Tom Webster, writing and speaking

On Presenting Data

Added on by Tom Webster.

Robertomagi2I've presented data for two decades. That's 20 years of standing in front of projectors, showing slides with bar graphs, pie charts, and other visual representations of numbers. There are lots of books, posts and other content about how to visualize data. But precious, precious little on how to present data in front of humans. I have a distinct memory of a partner presenting some of our data at ad:tech a number of years ago, and in that specific instance it made more sense for him to present our data instead of me. When he was done, he needed a stiff drink, and I bought it for him. It's not so easy to present data, and he got a very instructive trial by fire on that topic in front of a tough crowd. I say that not to trumpet my own abilities here; nay, I note this because I failed him by not preparing him by drilling him in the unique aspects of presenting research data before a lay audience.

Here's the hard fact that data presenters have to grapple with: if you are in a position to analyze and present data, you are almost by definition more numerate than your audience. You can lose them very, very quickly--even in a presentation for sophisticated marketers. That is on you, not them. They are thinking about their stuff. You are thinking about your stuff. If a given audience starts to snooze during your data presentation, it's not because they are innumerate, or unsophisticated--it's because you didn't make your stuff matter to their stuff.

Pretty simple, really. And as such, I have a very, very simple rule about what to include--or exclude--in a data presentation.

A given data slide may or may not be important. A stat may or may not be "interesting" to a client. But if I can't tell a story about a pie chart, bar graph or table--it gets cut from the talk. Full stop. It makes it into the handout, and might be addressed in the executive summary, but it won't be in the presentation--and that includes client presentations AND speaking engagements.

In my day job, we are relentless about simplifying visual representations of data to be clear, obvious, and supportive of a story from the first glance. To that end, I've had some designers denigrate our visual style as uninteresting--wouldn't it be better to add some 3D here, or an animation there?

No, it wouldn't. I'm not a content marketer. I'm in the business of finding the discrete, finite pieces of data that will move the business needle for my clients, and making sure they see what I see. I'm not in the business of infographics. That's not a slam on infographics, but design for the eye is not the same as design for the brain.

So, with all that in mind, here are a few last tidbits for data presenters:

  • If a slide doesn't have a story, or a salient insight, cut it.
  • If a data representation doesn't clearly support a relevant insight, simplify it.
  • Consider having "tweetable moments"--even for a private presentation.
  • Never present a data point that requires knowledge of another data point that isn't earlier in your talk.
  • Consider what your audience knows already-and make analogies for the new data that draw upon that existing knowledge.
  • Keep presentation visuals 2D, primary colors, and dead, dead simple. Save the "flair" for handouts.
  • The presentation advice you get that says one minute per slide? Ignore it. If it's worth putting in your deck, it's worth spending time on.

Finally, whenever I give a data talk, I get two kinds of questions. One line of questions asks for me to elaborate on certain data points, or to speculate on further meaning. Those are the kinds of questions I love. The other kind of question asks for me to clarify a data point that the questioner clearly misunderstood. Those questions say nothing about my audience. Rather, they point to my own failure to clearly explicate the data point. That's my screw up, not theirs.

As the great conjurer (and personal hero of mine) Dai Vernon once said, "Confusion isn't magic." Your job as a data presenter is to challenge your audience, not to defeat them. When I am at my best, I do just that. It's a practice, and an aspiration.