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Three Keys to Make Data Presentations Successful

I’ve given some highly commended presentations and some terrible presentations. One (segment of a rather long) presentation, that happened to be quite important, stands out to me as probably the worst. It had really great potential but fell flat. I presented what I considered to be exciting data, yet my audience was not wowed. If anything, they became slightly antagonistic – or, at best, apathetic. What was my problem?

I did not convey the meaning of the data by telling the overarching story supported and driven by the data.

If we fail to communicate the insights portrayed by our data, then we have not fulfilled our basic duty as analysts. Portraying the importance of data, or even conveying the basic meaning of a graph or chart, can be a challenge. Knowing how to effectively communicate the value portrayed by our data empowers our presentations to impact decisions and succeed.


One of the first keys to exhibiting data effectively is to present them in a way in which they can be absorbed by the audience. Typically, the individual generating a data graphic is much more familiar with the data than those to whom the information will be presented. Without familiarity, data can be, rather understandably, more challenging to assimilate. Experts in data visualization share that making graphics as streamlined as possible can help the message of the graphic be easier to consume.

Consider Figure 1. It (fictionally) portrays attribute breakdown, but it comes across as cluttered and challenging to read. Worse, the meaning of the information is not readily apparent. The graphic should draw attention to the attributes that are not successful, but obviously fails to do so. Another approach is needed.

Figure 1

Vinod Khosla, one of the founders of SUN Microsystems, believes that for a slide to be successful, a person should be able to remember it after five seconds of viewing. Thus, a slide should be understandable within five seconds – and that implies that the essential meaning of a successful data graphic must be readily comprehendible. Reducing the consumption workload allows someone to spend more time on the message of the graphic rather than on the graphic itself. For example, simplifying the graphic from Figure 1 to that shown in Figure 2 permits the message to be ingested much more readily. The eye more clearly sees that four attributes fall short of the target goal.

Figure 2


A top purpose of a data-based presentation is to empower others to feel confident about making a decision based on the presented insights. Thus, the audience needs to not only understand the data, but understand how it impacts their efforts. Robert McKee, in Story: Style, Structure, Substance and the Principles of Screenwriting, said that if a person does not have the ability to tell a story, even their brilliant ideas turn as “dry as chalk.” If our data presentations do not tell a meaningful story, then our best ideas and the most motivational insights crumble. The message of the data can often best be conveyed in the form of a data story that tells in a practical, accurate, but relatable way, the cogency of the data insights.


Another straightforward way to encourage audience understanding is to put the key outcome shown in the presentation into meaningful and concrete terms. Probably the best choice, for business purposes, is to put the outcome in terms of money. Recently, I gave a presentation containing data-based recommendations of how my client could make more profitable choices. The VP-level recipients were interested in the work but seemed much more highly motivated after the recommendations were tied to an estimate (with caveats and limitations included) of how much money could be saved. That information provided a concrete, readily understandable measure and gave the executives the knowledge they needed to act.

Years ago, when I made my worst presentation, I should have better understood how to make a data presentation and known that data without context does not carry the weight of a well-conveyed communication of data-fueled insight. With that knowledge, and a little bit of elbow grease, the presentation could have been transformed into a helpful display of meaningful missives.

Nancy Duarte, in her book Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, says “each presenter has the potential to be great; every presentation is high stakes; and every audience deserves the absolute best.” Using keys for superb data communication can empower our presentations to be great – to convey valuable insights and to succeed.