How to present data to an audience

Steve Kelman shares some tips for keeping a data-driven message compelling, not confusing.

Data analytics

As many blog readers may remember, I enjoy reading a daily publication issued by the Harvard Business Review called The Daily Alert that usually contains three short articles on management topics. I find many of them quite relevant, and a few just as relevant to government readers as to a business audience.

An example I just saw is a piece by Joel Schwartzberg, who actually is communications director for a nonprofit (this may be part of the reason he writes to a government as well as a business audience) on how to communicate data to an audience.

Here are his points:

  1. Make sure your data can be seen. Duh? Well, not duh. Schwartzberg notes that “sometimes you’re too close to your presentation — literally. What is readable on your laptop may be far less so when projected on a screen. Your audience won’t learn what it can’t see.” He recommends rehearsing your presentation with colleagues sitting at the same distance the audience will be. If they can’t see clearly, the slides should be redesigned.
  2. Don’t leave the burden of decoding your data to your audience.You need to explain how the data supports your points. As Nancy Duarte, a presentation design expert Schwartzberg quotes, states, “Data slides aren’t really about the data. They’re about the meaning of the data. It’s up to you to make that meaning clear.” When transitioning from your data to your conclusion, use a bridging sentence such as “this chart shows that…”
  3. Share only one point from each chart. This is a version of the bane of federal PowerPoint presentations – too busy, too much, too overwhelming. It is even worse when a presenter reads a chart, or a PowerPoint, directly from the screen. TMI – too much information – in your data will lead the audience to not understand anything. Schwartzberg suggests extracting only one point from each chart. If you need more than one point, use more than one visual to illustrate.
  4. Label the elements of your chart clearly. “While you’ve been working with the same chart for weeks or months, your audience will be exposed to it for mere seconds,” Schwartzberg reminds us. “Give them the best chance of comprehending your data by using simple, clear, and complete language to identify X and Y axes, pie pieces, bars, and other diagrammatic elements. Try to avoid abbreviations that aren’t obvious, and don’t assume labeled components on one slide will be remembered on subsequent slides.” Analogous advice applies to other elements of your presentation – I always had to remind myself speaking while in government that it was easy to assume your audience would understand your meaning the first time, while in reality understanding usually requires not just clarification during one talk but repetition of the message across many talks.
  5. Write a slide title that reinforces the point the data is making. “Even when data is presented effectively on a slide,” Schwartzberg notes, “the most valuable real estate is the page’s title because that’s the first item the audience will notice and process.” Yet for many of us, he points out, the slide title is a throwaway and thus a missed opportunity. Generic titles such as “Statistics” add no value. Even more specific titles can be refined to get across a stronger message: far better than “millennial fed preferences,” for example, is “millennial feds prefer mobile.”

Schwartzberg’s last point again goes beyond just presenting slides to be something important for all good presentations. “Many presenters look at their slides while they share data as if the PowerPoint is their audience. But only your audience is your audience, and, as fellow human beings, they receive your points best when you look them in the eye. …Glance at your slides for reference, but make critical points directly to your audience.”

In this emerging era of evidence-based government, communicating data becomes a more and more important part of communicating government messages both inside your organization and to the wider public. Every one of Schwartzberg’s suggestions is practical and implementable, and every one of them I think will help government folks who need to communicate data. Thanks, Joel Schwartzberg!

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