Numbers … Graphs … Statistics … Make All Your Presentations Better

I speak at a lot of conferences, so I see a lot of presentations from other speakers. Those who aren’t professional speakers often make the mistake of cluttering up their presentations with too much data – such as statistics, graphs, and other numbers. Of course, numbers are important, and they can be essential tools to support your message. But you don’t need to present them in a boring way (as most presenters do). The problem is not the facts themselves; it’s in how you present them.

Many presenters who use data in a presentation make one of two mistakes: it’s either too little or too much.

  • Too little: They present raw data without making it meaningful to the audience.
  • Too much: They present it in a complex way that hides the real message.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to fix either problem.

Not enough data? Make it meaningful.

If you’re worried about overwhelming your audience with data, it’s tempting to leave it out altogether. But that’s not the best option. Instead, consider how to relate your data – especially numbers and statistics – to something the audience understands.

For example, Jamie Oliver starts his 18-minute TED Talk with a fact about healthy eating:

“Sadly, in the next 18 minutes when I do our chat, four Americans that are alive will be dead through the food that they eat.”

The late Hans Rosling, who was Swedish professor of global health, became world-famous for presenting data in an interesting way. For example, in one of his presentations, instead of saying, “The survey participants performed worse than chance”, he says:

“So I went to the zoo and I asked the chimps. You were beaten by the chimps.”

You can do the same with any important fact, number or statistic in your presentation. Look for ways to relate that fact to something the audience understands – like this:

  • “LinkedIn has 450 million active users. If it was a country, it would be the 4th biggest in the world, behind only China and India.”
  • “We’re currently getting a 69% accuracy rate. That’s good, but it’s only a B, and we should be aiming for an A+.”
  • “This idea will save you 5 minutes at the start of each day and 5 minutes at the end. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it adds up to one extra week a year.”

Too much data? Reduce it.

The second mistake is providing too much information – in other words, cluttering up the data so the important point doesn’t shine through. To avoid this mistake, look at your main piece of data and eliminate anything around it that could dilute it.

Here are some tips:

  • Use round numbers: Instead of saying “21.5% of our customers”, say “20% of our customers” or “One in five customers”.
  • Remove unnecessary data: If you show any other data, be sure it supports your main point. For example, if you’re showing performance over time, it makes sense to show some numbers for comparison purposes, but remove the others.
  • Remove everything else: It’s easy to create attractive graphs in PowerPoint, but remove everything that doesn’t contribute to your point. For example, a bar graph with different colours for each bar looks pretty but doesn’t mean anything to the audience. It’s better to have all the bars the same colour, or just one bar (the important one) a different colour.
  • One idea per slide: It’s difficult enough for your audience to grasp one point; don’t force them to think even harder. For example, if you have a table of numbers with two important points on it, show it on two slides, each with an extract from the table.

Are you playing the numbers game right?

It doesn’t take much to be “good with numbers” when you present, and your audience will thank you for it!

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