Presenting Data Better

Many attendees of The Better Presenter workshop are doctors or research scientists, and their presentations are very complex and often contain a lot of data. Half-way in to the workshop, after they have a good understanding of my approach to presenting, someone inevitably asks the question, “If I can’t use bullets points or tables and charts, how am I supposed to make my case? I can’t replace my data with images from iStock!”

First of all, I’m not suggesting that you remove all of the complexity from your slides and replace it with downloaded pictures of puppies and sunsets. What I am suggesting…

… is that you simplify and clarify your data before dropping it onto a slide. When you are presenting to a live audience, with limited time, you need only present them with enough data to make your point. And you should be able to describe that point (more commonly referred to as your “message”) in one sentence. Anything beyond that only serves to dilute your message and distract the audience. The extra information that doesn’t make it on a slide should instead be provided to the audience in another format, like a printed handout or digital PDF.

“Graphic designers show restraint by including only what is necessary to communicate the particular message for the particular audience. Restraint is hard. Complication and elaboration are easy…and are common.” — Garr Reynolds

Here are three examples:

Presentation #1 – Cervical Cancer Screening: Incorporating HPV Testing

  • Evaluation – This presentation is filled with great data, but there’s too much of it. This presentation feels more like a book report than the persuasive story it needs to be. Other than a few bolded or colored lines of text, it’s even difficult to understand the purpose of each individual slide. Even if the presenter was present to explain each slide, I would quickly become overwhelmed. Many slides contain charts and diagrams that are simply copied and pasted in from some other source, and they are completely indecipherable. Complexity belongs in a journal article, or a handout that contains prose and detailed explanation. Presentations need to be clear, simple, and visual. This is a presentation with an identity crisis. I apologize for being so critical, but this is a perfect example of how NOT to present data to an audience. Unfortunately, this is exactly how most scientific presentations look. The good news, is that this presenter has already done the hard work of gathering and organizing the data! All that’s left to do, is to craft a story from within that data, and present it with clear visuals.
  • Ideas for improvement – First and foremost, craft a clear, powerful, call-to-action message, and make that immediately apparent. The current title is too soft, and it quickly gets lost in the over-abundance of data. Which brings me to my second idea, which is to identify the most important pieces of data, and remove the rest from the slides. Then, find a way to visually present those most important pieces of data, in a way the audience can understand and relate to. We need to feel it! And lastly, the extra data that doesn’t make the cut belongs in another form, be that a journal article, document, or web page that the audience can access after the presentation.

Presentation #2 – A Balanced Life: Managing Stress, Nutrition and Exercise

  • Evaluation – This presentation has a sense of purpose, and does a decent job of presenting information visually (though the topic is less data-heavy than #1, which helps). Half-way in, however, the bullet points start to take over and it reads more like a printed handout than a presentation. Also, I find it difficult to understand where I’m at in the presentation, which, according to the “Why am I here” slide, should be in one of three categories. I also think the “Outcomes” slide is helpful, but there’s a personal element missing. I want something concrete that I can directly relate to.
  • Ideas for improvement – Let’s start with the visuals. This presentation makes a good effort and being visual, but this effort waxes and wanes throughout the presentation. I want to see more, consistently larger images overlayed with small amounts of text, instead of small images with multiple paragraphs of text adjacent to the images. Is it necessary to include ALL of those bullet points, or just the few that really matter? And finally, I think this presentation could really hit home if it elicited some emotion from the audience by incorporating a story element. The story could be in the form of a real (or fictitious) character sprinkled throughout the presentation, as that character follows the presenter’s recommendations, and then realizes a positive change in their life as a result. We want to believe this can happen to us!

Presentation #3 – Smoke: The Convenient Truth

  • Evaluation – This is an award-winning, top-notch presentation, and I’m jealous. Not only have they nailed the balance between text and images, they are presenting the data in a very digestible, relatable, and concrete manner (whale vomit in cigarettes?! yuck!). There was a great deal of thought put into data selection, and visualization/extrapolation of that data. And in the end, the message is very clear – cigarettes are more dangerous and kill more people than you think, and efforts to solve the issue require a global effort. You’ll also notice how uniform the visuals are. This was no accident, I can assure you. I know what you’re thinking… I’m not a photographer or a graphic designer, so I can’t possibly make something like this! Actually, yes you can. Many of the images they used were from, and using fonts creatively is easy (see my last / two posts for more about fonts).
  • Ideas for improvement – It’s hard to improve this presentation. My only comment, is that you could remove some of the connecting text (the in-between slides that make the slides read like complete sentences) if you were to present this to a live audience. It reads perfectly on its own, but if shown to a live audience, the presenter would often find themselves reading the slides aloud… and that’s a big no-no for presenters because the no one can read and listen at the same time.

NOTE: During my review of these presentations, I operated under the assumption that the presentations were initially designed to be used in a live talk. Presentations that are solely intended for web consumption (without a presenter there to explain), are a different beast. The latter needs to contain more text, for obvious reasons, although an even better idea is to narrate the slides with a tool like Articulate or Camtasia, to engage the audience’s other senses. Both of those tools are available in the Tech Commons and supported by the Learning Technologies Group.

I hope these evaluations will help you make better presentations!

Here are a number of resources that you can use to find more examples of good (and bad) presentations, as well as some really interesting examples of data presented graphically. If you have other resources, please share them in the comments section below this post!

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