Mar 3, 2009

Know your data before you present

You present some kind of data in almost every presentation. Data can be presented by sales people, it can be a survey result, a finding by a doctor or number crunching by a business analyst. Not to forget bankers who cant live without data.

My question then is, How do YOU present data?

Yes I am asking you. Pause for a moment and think of the last presentation you made which had data. What did you do? Did you take any extra care? Did you paste the whole excel on the slide? Was the audience able to understand? Did they ask you to explain more by opening your excel sheet?

You should be very careful when you present data. Here are a few suggestions that will you:

1. Ensure data accuracy
Nothing annoys the audience more than inaccurate data. It leaves a bad taste in their mouth. Last minute mistakes, calculation errors or just the data not adding up. The percentages in the pie chart do not add upto 100%! Take care while presenting data. Spend that extra minute checking for flaws.

2. Be familiar with your data
It is your data, hence you have to be familiar with it. How did you derive each number in the table? Why have sales in one town gone up while all others have gone down? Know the answers. When you present data you will be asked questions. Be prepared. Do not make a presentation at the last minute and go unprepared. Crunch your numbers well.

3. Keep the audience guessing
Speaker Sue offers this tip: Ask your audience to guess. "The sales went down by 12%, what do you think happened to the profit margin?" Wait for the audience to respond and then present the data. This will involve the audience better than just presenting one table after the other.

I would like to add by saying that use this method very few times in a presentation. It is effective only when used sparingly.

4. Tell them where you got the data from
Always mention the source of your data. This lends credibility. It is a good practice which most consultants follow. Never assume your audience knows where you got the data from.

5. Know your core message
Do not paste the entire excel sheet on the slide. Present the summary only. Just a few crucial numbers and your analysis in a couple of sentences. In case you need then put up a small table. You can always give your complete excel table as a handout and highlight things you want the audience to know.

6. Communicate better
I would like to end with two suggestions from Stephen Few's article.
(i) Before deciding how to present, know what exactly are you presenting.
(ii) You do not need complicated graphs if a simple sentence can do the job. It is not compulsory to use a graph to represent data.

What are the problems you faced while presenting data in your last presentation? How do you enhance the understanding of the audience when you deal with data? Write down what is in your mind before you move on to the next post.


  1. A pet peeve of mine is when presenters forget to include the data range of the data in question. The data range can be a key part of the chart or graph. Am I looking at one month of data or a year's worth? It can change the insights I take from the analysis.

  2. Very true.

    These omissions happen because presenters are too close to their data. Their proximity makes them omit a lot of things. They should take a step back and ask "What am I presenting?" Better, show it to a friend and see feedback.