Presenting Research and Data
Some of us find joy in numbers, in the certainty of that second decimal place. But most of us don't. And this is the challenge: how does the person who loves numbers communicate their enthusiasm and all that loving detail to an audience, many of whom may find numbers dry and difficult?
The short answer is keep the enthusiasm and trim the detail. Less really is more when presenting data and it is more effective to breathe life and energy into fewer key points.
So here are some presentation tips to improve your personal impact when presenting numbers:
Present fewer numbers
For each and every 1 carat diamond extracted from the earth, miners dig up, sift and dump 250 tonnes of ore. And so it should be with your presentations: keep the sparkly gems and discard the debris.
This is self-interest. Even people who like numbers struggle to pay attention when the numbers are arriving like a hail of bullets from a mach 10 machine gun. And the truth is that not everyone finds numbers engaging. So unless you are addressing a very interested audience, overloading your presentation with data is likely to result in your audience tuning out.
By adding context, you can bring an emotional quality to the numbers you are presenting and also frame the numbers in a way that gives them extra meaning. For example:
A food product describing itself as 92% fat free sounds healthier than if that same product is described as only 8% fat.
The FAQ section on Coca-Cola's UK website begins answering the question "How much sugar is in your products" with the words "Coca-Cola contains the same amount of sugar that you would find in fresh orange juice"
This is not necessarily about spin, it might simply be to add emphasis. For example: "this drug could prevent 1 million children dying each year" might become "this drug could prevent 1 million children dying each year - that is one every 30 seconds".
Round up or down as much as you can
We all find it easier to remember big round numbers, so only present the data to a degree of accuracy as is necessary to make the point honestly.
For example, if we ask a mother of a new born baby how old her child is, she might say "5 hours old". Each hour matters. If we ask that same mother in 15 years time how old her child is, then 15 years is fine, 15 years and 5 hours would be silly.
There will be occasions when accuracy is everything. Maybe that 7th decimal place is an illuminating discovery to a quantum physicist. But for most purposes, including most business meetings, rounding makes it easier for the audience to remember the numbers.
"49.3% of all men prefer watching sport to drinking beer" could become "half of all men prefer watching sport to drinking beer"
Sales increase of 31.72% could be changed to "sales increase of 32%" or maybe even "sales up one-third"
8072 miles to Los Angeles could probably become c 8000 miles to Los Angeles - unless, of course, you are calculating aviation fuel for the trip.
Yes there are exceptions!
Use charts, but vary the type of chart
There is nothing as dull as a series of bar, line or pie-charts. Mix it up.
Use the chart header to help the audience extract your key point
Your chart or data tables will be more effective if the header is used to focus the attention of the audience on the message you want them to take from your chart.
For example, the message in the table opposite would be less obvious if the headline read: Hotel Occupancy 2007 (%) and the York bit were omitted.
Use colour to direct the audience's eye.
Don't make too many different points on the same chart
Too many data points make it a lot harder for the audience to take any meaning at all from what you are saying.
The chart shown comes from a presentation I saw recently. I have removed the legend to protect the guilty. But I promise, having a key on the chart does not make it any clearer. The chart shows changes across time for a number of variables - way too much.
Dramatise your data
Here are some suggestions to help you make your charts more effective:
Choose the right format for the task.
For example, pie charts are good at showing large differences in share between a few data points. They are usually poor at showing time trends (use a line chart) or large numbers of data points (try a table or bar chart).
As a generalisation, be sparing with your use of the PowerPoint charts package - it gets boring quite quickly. Just showing the numbers now and again can be refreshing.
And be careful with indices. Indices can add emphasis to small differences, but can sometimes obscure the numbers they represent.
Scale is important
Changing the scale is an easy way to visually dramatise (or suppress) numerical differences.
Add visual appeal
Colour, interesting typography, uncluttered layout and the use of images can help hold the audience's attention. For example, in the earlier "York" example, we might have usefully highlighted the York line in a different colour.
Look for the punchy sell
A while back, Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, was giving a speech in which he was talking about spending more tax money on children. No doubt he was supplied with a thousand statistics from his huge team of Treasury researchers. But instead, he went with the sound bite "children are 20% of the population, 100% of the future".
There are occasions when a sound bite will be insufficient, but it can be an effective way to sum up and leave your audience with your key thought.
Label your data sources
Small point, but labelling your sources fully shows that you have nothing to hide and also, lack of labelling invites questions about your data sources, which can disrupt the flow.
Add a little of your own personality
Last, but hugely important... bring the presentation to life by injecting it with your own personality. Lighten it up with some gentle humour. Perhaps not if you are presenting disastrous financial results - but such occasions will be obvious and humour is nearly always good.