Because there are so many ways to embellish or distort the truth in today's world, some people may be inclined to question the reliability of the data presented to them. Whether you're an entrepreneur trying to drum up business or a leader seeking to persuade your staff, you should consider providing solid evidence to support your data presentation.
But data by itself doesn't guarantee a persuasive or compelling presentation. How you present the data can be crucial to determining its impact and interpretation. That's where data visualization and data storytelling play a role.
When done correctly, data visualization and data storytelling can increase your credibility and persuasion power.
This article provides tips to help present the data in a way that's clear, convincing, engaging, and easy to remember.
1. Contextualize your data storytelling.
When you present the data, don't just recite the raw figures. In developing your data storytelling, try to give audiences your insights into the numbers. For example,
- What's your analysis of the numbers?
- Is there a trend that you can showcase?
- How do the numbers compare to the industry average?
The link to the critical points you're trying to prove should be clear. For example:
- "These numbers demonstrate that . . ."
- "The data suggests that . . ."
- "This graph shows that . . ."
Try to focus on the key metrics that reveal crucial parts of your data storytelling. One way to do this is to share contextual information about the data you present.
Here's an example.
- Poor: Net profits amounted to 3 million dollars in the second quarter of 2022. Profits were 15% higher than in the first quarter.
- Better: Net profits amounted to 3 million dollars in the second quarter of 2022. This is the highest number in two years. Profits were 15% higher than in the first quarter. The increase in net profits resulted from two main factors: lower gasoline costs and higher profits from our new subsidiaries in the western region. While we're pleased with the results, we are still below our competitor's market share.
2. Replace some numbers with words.
Don't expect your listeners to remember a number-laden presentation easily. A simple strategy for presenting numbers in an interesting way is to sometimes use words instead of numbers. For example, rather than saying "59% of Americans," you could say, "Three out of five Americans would try a new brand for better service."
In data presentation, words are far simpler for the audience to recall than numbers. If you can't easily replace numbers with words, then at least consider displaying the numbers on the slide whenever you can.
Help your audience visualize the numbers by turning the unfamiliar into the familiar and the abstract into the concrete.
3. Round up the numbers in your presentation.
Rounding the numbers when you present the data helps your audience remember them. Take a large number, like 349,670, as an example. People are more likely to remember the number if you say, "approximately 350,000."
Too many decimals in your numbers are also challenging for the audience to process quickly. Some people, especially executives, like to do the math on the fly. Consider making it easy for them to compare your numbers by rounding them out.
Rounded numbers in your presentation also make it easier to summarize your data.
Sometimes it's essential to have the exact numbers. In this case, you can leave the unrounded number for the handout.
4. Display your data graphically when giving a presentation.
Displaying your data graphically is a powerful data presentation technique, but you should consider avoiding some common pitfalls in chart design.
Here are some general guidelines for the three most commonly used charts:
You may readily think of pie charts to visualize your data storytelling. However, a pie chart may be confusing if there are too many components. It can pose a challenge in promptly interpreting the data during a presentation, as it's harder for the eye to discern the relative sizes of the slices quickly.
A rule of thumb is to limit the pie to six slices or fewer. Consider using an alternative chart type if the number of categories you display exceeds six.
All the percentages in the pie chart must add up to 100%. Try not to use a pie chart if the numbers you're working with aren't percentages of a larger whole.
Consider arranging your slices in descending order starting at 12:00 unless there is a compelling reason to justify deviating from this sequence.
A horizontal or vertical bar chart can be a good option for presenting data in an interesting way. A horizontal bar chart may be preferable to a vertical one when dealing with lengthy data labels. Since most of us are used to reading from left to right, this could make your graph easier to grasp at a glance.
To help your audience better understand the data, consider starting the vertical axis of bar charts at zero. Your audience perceives the value of the data by the length of the bar in the chart. If you start the bar at 2,000, for example, you may unwittingly create visual distortions in the comparisons of the lengths of the bars. An accurate judgment of length needs a zero baseline.
Consider avoiding the use of 3-D effects on bar graphs. In his book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, data scientist Edward Tufte calls these "chart junk" because they detract from the clarity and effectiveness of visualizations, making it more difficult to understand the presented data. Details such as bar ends and lengths are not clearly visible in a 3-D bar graph.
Line charts can be ideal for demonstrating how the value of something changes over time. Unlike bar graphs, starting the vertical axis at zero is not generally mandatory in a line chart. You might choose a starting value other than zero to help narrow the lens's focus on the specific data you're discussing.
Try using solid lines in different colors rather than a distracting variation of dotted or dashed lines to make it easier for your audience to see, at a glance, the key points in your data presentation.
You can also try adding direct labels to each line instead of a legend. This can help the audience quickly see what each line represents.
5. Use color to enhance the data presentation.
Consider not settling for the default colors in your chart and graph software. An intentional choice of colors can reinforce or reveal the story behind your data.
For example, try using color strategically to highlight particular columns in your graph that support your data storytelling.
As a rule, try to limit your color usage to 10 or fewer colors. More than that, it may become difficult to differentiate between categories.
6. Clearly flag the "Aha!" zones in your data presentation.
When you present the data, consider flagging the "Aha!" zone in your charts or graphs. The "Aha!" zone refers to a specific number or a set of numbers that unveils a pivotal insight relevant to your point.
For example, say you display a graph showing four quarter results, and the "Aha!" zone is in the third quarter. You can:
- Consider verbalizing that 3rd quarter results exceeded $90 million, which is record-breaking.
- Try to add a bullet to that effect either on the graph itself or within the main body of the slide.
- Try to take it to the next level by highlighting the "Aha!" insight right on the graph itself with a circle, an arrow, or a differentiated color.
7. Be judicious in your use of tables.
Complex tables or spreadsheets may not be the most effective way to present data because your audience may not have time to absorb and interpret all the figures quickly.
"Using a table in a live presentation is rarely a good idea," writes Cole Nusbaumer Knaflic in Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals. "As your audience reads it, you lose their ears and attention to make your point verbally."
Complex tables or spreadsheets should be saved for the handout. Handouts are additional resources that you provide to the audience before, during, or after a presentation to enhance their understanding and support the main content being delivered.
Showing a table instead of a graph could be an appropriate choice if the precise number is essential and may not be shown with the same degree of precision using a graph. For example, you may want to ensure your audience understands a crucial change from 4.55 to 4.57. The subtlety of this point, if it is important to your presentation, could be lost in a graph.
8. Help your audience visualize the numbers.
Help your audience visualize the numbers by turning the unfamiliar into the familiar and the abstract into the concrete. In Data Story: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story, Nancy Duarte writes: "We use numbers at very large and very tiny scales that humans sometimes struggle to understand. Find an approximate comparison to develop a sense of scale very quickly."
You can help visualize numbers by using different scales such as size, distance, time, speed, height, length, volume, and familiar places and things, to name a few.
Here are some examples for visualizing the numbers in your data presentation:
- "Thirty-nine million people" means nothing, but "that's equivalent of the population of California" shows a relatable scale.
- How much pizza is sold in New York every day? The answer is 500,000 pizzas, which are difficult to visualize. But saying, "That's the equivalent of 11 football fields of pizza," makes it easier to "see" the numbers.
9. Tell a story to help bring the numbers alive.
Data storytelling can help you present the numbers in an interesting way by converting dry statistical data into a compelling narrative. Data storytelling is about communicating insights from your data in a way that's easy for the audience to understand.
"There is a story in your data," writes Nussbaumer Knaflic, "but your tools don't know what that story is. That's where it takes you – the analyst or communicator of the information – to bring that story visually and contextually to life."
Data storytelling can be vital because data alone rarely inspires. The story, supported by the visuals, can reveal critical information that would otherwise be hidden from the audience.
Moreover, data storytelling can increase the chances that your audience will remember your message. During a presentation at the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Jennifer Aaker, General Atlantic Professor of Marketing at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, said: "Stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone and are more likely to persuade."
Data Storytelling Examples
Many people can make the classic presentation blunder of focusing too much on the data's "what" rather than its "why."
Example #1: Let's say you're displaying a graph that shows 30% of sales in 2022 were from new customers, while 70% were from regular customers. What's the story within the data? For example, you might mention that the high number of regular customers strongly indicates the success of the service you provide and insert a few illustrative examples and a customer service story about one of your major clients. Ideally, mention the very words the customer said when visiting your office or in their written feedback.
Example #2: Say you're showing a graph outlining a 35% decrease in website traffic over 12 months. Your data presentation needs to fill the gap in your audience's knowledge by telling them what they want to know: why traffic has declined and whether it's likely to continue. Was it a sharp drop in traffic or a gradual decline? What were the possible causes? Bring out the patterns or exceptions in your data. That's the story hidden in the numbers.
Crafting Compelling Data Narratives
Numbers can boost your credibility when you present. They can help you get your point across and persuade your audience. Know what story you want to tell your audience and try to use the numbers to support your story with clarity and integrity.
A version of this article was originally published on March 23, 2017.
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