I take both a personal and a professional interest in presentation. Getting a presentation right means your audience will leave with the right message, understand what the data is telling them, understand what they should be doing, and be inspired to take action.
Presentation is key, and the ultimate test of success or failure is not a ripple of polite applause and a kind word from the Chief Exec, but whether your business changes as a result.
I believe that the main factor which determines the success of a presentation is the clarity of the message, both on individual slides and in the presentation as a whole. This is doubly true of numerical data, such as customer survey results, where it is easy to get bogged down in slide after slide of analysis.
When it comes to presenting numerical data, here are 10 key principles that I have stolen or evolved over the years. These form the basis for most of the recommendations I make on my course.
1. Show me the numbers
Simplicity comes from clarity of message, not dumbing down. If you hide the numbers then I have to trust you, and frankly I don't. By all means use a R2G colour scheme to make the message clearer, but numbers are not innately scary and it's important that they are there for those that want them.
2. Order by something
There is almost always an order more interesting than simply listing items alphabetically or in the way they were presented on the questionnaire. Think about the story the data is trying to tell and then sort it in a way that supports that (e.g. largest values first, largest changes first, largest differences from average first etc).
3. Let the data breathe
Get hold of the Visual Display of Quantitative Information, or something similar, and have your eyes opened to the amount of “chartjunk” and wasted ink in the average table or chart. Fade chart mechanics such as grid lines and axes into the background by changing them from black to grey. You will soon find that you're obsessing about allowing the data room to stand on its own, rather than decorating it. “If the numbers are boring then you've got the wrong numbers.”
4. Tell the truth
This might seem obvious, but it is easy to fool yourself as well as your audience, particularly when evidence can be made to conform to your preconceptions. Make sure you are asking yourself tough questions, and that you can back up your assertions with evidence. I recommend the Halo Effect as an effective antidote.
5. If it's boring, ditch it
When we do a piece of analysis, or ask a question in a survey, it is often because we're wondering if something interesting will emerge. Often it doesn't. If so, I recommend you leave that question or analysis on the cutting-room floor—padding out your presentation with analysis that has no implications for the future dilutes the message and makes you look dull. Have the courage to make decisions about which analysis is meaningful.
6. You are responsible for the actions that are taken
This is a scary one. Using the wrong piece of analysis, or using it in an inappropriate way, can lead to bad decisions. Quadrant charts are notorious in this regard. This can lead to real, damaging, effects in the way your organisation performs. Be careful, and make sure you are confident that you have got everything right. If you want people to take your analysis seriously, you have to take it seriously too.
7. Don't create work for your audience
There is no need to dumb down for your audience, but there is also no reason to be obstructive. Avoid abbreviations, jargon and other barriers. Subtler sins include using poor typography, such as words rotated by 90° in order to fit. This can almost always be avoided, and doing so is a sign of respect for your audience.
8. Analysis and reporting are separate functions
This links in with point 5. Not everything that happens at the analysis stage should end up in the reporting/presenting phase. This is upsetting, since you may want to demonstrate how much hard work you did, but crucial if you want to leave a clear message.
You may also choose to present messages in a different way, or using different charts, than the tools you used to discover them in the first place. A factor score coefficient matrix is unlikely to mean much to the board, but the message about the existence of common factors underlying the items on the questionnaire is perfectly comprehensible.
9. Delete first, then add
Perhaps the easiest way to achieve number 3 is to remove the unnecessary ink that Excel and other programmes tend to add to graphs. Clearing away the clutter, then fading the chart mechanics into the background, will free up lots of empty space. This is a good thing in itself, but it also allows you the room to add elements which help the message stand out. Don't be afraid to annotate directly onto your charts where it helps focus attention on the message you're trying to tell.
10. Find a message, then sell it
The single most important thing is that you know what the analysis is trying to say. A good discipline when preparing presentations is to write “headline style” titles. By using strong declarative statements (“Satisfaction is up in the North West”) rather than category headings (“Regional satisfaction vs. 2008”) you are forced to think about what the message is, as well as making a much more engaging presentation. If you can't find a headline, then see point 5.
Looking across these headlines should allow you to see a building story that will leave the audience in no doubt about what your main message(s) are. If not you need to decide what they are and restructure the presentation to deliver them clearly.