The Art of Data Storytelling in Presentations

Have you ever sat through a presentation where the data just looks so.. Dull? Yep, we feel your boredom.

Don’t get us wrong, data is wonderful, and plays a key role in many of our decisions, especially in business. Unfortunately, it can get a little boring, and since we tend to tune out after 10 minutes of listening, it becomes easier to focus on anything else but the presentation.

So, now that you’re the one doing a business presentation, why not avoid giving your audience the same misery you’ve experienced?

Here’s the thing. As presenters, we often assume that the more you cram into slides the better. After all, more information shows that you’re more knowledgeable about what you’re sharing, right?

Not really. In fact, when you first begin creating your presentation slides, one tip is to start by thinking of a headline that summarises your content succinctly, or, as Carmine Gallo calls it, a ‘Twitter-friendly headline’. This helps you focus on your key message, and decide on the relevant information to include.

Data such as statistics and facts are fixed, but should not be rigid. If you’re undecided on whether the information should be placed on your slides, ask yourself: What is your motive in presenting the data to the audience? If it’s just for the sake of showing, would it not be better placed in an appendix or word report?

The purpose of a presentation is to convince the audience to buy into what you’re selling, be it an idea, product or goal, and that isn’t just about using facts and figures, it’s also about appealing to their emotional side.

Here’s where data storytelling comes in.

1. Make It About Them

It is easy to talk about statistics. ’34% of children between the age of 7 to 9 in Singapore suffer from myopia’. ’13.3% of Singaporeans are smokers’. However, these are merely figures to the audience.

For example, if you’re sharing about myopia to a group of parents, ‘34%’ sounds rather insignificant, doesn’t it?

Here’s where the problem lies. The percentage of children suffering from myopia seems small, and using a pie chart gives the impression that the probability of it happening to their child is low. In the end, the figure is easily dismissed and forgotten.

Business presentations, especially those that seek to convince, are often filled with so much information that the audience becomes accustomed to it. Numbers lack the emotional impact that gets them to think, ‘okay, I need to pay attention because it concerns me’. So if you want to make an impression, you have to make it personal.

Start by amplifying the meaning behind your numbers. The beauty of data is that it can be represented in various ways to form different perspectives and opinions.

In this example, you can make it personal by asking the audience to look to their left and right. Tell them that amongst themselves and the two people beside them, one will have to tackle this problem with his or her child. Now the perspective has shifted. Instead of dismissing it as a low probability statistic, people now see themselves in the position, and they immediately realize the urgency to address the issue.

2. Get Your Audience to Fill Someone Else’s Shoes

In her book ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Harper Lee writes, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it’, and with good reason. In many situations, we frequently emphasize the need to empathize, and presentations are no different.

Your audience are generally eager to see you succeed. Unfortunately, they have short attention spans and will eventually start to drift off. To make things interesting, and increase their understanding of what you’re saying, give them the opportunity to see things from another perspective.

Say you’re delivering a sales presentation on HR software. You can talk about the data, how 55% of your existing users have a 120% jump in productivity. However, the audience might not see the need to make the switch from their existing program to yours, because even though they know the benefits of making the change, there is no motivation to do so.

Instead, you can share a story about John, a HR Manager who used Program X, and felt so frustrated with the system as it caused him problems with managing his staff, tabulating salaries, and other issues that added on to his workload rather than reducing it. Then John made the swop to your HR system, and instantly his burden was lightened. Salaries became easier to calculate, employee holidays were easier to manage, and John no longer has to worry about the system breaking down.

If you’re up for it, throw in a couple of light hearted jokes, and add a dash of dramatization. Your main goal is to get your audience to feel the pain of maintaining the status quo, and envision the positive results if they go with your suggestion.

3. Simplify Not Intensify

Charts are fantastic, they demonstrate what we want to say without using dozens of words that clutter the slides. With a quick addition of a few bars and lines, we remove the need to explain the numbers individually.

But what happens when charts get too complicated? You’re back to square one. Charts were intended to help the audience visualize data, but when ‘data-dumping’ occurs, they’re once again faced with the task of digesting the information quickly in the short span of time you show the slide.

As we’ve said earlier, data is fixed but not rigid. You may not be able to change the figures, but you can change the way it is presented.

Let’s assume you’re sharing a comparison set of statistics between two companies.

Start by asking yourself, what is the intention of presenting these figures? Is it to show an increase or decrease on a certain month? Is it to show the difference?

Once you’ve figured out the purpose, remove all the unnecessary data. You can leave them in the appendix if needed, but since you’re not going to talk about it in your presentation, eliminate it.

The next step is to ask yourself what your audience requires to understand the chart. Are the guidelines needed? Do they serve a purpose, or will eliminating them make it look clearer? Is it necessary to label every single point on the axis?

Based on that, we can remove unnecessary lines and details, to keep the chart simple.

Once you’ve removed the lines, you can add labels to the key points that the audience should focus on.

Remember, this isn’t school work, where the reader has to see every single step you are doing. These people whom you’re presenting to need the easiest way possible to understand what you are trying to say in the shortest amount of time.

Data is integral in showing why the audience should trust you, and the beauty of it should be shown visually as well. Keep these three tips in mind when working on your data, and have fun!