Communication used to be taught as a one-way information transmission: you crafted your message, delivered it to the recipients, and assumed they interpreted it as intended. I suspect many readers have been part of endless email threads or Slack discussions that beg to differ on that interpretation part, and rightfully so. Communication should be a two-way exchange that involves co-creating shared understanding with your audience, and that is especially important when communicating with data. If we want to maximize the impact and value of our data work, communicating the story effectively is as important as choosing the right data sources and analysis methods. Here are four tips to use next time you need to “speak data” in a presentation:
Tip 1: Adapt to Your Audience
If you want your message to resonate with your audience, make sure you are speaking their language. You must strike the right balance of technical detail and impact, depending on what kind of background knowledge your audience has about your topic and methods. If you are presenting to a varied, general audience or you don’t know what kind of background knowledge your audience has, my rule of thumb is to imagine you’re explaining your content to an 8th grader. I have three reasons for suggesting this frame of reference:
- Something that stuck in my head from early journalism classes I took was that many news stories were written at an 8th grade reading level to make sure a broad audience could easily understand them. I think that’s equally important when we’re communicating with data, particularly when complex analyses are involved.
- Most 8th graders have some education, but they are not overly specialized and likely lack work experience, so you know you should define terms and acronyms so everyone is on the same page.
- People in their middle school and early teen years are going through a lot. It’s a tough, awkward time, and when you consider your audience through this lens, it can help you have empathy for them and connect with them more effectively.
Now if you’re not speaking to a general or unknown audience, you can adjust your level of technical detail accordingly, but always ask yourself “what terms or concepts do I know my audience will know, and which ones might I need to explain?” Even seasoned data professionals are coming from different backgrounds and knowledge bases, and our message is far more likely to resonate with more people if you keep things simple and encourage Q&A to dig into the more technical details. If you start too technical and advanced, your run the risk of your message going over some people’s heads, making them afraid to engage or ask questions (and you want them to engage and ask questions!)
Tip 2: Structure Your Story
Give some thought to how you will organize and present your information. You don’t necessarily need to share your entire process with your audience to get your point across. For instance, think back to when you were learning to write papers in school. You probably learned about having a main idea, topic sentence, or thesis statement, and then outlining your remaining paragraphs to support that main idea. That concept can also help structure a data story. Determine the main idea or key takeaway you want the audience to get from your presentation as well as the corresponding recommendation you want to make to your audience. What should they do (or not do) in response to the data? I’ve seen a similar three-part structure recommended a few different times, which I can’t take credit for but will share here:
- What do you want your audience to know?
- What do you want you want them to do based on your presentation?
- How you want them to feel as a result of your presentation?
That last part about eliciting a feeling can definitely level up your presentation, but it can also be more challenging, especially when we’re coming from a highly analytical mindset, so work up to that part as you get more comfortable with storytelling.
You want to structure your data like a story, because story arcs are familiar and engaging to your audience. There are a few different story arc formats you can use to do that, such as introduction, conflict, climax, resolution. But within that story, make sure your main idea and recommendation or call to action comes through loud and clear.
Here’s an example: I once had to put together a presentation about training survey data that showed a decrease in Net Promoter Scores, which was not going to go over well without good context. So my main idea was that redesigned course content was not necessarily the primary cause of the decrease in NPS. I then provided supporting data and context to show other factors beyond our team’s control that had impacted the training class, which enabled me to set up a recommendation to wait to see results from the next unit’s training data before making any changes. The story structure helped me gain support for the “wait and see” approach instead of prompting knee-jerk reaction requests for changes to the plan.
Tip 3: Design Your Deck
Resist the temptation to treat your slide deck like your script. The minute you display an overly wordy slide on a screen, your audience’s attention shifts to reading the words on screen and they end up tuning you out in the process.
Think of your slides as visual aids. How can you use images, graphics, and data visualizations to support your words? Bill Franks recently wrote a post with helpful tactical tips for using words, numbers, and labels on slides. Incorporate these tips as you draft your slide deck, then review your slides all together and see if you can find any additional opportunities to reduce verbal or visual clutter. If you can, have someone else review the slides through fresh eyes to make suggestions as well.
Tip 4: Time Your Talk
We’ve all been there: you were supposed to have 15 minutes for your presentation, but everything before you ran just a bit long, and suddenly your agenda time is cut in half. With the right preparation, this situation is far easier to handle. Your best bet is to practice your presentation multiple times, because you’ll start to get a feel for how much time you need for each slide and where you might be able to streamline talking points for time if necessary. I will admit, I resisted practicing for a long time because I prided myself on being able to “wing it” and speak extemporaneously. However, it turns out that it is tremendously valuable to practice, know my timing, and adapt accordingly when a meeting is running long. (As a bonus, the practice also helps me feel less nervous and more confident when it’s time to present.) Try to time your presentation to be a few minutes shorter than the time you are allotted. You won’t need to adapt as much if your agenda time is cut short, and no one ever minds a few extra minutes for Q&A—or ending a meeting early!
If you are called on to present quickly and don’t have time to practice, know which slides are the highest priority (such as the key takeaways and action items for your audience), and try to be brief with the rest. Identify a nearby clock to keep an eye on your timing or ask a teammate you can easily see to give you a signal when you have a minute or two left, so you know when to wrap up.
To communicate effectively with data, tailor your message to your audience and structure your story in a way that makes your key takeaways and call to action clear. Situate your message in a context and technical level your audience will understand. Build your slides as visual aids to support your message rather than scripts and practice your presentation so you’re ready to adapt as needed to fit the time available. As you incorporate these tips into your data presentations, I’m confident you’ll be rewarded with more engaged audiences, thoughtful questions, and best of all, better demonstrate the business impact of your data work.