications other than Powerpoint, live experiences
Presentation handouts can carry your heavy data better than your Powerpoint slides.
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