“Speak with Data!” commanded my former general manager. “Let the Data Sing” is an article I wrote long ago. We all have data, often too much data. We like to present based on what the data says. Yet, sometimes the speaking with data is not clear.
If you’ve done the data gathering, the analysis, the summary, all based on the data, how can you best reveal what the data says to enhance your results and recommendations?
Just because you can add a 3D pie chart doesn’t mean you should. Crafting meaningful charts is only one part of the puzzle. You also have to present the data in a clear and meaningful manner. Here is a set of suggestions to consider the next time you are preparing and presenting when data is involved.
Make the Data Visible
There are two parts to this skill. First, less is more – meaning, please avoid cluttering the chart or graphic with every bit of information you know about. The history of the data, the issues encountered when gathering the data, the dead ends pursued, the associated formulas, a dozen references, etc. belong in the report, not on a graphic attempting to reveal a pattern in the data. See the work of Edward R. Tufte, for example, the excellent book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information for details on how to avoid clutter and a lot of other tips on crafting visible charts or graphs.
Second, go big or go home – meaning make sure the text, the data points, the lines, and every element of the chart is actually visible in the presentation setting. Can I (me with old eyes) read and see your graph from my seat at the back of the room? If not, the graphic is less than useful. If you start with the phrase, “this may be hard to see…”, well then the chart is not helping you or your cause at all.
Also, consider if the chart is still visible when printed or shown without color.
Feature the Key Points in the Data
You have crafted the perfect chart, that to you obviously details the connection leading to your recommendations. You can see it clear as day.
Few others will.
So, help you audience that has not spend hours with the data to understand what is obvious to you. Explain, “This bend in the curve means….”, or, “This pattern illustrates….”, etc.
Stick to Just One Point per Chart
To help with your audience’s understanding of the data, create each chart to feature just one key point. One message. One idea. Just one.
A chart crafted with a dozen elements that will enlighten and excite your audience is more likely confuse.
The white space on your chart is valuable. It allows you to feature or highlight the key point this one chart is addressing. If you have even just three arrows or highlighting circles, that is too many. You would be better served to replicate the chart three times and title and feature each point separately.
Label the Chart Clearly
“What is the x-axis?” or “What is the scale?” should never be a question you have to field when presenting. Make the chart clear by labeling well.
This includes axes, scales, and other chart elements. The labeling is there to help the audience decode the chart thus make sure it is in a language (hence no jargon or obscure abbreviations) the audience knows.
Highlight Critical Elements of a Chart
The chart is a vehicle to let your data tell a story. Explain that story and how the chart reveals the pivotal plot twist or thrilling conclusion. Explain why the data, through the chart, leads to the realization the data reveals.
This may be a trend, a change in a trend, a comparison, or something else that is critical to your interpretation of the data. Make that clear in how you describe the chart (and not with an abundance of text on the chart, please).
The Slide Title Should Reinforce the Data’s Message
Every element, especially the title, of the slide should reinforce that one slide’s key point. Avoid generic slide titles, use that space to help your audience interpret the chart.
Does having the company logo or pages numbers support the slide’s message? Probably not. The chart and the slide should only contain what is absolutely essential to let the chart along with your prevention convey the single key point of that slide. All else is clutter.
The Chart is Not Listening, Your Audience Is
You know your material so avoid talking to your slide. Face your audience not your slide. Sure, glance at the slide for reference, yet talk and look at your audience.
This takes practice and getting over stage fright. I get that and have found the best way to make great presentations is to do presentations every opportunity you can. Getting a trusted colleague to provide feedback helps.
If you tend to talk to your slides, make that a high priority to avoid during your next presentation.
How You Communicate Using Data Matters
We deal with data. We gather and analyze. That is only the start of effectively working with data. We all need to present the data and associated results or findings clearly.
The data and our work with the data is of little value if others do not understand what the data has to say. It is essential that you communicate clearly so your audience can quickly realize what you have spent the time to realize from the data.
A database full of data is just taking up memory space. It is your voice that lets the data express itself.
Note: This article was inspired by the HBR article Present Your Data Like a Pro by Joel Schwartzberg, published on February 14, 2020.