Data plays an increasingly critical role in today’s business world. It adds credibility to your ideas, quantifies the work you do, and validates the solutions you provide. Unfortunately, most people who present data fail to consider the needs of their audience, ultimately losing their audience’s attention — and the chance to move them to action.
Although data is important, when poorly presented, it will hurt your presentation rather than help it. Data-minded professionals tend to lose their audience by making three common yet avoidable presentation mistakes.
3 Common Mistakes Data-focused Presenters Make
Have you ever sat through a meeting or presentation where the slides were packed with data? Not only did you have to squint to read it, but you spent time trying to decipher the meaning behind the data — and tuned out everything the presenter was actually saying while doing so. Our advice? Don’t be that person. Avoid these common mistakes when presenting data.
Failing to use an audience-centric approach
Presenters often use data backward: They talk about what’s important to them instead of what’s important to the people listening. This kind of speaker-centric approach means audience members can easily become bored or confused, especially when presentations include complicated graphs and excess data. The same thing can happen when presenters fail to explain the meaning of the data and why it matters, or if they take too long to “get to the point.” Without guidance and interpretation from the presenter, audiences are left to decode the data themselves.
Another way that speakers can fail to be audience-centric is by talking at people. When a presenter has a long slide deck full of graphs and limited time to get through them, audience engagement becomes an afterthought. By not creating a two-way dialogue with the audience, the speaker misses an opportunity to connect with the audience and hear valuable insights and feedback.
Absence of storytelling
We’ve all been there. You’re giving a presentation and the audience clearly isn’t paying attention, or maybe after a few slides filled with charts and graphs, you notice people’s eyes beginning to glaze over. It’s times like these that the need for storytelling is clear. The benefits of storytelling are grounded in brain science. Narratives can help the speaker come across as trustworthy, cause audience members to pay closer attention, and influence a listener’s decision-making. But without the scaffolding of purpose and context, data is ineffective, or worse, paralyzing for viewers. That’s where storytelling comes in. Effective storytelling, complemented by data, can engage audiences and drive action. In other words, data on its own is not an idea — it’s just overwhelming.
Lack of emotion
It’s easy to imagine how a presenter could go through slide after slide of charts without much emotion. But this kind of monotone delivery — and a failure to stir an emotional reaction within viewers — can limit business success. Evoking an emotional response on the part of an audience is not a new idea.
Aristotle taught of the power of pathos over 2,300 years ago, and it’s still relevant today. There’s clear evidence suggesting companies that make an emotional connection with customers are more successful. We also know that emotions influence choices and drive decision-making. For these reasons, presenters who fail to connect with the emotions of their audience fail to take advantage of a powerful tool.
The Good News? You Don’t Have to Struggle With Data
Thinking about all the ways presenting data can go wrong can be distressing. But don’t give up on data — it’s a critical tool for communicating in ways that are informative and compelling. Instead of getting discouraged, try these strategies to get the most from your data.
Solution #1: Wrap Your Data in a Story
The most important thing you can do to improve how your team represents data is to start with a compelling story. Follow the four signposts of storytelling — setting, characters, conflict, and resolution — to determine what matters to your audience, and see how you can use data to support your solution to their problems.
Map data to the four signposts of storytelling
To craft a story that will be compelling to your audience, use the four signposts of storytelling. With this structure, you can use data to complement your story, and ultimately enrich the value of the information you provide:
- Setting — where, when, and in what circumstances does the data exist?
- Characters — who or what is affected by the current situation? Characters can be, for example, customers or employees.
- Resolution — describe the ideal future state, using data to support your resolution of the conflict.
- Conflict — what problem do you face? Or, why are you not in the place you’d like to be?
Emphasize your BIG Idea
Determine the one thing you want your audience to know or do with the information you’re presenting. That’s your BIG Idea, and it’s the north star that guides every slide and data point you add to your presentation.
Close with a call to action
What do you want audience members to do with the knowledge you’ve just shared with them? Use a clear call to action that provides specific direction to audience members. This will help reiterate the resolution for listeners, while also helping them see a clear path to it. And the good news? Your call to action can be as simple as restating or rephrasing your big idea to reiterate your key message and motivate people to act.
Solution #2: Upskill Your Team’s Presentation Abilities
Once you’ve mastered the four signposts of storytelling, it’s time to polish your presentations and ensure you’re highlighting your key insights. Follow these five recommendations to take your presentations to the next level.
Be selective and eliminate excess data
Let’s imagine that you just completed a big research project and there’s a ton of data. You want to share it all because you put in so much work to bring it all together. While this impulse is understandable, try not to give in. Too much data will overwhelm audience members and distort the message you actually want to convey. Instead, include only what’s most relevant for your audience to understand the meaning behind the data rather than burying your audience in too many charts and graphs.
Use color intentionally
Data needs to be easy to read, and it doesn’t need to be flashy. Presentation software offers many tools for adding color and other effects to your data, but be careful with how you use them. Instead of adding bright neon colors that are difficult to interpret, aim for contrast by using dark text against a light background (or vice versa). When adding color, dark blues, greens, and oranges can be useful for calling out important observations, especially when contextual data is subdued in gray to maintain focus on your key insights.
When used well, visual effects — and especially color — will help make your presentation.
Use visuals to highlight key insights
When presenting data, use visuals to make your key takeaways clear. Without them, your audience can be easily confused and not come to the conclusions you intend for them. This kind of strategic use of visuals can help you draw attention to key insights while allowing you to lead audiences through the narrative you’ve designed. The goal is to tell your audience why a graph or set of statistics matters — and to say it in a way that’s easy to understand.
Infuse characters to connect with diverse audiences
To use data in a way that effectively engages all members of your audience, you must account for the diverse needs of everyone present. A CFO, for example, will have a different set of priorities than an HR manager or an engineer. This means that amid each person’s varying needs, you must craft an authentic and succinct narrative. But how?
When audiences have diverse priorities, speakers must design a narrative consisting of multiple characters and their corresponding conflicts. Each combination of characters and conflicts addresses the most common needs found within your audience. With this strategy, you can be prepared to go into detail on any one, or all, of the stories you’ve prepared depending on what needs arise in the moment.
When Data Supports a Story, Audiences Can’t Help but Be Engaged
Data is important, but data alone does not showcase your strategic insights, make you look like a strategic communicator, or make it easy for your audience to quickly grasp what they need to understand. In fact, datacentric presentations can make you lose your audience (and the deal). If you want to engage your audience, address the three common mistakes made by datafocused presenters by focusing on storytelling, adding emotion, and taking an audience-centric approach. When you upskill your team’s presentation skills, you also level up your business.