How to present data effectively

Even if you count yourself as a number-phobe, it’s difficult (and inadvisable) to avoid working with data. 

Businesses (and charities, and governments) have greater ability to capture data, and better tools to interrogate it. Bosses want to use the data to make better decisions, and customers demand greater transparency on what’s their data is being used for. 

That means that it’s difficult to make a convincing presentation to executives, other teams, prospective customers, or investors – if there isn’t any data to back up what you’re saying, you’re unlikely to be taken seriously. 

When people think about ‘data visualisation’ they tend to conjure up images of fizzy charts, visual fireworks and snazzy infographics. There is nothing wrong with highly creative, technologically clever or dizzyingly complex data visualisations. There are plenty of great examples to be found online. 

But the chances are you have a more specific purpose for the data that you’re presenting – whether it’s getting a sale, driving a particular action within your organisation, or changing minds and behaviour. 

Here are a few tips on turning what may be dull charts, graphs and PowerPoint slides into something with impact… 

Who are you presenting to?
Different audiences need different communications targeted to them. If you’re producing a large report, at least you can put a couple of pages in for each audience that summarises it specifically for them. 

You need to know how the people you’re speaking to know about the subject – if they’re specialists you can assume knowledge and include things like acronymns; if they’re non-specialists, you can’t assume any prior knowledge. 

You also need to know how comfortable with statistics your audience is. If you’re a financial analyst communicating with another analyst you can afford to be complex. If you’re speaking to a lay person, don’t assume that they’re too hot on statistics or that they’ll understand obscure types of graphs and charts.  

What exactly do you want to say? 
We’ve spoken to plenty of clients (from public sector organisations to tech startups) who have a data visualisation that isn’t working, and they want advice. When we ask them to explain what the numbers say, they can do it easily and succinctly using words. 

Write down a single sentence that sums up what the numbers in the data say. That should probably be the title of your visualisation, and should certainly guide everything you do visually. 

What do you want them to do about it? 
You’ve identified an audience, and you can sum up in a sentence what you want to tell them. What do they do now? Do you want executives to channel resources in a different direction; investors to stump up money; customers to buy something; a client to hire you; or people to share what you’ve created on social media?

Tell people clearly what that action is, and how they can go about doing it. 

In an age where we’re bombarded with incoming communications throughout our waking hours, putting ‘FYI’ or something is going to consign it to a graveyard. 

Stick to recognisable chart and graph types if you can
There are ways to visualise data in novel ways and still get the message across, but it’s a tricky thing to pull off. Even your specialist audiences will understand bar graphs, line charts and pie charts – so in the pursuit of providing a visual shortcut to the meaning in the data, sticking to a simple set of chart types will help. 

If the visualisation requires explanation, are you going to be able to provide it? Do you have space to add guidance text, or will this kill the slide or page? Are you about to explain it face-to-face? Hans Rosling is great at this

Does everything visual on there relate to the above? 
Once you know the meaning in the data, and the action you want people to take, check that every visual element you’ve used is pushing those two things. Are the colours making the pertinent lines, bars or points stand out? Is the title and supporting text telling the story? Are elements like boxes or arrows highlighting the right bit? 

And also, is there anything you can remove because it’s not helping hammer home the message? Culprits here are often random pictures, unnecessarily cluttered annotations on scales or axis, or too many colours used at once. 

The simplest check to see if it’s working is to put in front of somebody from your target audience and ask them what it means. If they get the answer wrong, that’s your fault, not theirs!

Clever Boxer runs training workshops and offers consultancy for businesses of all sizes who are trying to tell stories with data. Find out more here.