How many times have you attended a presentation and suddenly a cryptic, undecipherable slide appears on the screen and the presenter says: “You probably can’t read this but…”? This is like holding up a blue and a green sweater in front of someone who is color blind and asking: “Which one do you like better?” It leaves your audience baffled. And your sweater won’t match your pants.
When presenting to any audience, we should always be mindful of who is part of that audience, what their needs are, and what their level of comprehension of the material presented may be. And this is especially important when presenting data because graphs and charts are difficult to process when projected on a slide for most audience members.
The first question when presenting data-heavy content should really be whether or not a slide presentation is the best medium to communicate the information. Remember, slides are like billboards on the highway: Ideally you should be able to get the main message in less than 5 seconds. Would an Excel report be better, sent ahead of time for review, followed by a discussion? Possibly. But there are many cases when it is necessary and appropriate to present data on slides.
There are 3 basic design principles which will help make data slides appropriate for presentations: Simplicity, clarity and meaning. In order to demonstrate these principles, I will start with a double-axis graph often found on data slides.
Get rid of anything that’s not needed. A good rule of thumb is that there should only be one takeaway per slide so don’t try to cram 5 things into one slide. In our example, if we get rid of grid lines, line markers and simplify the vertical axis scales, the graph is already easier to read.
If there is any possible way the audience can get confused by the slide, address the issue. For example on our slide, I added labels to the 2 vertical axes and used colors to clearly indicate which line shows sales and which shows marketing spend.
The last point is crucial: Focus on the meaning of the slide. Why is this slide here? What’s the takeaway? In our example slide, I added a meaningful title and emphasized which data points are relevant.
Since this may still be a lot to absorb in 5 seconds for your audience, you can quickly build to this slide this way:
Once you’ve presented these slimmed down data slides and gotten your message across, you can always provide more complete graphs to your audience in the form of a handout.
If you need to present a lot of data, keep these simple principles in mind and your audience will thank you for it by shifting their focus from their smartphones to your presentation (and by remaining awake!). As an agency dedicated to measuring the success of our clients’ online initiatives, this is something we understand very well and strive to bring to every client presentation.
Always keep in mind presentation design guru Nany Duarte’s golden rule: “Never deliver a presentation you wouldn’t want to sit through.”