Visualizing Data for Impact

Many, if not most, of my clients report to their leaders in the form of data, lots of data. When looking at the visuals they use to convey information, I often see charts, graphs and tables, all in black and white and mostly in tiny font sizes. They are hard to read or to make sense of, unless you are extremely familiar with both content and layout. To make things worse, I often see them resort to essentially reading the data from the slides.

While the study of visualizing data is complex, a few simple adjustments could make these slides work so much better. Take a look and see if you could try some of these simple improvements on your data slides. 

1.       Know your audience and your intent. What does your audience need to know? Are they more interested in big-picture themes or details? Adapt your level of detail to audience preferences when possible, or present the information at a broader level, then dive in deeper as needed.

2.       Check for font size. If your charts are dense (and I often see 3 or 4 on the same slide) the fonts are probably as small as 11 or 12. While this may be appropriate for a written document, it is too small for most people read on a slide. Ask yourself if it is worthwhile to have them read what is on your slide. If the answer is yes, you will need to enlarge the fonts accordingly.

3.       Attempt to have only one chart or graph on each slide. Your leaders may want to see data comparatively, or maybe that is just the way it has always been done. Does it make sense to see the graphs together? If it does not, use separate slides to tell the story. The data will be much easier to read, and your audience will find it easier to focus on one at a time.

4.       Remove what you don’t plan to discuss. Remove anything that is there “just in case.” Simplify. For example, if you are only showing three columns of data, then remove the columns you don’t plan to talk about. If you are concerned that your audience might ask for that data, then make a slide with all the columns, and “hide” it so you can call it up as needed. 

5.       Use color, size and shape to direct the eye. Our eyes (and brains) can quickly pick out novel things, something that is different from everything around it. If you want your audience to find and focus on certain numbers, columns, or anything else, use color, size and shape to make them appear novel. Examples include bolding (not underlining), a larger font on key areas, or highlighting or using specific colors to show emphasis.

6.       Use reasonable “builds” to highlight the data. If you have a series of items to discuss on one graph, consider showing them one part at a time, adding on as you tell the story. This directs your audience’s eyes as well as attention. While you are at it, thicken chart lines for better visibility. Then walk to the back of the room where you will be presenting and look at your slide from there. Is it easily visible and visually striking?

7.       Zoom in to key parts of the chart. If you have a dense slide, consider blowing up key areas to focus on as you discuss them. You could set them up to enlarge on a click, or create a series of slides that show just part of the chart, cut and pasted, then enlarged.

8.       Interpret the data. Your audience doesn’t need you to read the data to them. What they do need is for you to tell them what it means, or what caused it, or how to correct negative issues. Remember that you are so close to the data that you know what it means, but they might not be. Again, think about your audience. If they want big picture, tell them what the data indicates, rather than walking them through every figure.

9.       Add stories, reactions and metaphors. These are ways to bring the data to life and make it more memorable. This might be as simple as asking them to imagine solutions, or using an analogy to help them quickly get the point. Even simple reactions like, “this number surprised us” give them important cues to listen up.

10.   Don’t lose sight of the key message. What is the point of this information? What is the story you are telling? What do you want from your audience? Think of starting and ending with this big-picture message, and then filling in with facts and figures. Think about how each chart or graph or spreadsheet moves your story forward. Some speakers use story boarding to be sure they are constantly moving the presentation in the right direction.

As you can see, you don’t have to be a statistician to bring numbers to life. You can make a few modest changes to your slides and your delivery that add clarity and interest for your audience. My guess is they will appreciate it, especially as they find your presentation more interesting and compelling.