I was recently coaching a client in presentation skills when she shared with me that most of her presentations are dull and boring as they are only full of numbers. Delivering a presentation full of data and statistics does create an added challenge for any presenter. This is primarily because the human brain does not process numbers the same way it processes words. Since numbers are representations of something else, when they stand alone, they are generally empty from meaning. This means that when a speaker delivers a presentation heavy with numerical data, the audience has to do the extra work of attaching those numbers to what they actually represent to form meaningful connections.
Yet, numbers present us with opportunities to tell stories as they can demonstrate progress or failure, whilst also offering a sense of scope and scale. Numbers have the potential to enhance our understanding of a situation. In spite of this, on many occasions, numbers in presentations are not exploited well enough. They are often unreadable, not utilised effectively and are not valued sufficiently.
One of the main rules when presenting numbers is to reduce the burden on the audience. The presenter needs to do everything in their power to make the digestion of numerical data easy. How you present your data impacts its effectiveness. Here are some tips to help you deliver your numbers with a knack:
- Make your numbers big and bold. Hard to see numbers do not give your data its due. What is readable on your laptop may be far less so when projected on a screen. When building your presentations make sure that your numbers are large enough to make them readable for the audience that is sitting at a distance. Make your numbers bold enough. Formatting numbers with bold helps readability, however be creative in coming up with other definitions of boldness too. Let your numbers stand out. As you review your slides, consider the importance of each number. Find opportunities for boldness and look for the numbers deserving the spotlight.
- Find interesting angles – This is useful when the information is routine, repetitive or is likely to be skimmed over – do some investigation into the numbers to find interesting ways to view the data. Consider searching for overlooked insights, specific trends or hidden facts. These new perspectives will not only be far more interesting for your audience, but could even redefine your strategy entirely.
- Use Comparisons – Numbers and percentages on their own are abstract and can be hard to visualise. Several people do not relate to raw numbers or bare percentages. Help your audience conceptualise the data by putting your numbers in perspective. If you want to ensure your numbers land heavily with your audience, it can be helpful to translate the numbers into other equivalents that might have more resonance to your audience. The comparison you choose to make will depend on what things you believe your audience would be emotionally affected by. So, for instance, to help your audience understand whether “10 per cent” is a lot or a little in your context, you can use meaningful comparisons such as “That’s more than half of last year…”.
- Connect your data to your key points. Explain how the data you are presenting supports your major points. Don’t leave the burden of decoding your data to your audience. Illustrate the meaning behind your data through statements such as “these numbers prove…” which enables you to draw the audience’s attention to your conclusions.
- The “less is more” principle applies to numbers and data too. Any data that does not directly benefit your presentation distracts from the essentials. The quickest way to confuse your audience is by sharing too many details at once. Focus instead on highlighting the data points that significantly support your point — preferably keep this at one major point per slide. Ask yourself, “What’s the single most important learning I want my audience to extract from this data?” That’s the one learning to convey. If you have several significant points to make, consider demonstrating each with a new visualisation. Keep in mind that you do not need to share all your data. Whilst you might be tempted to place several data points on your slides, that does not necessarily translate well with your audience. So seek to keep it is as concise and crisp as possible.
- Visually highlight “Aha!” zones. Once you identify the key points you want to convey ensure that you make it easy for the audience to follow you by highlighting the ‘Aha’ moments both visually and orally. When you visually highlight the “Aha” zone with a circle and also explain it out loud, you reinforce the most important data takeaways.
- Present to your audience, not to your data. When presenting data, several speakers end up disengaging from their audience because they get too lost in their world of numbers. Yet, in any presentation it is always about your audience – and they receive your points best, when you connect with them through eye contact. Whilst it is perfectly fine to take a quick look your slides for reference, keep in mind that your conversation needs to take place with your audience and not with the screen. One last point, please leave the serious monotone voice behind and bring some passion and enthusiasm to your voice when presenting!
Knowing how to develop and deliver a data-driven presentation is a crucial skill. When you present your numbers in a clear and captivating manner, you stand a better chance of elevating the audience’s interest in you and your content. Presenting data poorly, not only wastes that opportunity, but can damage your reputation as a presenter. So, wield your numbers wisely.