How to Present Data

COMMSTORM - How to Present Data

Ever wonder how great presenters get to be great? While what they are presenting is important, how they present it and what considerations they give to the environment they are presenting in is equally important.

In a recent post I marvelled at how data could actually get in the way of strategic thinking.  It isn’t a question of how accurate the data is, though that of course that matters, but even the best data can be overwhelmed by the state of mind of your audience, your own mindset and how you choose to share data.

It is difficult to be persuasive when your body is closed or unfriendly.  I explore those challenges in my post, Body Language – Managing You So You Can Deliver Your Message. Even when we physically present a positive demeanour our tone can change how information is received. A grating tone can have a disruptive effect and a soothing tone can create interest.

A few years ago on a Saturday afternoon I was lazing around the house with the TV on when I found myself following along with avid attention to a documentary. I was more than twenty minutes into the program when I had to ask myself, “Since when did you have any interest in cartography?”

Patrick Stewart

Cover of Patrick Stewart

I like a good map as much as anyone, but the history of map making would never have made my top ten TV list, not even my top fifty, yet there I was mesmerized. It was at that point that I realized that the narrator was Patrick Stewart. Being a fan of Star Trek I had always enjoyed his voice and that enjoyment was all that was required to get me to enjoy the making of maps.

Tone is so influential to how information is received that even if you deliver the identical words, if you change where you place emphases, you can change the meaning. One of my favourite exercises to illustrate how the identical words can have multiple meanings is the following sentence.

“I didn’t say she stole my money.”

If you place the emphasis on different words in the sentence you can get at least 7 different meanings.

I didn’t say she stole my money – someone else said it.

I didn’t say she stole my money – I didn’t say it.

I didn’t say she stole my money – I only implied it.

I didn’t say she stole my money – I said someone did, not necessarily her.

I didn’t say she stole my money – I considered it borrowed, even though she didn’t ask.

I didn’t say she stole my money – only that she stole money.

I didn’t say she stole my money – she stole things that cost me money to replace.

If a sentence this supposedly straight forward can change meaning depending on which word we emphasize, is it any wonder that even the most influential data can be misinterpreted based on emphasis?

To further complicate things we have the audience’s emotions to take into consideration. Were they anticipating the information?  Are they vested in the outcome?  Do they even understand why you are sharing the information? Just because the connection between your data and their interests are obvious to you, doesn’t mean they are obvious to your audience.

The mood of your audience can also have a tremendous impact. If they are tired because it’s mid afternoon on a busy day, you may want to have them do some stretches before beginning. If they are angry it can have a whole host of consequences.  Angry people take shortcuts in their thinking and are more likely to blame people rather than a situation for outcomes. Anger will influence how information is perceived and what actions follow as a consequence. In one study conducted at the University of Illinois (Jennifer S. Lerner) and UC Berkeley (Julie H. Goldberg of and Philip E. Tetlock) noted that people who watched an anger-inducing video were more punitive toward defendants in a series of unrelated fictional tort cases involving negligence and injury than were people who had seen a neutral video. The exceptions to the rule were in those cases where they were told that not only would they be held accountable for their decisions but they would be asked to explain their decisions to an expert.

This gives us a good glimpse into best practices when sharing data, which is having the audience have a sense of responsibility about the outcome or a vested interest in the outcome. Letting them know exactly why you feel the information is relevant to them and telling them that you will ask a few questions at the end to get their opinions on the findings is a good way to ensure that they will do more than daydream while you present. If you can associate a sense of accountability with how they manage the decisions as an outcome, you will also produce more thoughtful contemplation of the data.

Finally we come to the data itself.  Whether you use PowerPoint, Prezi, video or Skype can influence your audience’s reception of your materials. Some people actually feel nauseous when they watch the movement of a Prezi presentation while others want to curl up and go to sleep at the first signs of a PowerPoint. Whichever vehicle you choose, make sure that that you are not overloading your presentation with data. Next week I will explore common pitfalls in showcasing data including when Prezi can outshine PowerPoint.

What about you? Have you ever had a presentation, pitch or a meeting take a strange turn because of how data was viewed? Have you ever found yourself captivated by the delivery style of a presenter?

First image courtesy of Pakorn/

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0 responses to “How to Present Data

  • becc03 says:
    March 9, 2014 @ 10:08 pm

    Most of whatever I have presented had me quivering and the audience really feeling for me – funnily it worked as they were so vested in egging me on and supporting me! This is also the reason I try never to get up in front of an audience 😉
    I have watched many great presenters and agree with what you have said. Also, less reliance on the slides and capturing the attention on to you as the speaker works better than constantly pointing to what people can already read for themselves.

  • Wow!! Absolutely loved your example of “I didn’t say she stole my money” To think there are sooo many interpretations of one small group of words!!
    I think the mood of the person hearing, does have much to do with what they hear – I’m sure we all have examples of this from home! And there are many other variations of what we might hear in a sentence.
    But I’m still smiling at your example – each different emphasis gives a different story.
    What a briliant post Debra 🙂

  • Debra- I never thought of Cartography but it does sound interesting. The presenter is the key factor. Morgan Freeman’s voice is like no other. He did a series on the Black Hole. Now that was a subject I could care less about. My husband wanted to watch it and with just the reflections in Morgan’s voice I became glued to the TV. With any presentation you need to keep the audience in gauged.

    • I’m amazed at what I will listen to if you present it properly. I could listen to Morgan Freeman for ages and I like the black hole as a topic so I would have been in heaven.

  • Suzanne Fluhr (Boomeresque) says:
    March 6, 2014 @ 04:26 am

    This post made me flash back to one of my law professors who was such a bad lecturer that I cut more of his classes than I ever have in my life. A bad speaker also caused me to stay my own speaking career. At a law conference, one of the speakers was soooo bad that I couldn’t stop rolling my eyes. Afterwards, it occurred to me that I needed to put up or shut up. So, I wrote to the head of the national organization, offering to speak on the same topic at the next conference . Much to my shock, she said, “Sure!” I’ve done over 20 talks for them. I’ve never had specific training in public speaking. I just try not to do what other speakers have done that made me crazy. Oratory and data presentation should be a skill we graduate from high school with. It’s that important. (I’ve never even heard of Prezi. I definitely need to check that out.)

    • Isn’t it amazing how bad presentations stay with you? They always make me think, “I’ll never get that time back!”

      I like your reaction to it, rather than just complain, you took on the challenge and no doubt have saved a lots of folks the quiet torture you experienced.

  • Great topic Debra. I feel the same way about Prezi. When presenters try to over use it, it’s a little trippy. When you consider all these factors to presenting it really comes down to practice practice practice. I remember seeing a interview of Zig Ziglar where he talks about practicing every presentation or talk he is going to give. Even though he’s done it thousands of times, it’s important that he always practices the message he wants to convey. Otherwise his voice, demeanor, facial expressions, body language, etc could change in a way that is not conducive to the presentation.

    By the way, not sure if I’d ever seen a show about cartography but the same thing happens to me when I watch a show called How The States Got Their Name….why would I care about that? I do get sucked in though.

    ~ Johnny

    • I agree Johnny, the expression, “Practice makes Perfect” may be over used, but that’s because it’s true. I always perform better when I’ve run through my presentation several times out loud. I’ve often thought that hotel staff across Canada must have thought I was crazy when they heard me talking to myself. I would practice my presentations in my room as though I was giving them before a live audience (jokes included).

  • All true and good points, Debra. Would just add that far too many people doing a presentation make that mistake of using too many facts on a “slide” in PowerPoint, Prezi or whatever they use. The audience then try to read at the same time as listening and the it ruins the presentation.

    • So true Catarina. That is exactly what happens when slides are overloaded. To compound matters, it is often the people with too much information on their slides that end up reading the slides to the audience and that’s just an invitation to the audience to fall asleep. 🙂

  • Last summer I went to a series of workshops and lectures for a writing conference. One presenter might have had great information, but she just came across as really snooty. I couldn’t bear to go to the other two sessions she offered even though I was really interested in the topics. On the other hand, someone with a welcoming and friendly personality will have my attention for days. I guess we’re all like that to various degrees.

    • I hear you Jeri. It’s so painful sitting through a presentation if the speaker doesn’t strike the right note. I always think it’s a shame when someone who is really wonderful in a one on one situation can’t bring that same warmth to their presentations. Unless they ask me directly, I’m always reluctant to say anything because at best the feedback comes across as, it’s not your presentation, it’s you.

  • It is so true. Tone and voice inflection really have an impact on what is being said. That’s why those with recognizable voices (like Patrick Stewart and David Attenborough) get paid big bucks to narrate documentaries. It causes us to listen and take note. Those skills can be learned by practice and involvement in groups like Toastmasters. It’s sure helped me!

  • A joke my wife and I share is the simple phrase, “you placed the emPHAsis on the wrong syllABles.” How you use your voice and pronounce your words have a huge impact on delivery.

  • This probably sounds silly, but the “voice” means a great deal to me. I was in a class where the presenter may have had some really interesting point to deliver regarding writing. But his voice was so nasally and annoying, I spent the entire time being angry!! The voice mad me angry! This probably says more about me and my inability to get beyond it!

  • One of my favorite classes in college was Cartography. Back there, there was no Power Point or personal computers – we did the maps by hand. I loved it. You are making me think how I would enjoy a really good class in how to present data. On the other hand, a bad one would make me fall fast asleep and never want to take a class again. Love the idea of combining my visual skills with convincing skills (the latter could surely use more training).

    • If Patrick Stewart was delivering it, I’d happily take a cartography course. 🙂

      In one of my psychology courses in university my professor delivered all of her lectures with a quiet, modulation free tone. For the first half of the semester I struggled to stay awake and failed. I stopped going for the second half and focused on reading the course book, I learned waaaay more in the second half of the semester as a result.

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