Using Data in Presentations

Using Data in Presentations

In the course of business, a lot of us have to give presentations that rely heavily on data that may or may not be transparent to our audience. Data-driven presentations can be very compelling; people have implicit trust in numbers, and are frequently persuaded by charts and graphs, as long as their meaning is clear.

However, it’s also easy for a data-heavy presentation to become a tedious slog through incomprehensible spreadsheets and graphs. When confronted by a slide deck overloaded with bars and pie slices and zig-zaggy lines, the minds of the audience tend to become foggy.

The key to presenting a data-driven message is to make the data both comprehensible and compelling. Here are six tips for building engaging and persuasive data-based presentations.

Provide context. If the audience hasn’t been directly involved in generating or analyzing these numbers, they may not have a good frame of reference for what you are trying to show them. Make sure to explain where the data came from, any influential circumstances, and what the purpose of the data is in your presentation. Build a story around the data to help the audience understand what’s going on.

Use engaging visuals to present data. Even a bar graph becomes more interesting if the bars are three-dimensional, or built out of rows or towers of icons representing their subject. Pie charts can be exploded, or layered into sunburst charts. You may find creative uses for word clouds, Venn diagrams, bubble clusters, or scatterplot charts. Spreadsheet programs like Excel offer a surprising array of options for charting data; investing a few minutes in learning to use these tools can take the visual impact of your presentations from blah to bam – just make sure not to sacrifice clarity.

Use clear labeling on all charts, graphs, and visual data representations. An x-axis, y-axis, and a bunch of little dots with a line drawn through isn’t helpful unless at least the axes are labeled. Make sure the slide isn’t so crowded that labels are reduced to illegibility. If necessary, provide a legend or key to interpreting the colors, shapes, or icons used in your data graphic.

Highlight your main point. There must be a purpose for each piece of data illustrated in the presentation. Why is it important that the audience see it? What does the data say? It can be helpful to actually title each chart with the most salient data point. For example, if your bar graph demonstrates that one of your organization’s regions outperformed all the others in sales, rather than calling the bar graph “Sales Comparison By Region” you might title it “Western Region Tops Sales By 12%.” This draws attention to the main data point and leaves no doubt as to what the graph is meant to show.

Give them a brain break. Visual representations of any kind are easier to grasp than raw numbers, but they still require a lot of mental processing. Slide after slide of charts quickly becomes mind-numbing. Pause for a moment to let the audience review each chart, take questions to clarify any confusion, then proceed to a slide with an image, or some bullet points highlighting key findings. Interspersing other types of slides with the charts helps the audience avoid mental burnout.

Connect the dots. If your design and labeling are good, hopefully the audience will understand the data, but it’s still necessary to tie that data back to your message. So the data shows that production was down this quarter – why should the audience be concerned? Do you believe there’s a problem? Why? Do you have any support for your theory? What do you propose the audience should do about it? Simply dumping the data isn’t sufficient – the audience needs to understand why it matters, and what to do with it.


Baker Communications offers leading edge Presentations Training solutions that will help we address the goals and achieve the solutions addressed in this article. For more information about how our organization can achieve immediate and lasting behavior change that leads to success during presentations in any setting, click here.