Delivering an effective data-driven presentation to a live audience isn’t the same as discussing technical details with peers or compiling a written document. This is especially true when, as is often the case, the presentation is for a largely nontechnical audience. Entirely different ways of organizing and presenting information are necessary to help an audience that doesn’t have your expertise to do the following:
- Understand what you’ve found
- Grasp the implications
- Take action
You must be purposeful and diligent if you want to develop a presentation that conveys a compelling story while simultaneously avoiding myriad traps that undercut your credibility and limit your impact. Data literacy is a two-way street that involves both delivering and receiving information. The onus isn’t just on your audience to be ready to understand and receive the information you provide. The responsibility is also on you to present and explain your information in a way that can be effectively received by your audience. My latest book, Winning The Room, focuses on common errors that presenters make when delivering a data-driven presentation to a live audience.
Although universities, continuing education, and corporate training programs teach the theory behind how to generate analytics and data, they do not typically spend time on how to effectively present that information to others. This post will review the core phases in creating and delivering a successful data-driven presentation and provide a list of some of the tips related to each step that are covered in the book.
Planning the Presentation: Reviewing Strategic Fundamentals
Regardless of the audience or topic, there are core strategic principles that underlie any successful, live data-driven presentation. There are fundamental presentation concepts that you should review and account for as you design, develop, and deliver your presentation. Some of the concepts you need to follow in this phase include:
- Realize that your presentation is at least as important as the work behind it
- Understand your audience
- Recognize your responsibility to make your material accessible to the audience
- Embrace the need to tell a story, not just present facts
- Be yourself and earn the trust and confidence of your audience
These principles will support the presentation creation and delivery process that follows. After all, doing a great job with the later phases of the process won’t make up for having a poor foundational presentation approach and strategy.
Planning the Presentation: Designing the Presentation
Before creating any slides, you must take the time to design your presentation. It is necessary to determine the story you want to tell; the order in which you’ll introduce information; the level of depth you’ll cover; what you want the audience to remember; and what actions you want the audience to take. You’ll also need to plan how to verbally convey all of that information.
If you learn to be disciplined about taking the time to design your presentations, you’ll soon realize not only how much more effective your presentations are, but also that the time spent in the design phase is far less than the time wasted on revisions to a presentation that wasn’t properly designed upfront. Some of the concepts you need to follow in this phase include:
- Identify the type of presentation that you need for each situation
- Determine how much detail to include
- Make use of approaches, such as animations and appendices, to streamline a presentation
- Keep practical implications front and center
- Focus on what the audience should do with the results more than what you did to generate the results
Moviemakers don’t simply start shooting scenes without a plan or script and then hope to chain them together after the fact into a good movie. Rather, they design the overall story and each scene in immense detail before any filming takes place. You must follow this model to create and deliver an effective data-driven presentation.
Developing the Presentation: Wording and Text
Although any data-driven presentation will require the development of a variety of figures and charts, the text on your slides and how that text is worded are critically important to audience comprehension. You must get your points across clearly and succinctly while using terms and phrasing that your (often nontechnical) audience can understand. Some of the concepts you need to follow in this phase include:
- Minimize the number of words on your slides
- Aggressively avoid technical terms and phrases
- Ensure everything on your slides can be easily seen by the audience
- Do not rely on automated spelling and grammar checks
- Clearly define terms and use those terms consistently
Perhaps the simplest rule of thumb is to always read the content you develop through the lens of the intended audience. That audience will be largely unfamiliar with the terms and lingo that you and your technical peers use, so make sure you’re not displaying text that may as well be a foreign language to them.
Developing the Presentation: Numbers and Labels
For any data-driven presentation, numbers will be front and center. You’ll have numbers explaining yourwork, numbers summarizing your findings, and numbers quantifying the potential impact of those findings. You need to know how to make those numbers audience-friendly. Some of the concepts you need to follow in this phase include:
- Use the proper level of precision
- Format numbers to match the context
- Clearly label all numbers shown
- Explicitly label the scale of charts
- Check that your numbers actually make sense
With some simple tricks, you will enable the numbers that you show to convey your intended message while minimizing the effort required for your audience to consume and interpret the information. Your goal is to communicate to your audience the larger trends, patterns, and outcomes your work uncovered while using the fewest numbers possible.
Developing the Presentation: Charts, Images, and Layouts
The charts, tables, and imagery you incorporate into your data-driven presentation and your organization of them within your slides will have a large impact on your audience’s perception of your presentation. The charts, tables, and imagery will also illustrate many of the most important messages that you intend to deliver as part of your story. As a result, it is well worth the effort to carefully consider which visuals to use, how to format them, and how to lay them out on your slides. Some of the concepts you need to follow in this phase include:
- Incorporate a mix of chart types and slide layouts to avoid repetition
- Shun highly technical or complex diagrams
- Apply consistent, easily interpretable formatting to tables and charts
- Match colors to the context
- Resist the urge to add advanced features to charts just because you can
Once you accept the fact that you cannot take raw output from a technical software package and drop it into your presentation, you’ll have no choice but to create your own charts, tables, and imagery to communicate the information you want to convey. When creating charts and graphs, it doesn’t take much incremental effort to ensure that you create and lay them out in a way that will make your presentation look great while successfully communicating your core messages to the audience.
Delivering the Presentation: Final Presentation Preparation
After you’ve developed your data-driven presentation content, you must prepare and practice your delivery. Knowing what you’ll say, anticipating the questions you’ll receive, and validating that your spoken words flow smoothly are critical to success. Without proper preparation, you risk having all of your previous work be for naught. Some of the concepts you need to follow in this phase include:
- Consult a confidant and/or sponsor
- Adapt your presentation to the audience
- Be prepared to make your presentation substantively shorter
- Have multiple backup plans for handling problems that can arise
- Ensure your key points are clear and that you draw attention to the right places
Your final preparation is the last chance to ensure your messaging is on target, your slides are easy to follow, and your delivery successfully drives home the points that you want to make. During final preparations, careful fine-tuning will make your presentation better and reveal spots where you need to make your verbiage clearer and crisper. Most important, you can identify where your content is strongest (and weakest) and adjust your presentation flow for maximum effect.
Delivering the Presentation: Giving the Presentation
When the big day has arrived and you’re stepping to the front of the room, there are still a range of things to focus on if you want your presentation to be a success. There are specific presentation mechanics to use, as well as some important principles to follow, as you deliver your data-driven presentation. Some of the concepts you need to follow in this phase include:
- Read the room and tune your delivery to what you see
- Handle difficult audience members
- Be honest and confident while not hedging too much
- Drive home the impacts of your work and related recommendations for action
- Close with a “wow” to finish strong by tying the results to a larger context
After all the work that went into getting ready for the big day, your final delivery will have a huge impact on whether those efforts pay off. You must ensure that you make your delivery compelling. If you win the trust and confidence of the audience, you can motivate them to embrace your conclusions and act on your recommendations. This, in turn, will allow your efforts to be a resounding success!
Winning The Room is meant to be a handbook that you keep on your desk so that you can refer to it on an ongoing basis during presentation development. Just like athletes continue to practice basic skills throughout their careers, it is also necessary to constantly refresh yourself on how to create and deliver data-driven information effectively and to routinely practice the basics.
In a team setting, giving difficult feedback to teammates is easier and less personal if you can say “It says in the book to do it this way” as opposed to “I don’t think you should do it that way.” By keeping the book handy as a reference, readers of all experience levels and roles will greatly enhance the effectiveness of their own data-driven presentations.
This blog content derived from the book Winning The Room: Creating and Delivering an Effective Data-Driven Presentation (John Wiley & Sons, 2022)
Blog originally published by the International Institute for Analytics