3 Ways To Communicate Data More Effectively
by Andrea Pacini —
Data and numbers can be important to a business presentation一but they can be bone dry unless you bring them to life in interesting ways.
I often see business leaders struggle to communicate data effectively. When I ask them if they think they’re doing it well they usually say yes. But that’s rarely the case.
Too many presenters assume that their data is intrinsically meaningful.
“Here’s the data: take it, use it, understand it, remember it.” That’s how we often communicate data.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.
As presenters, it’s our responsibility to communicate data so that it means something to the audience.
The way to do that is to tell the story behind the data.
Bestselling author Dan Heath said, “Data are just summaries of thousands of stories—tell a few of those stories to help make the data meaningful.”
What he means is that there’s a difference between data and insight. Data alone is not meaningful unless we turn it into insight.
If we can turn data into insight it can become a powerful tool to drive action from the audience—which is the fundamental aim of most business presentations.
Making data relatable
Nancy Duarte, CEO of Duarte, Inc., explains that there are three ways to put data into perspective.
In her book DataStory: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story she gives these three tips:
- Connect data to relatable size
- Connect data to relatable time
- Connect data to relatable things
You make data ‘relatable’ by putting it into perspective and making it familiar to the audience. Let’s put this into practice.
Connect data to relatable size
Size means length, width, height, thickness, or distance.
One of our clients wanted to communicate how their software had saved their customers from driving 250,000 miles. Their application allowed workers to do certain tasks remotely instead of having to travel to specific locations.
They decided to try and help the audience to visualise how great that distance was. So they said it was like driving the length of Great Britain (which is around 600 miles) more than 400 times.
It was a compelling way to bring the 250,000 miles to life in a relatable way. Everyone in the UK can understand what it would be like to drive between Lands End and John o’Groats 400 times.
Remember: it’s always about the audience. I’ve written more about how to make a presentation related to the audience here.
Connect data to relatable time
Time is an excellent way of putting data into perspective, especially when it comes to explaining the value of money.
Another of our clients wanted to communicate that she’d sold 100,000 units of her product in the last three years. She was keen to demonstrate that there was high demand for her product. So she broke it down to (roughly) 100 products sold every day. Again, much more relatable.
Connect data to relatable things
You can also put data into perspective by connecting it to things that are familiar to the audience.
Some time ago I stumbled upon a video about the blue whale by National Geographic. The video explained that the blue whale is the largest living animal to have ever existed. The largest blue whales can be more than 100 feet (30 metres) long.
To help people visualise 30 metres they said that it’s the same length as three school buses. What a perfect way to make that relatable.
Imagine three school buses put together. The blue whale is as large as that!
The business benefits of making data more relatable
We were approached by Ollie and Jack Farrer, the co-founders of paid media agency Farrer, to help them communicate their data and insights in a more engaging manner.
They wanted to get better at running meetings, making pitches and presenting proposals, which have lots of data in them.
Ollie and Jack were keen for their team to improve their proposals so they would stand out, win bigger clients and become more confident at communicating their ideas.
The Farrer team came along to one of our workshops and one of the focuses of the session was making their data more relatable.
We worked with them to ensure that the session was specific to the challenges they face as a paid media agency. Farrer has specific needs which go beyond presentations. But they were able to apply the same techniques to their other areas of business—like meetings, pitches and proposals.
Ollie and Jack told us later that they had loved the workshop and their whole team was energised by it. They said there were many lightbulb moments among their team and they now look forward to pitching ideas and proposals.
Tips on using data in a presentation
For your next presentation: every time you want to communicate some data, ask yourself how you can put it into perspective.
How can you extract meaning from your data? How can you communicate it so it makes sense to the audience? So that the data means something to them?
A good technique is to complete the following sentence:
[Your number] is equivalent to_________________________.
For example, as we saw above:
250,000 miles is equivalent to driving the length of Great Britain more than 400 times.
100,000 products sold in three years is equivalent to 100 products per day.
30 metres is equivalent to three school buses.
If you can draw these relatable comparisons, you can unlock the power of data to tell your audience something they didn’t know before; that they didn’t see before; that they didn’t understand before.
This is how data can drive action.
Data and numbers usually play an important part in any business presentation. We often find ourselves having to communicate financial targets or sales targets.
The problem is that data on its own can be boring and hard to understand.
Many presenters fail to communicate data in a way that makes it interesting.
The way to bring data alive is to make it relatable.
It’s good to put data into perspective by connecting it to size, time or things which the audience understands.
If you can learn how to present data well your business presentations will be more effective and you will reap the rewards.
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