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Celebrating 15 years; Issue #383 February 21, 2017

Fifteen years ago I decided to start writing this bi-weekly newsletter. Back then it was more broadly focused on office technology. Over the years as my business has become more focused, so has the newsletter. Today I call it Presentation Insights and most of the topics deal with ways to effectively present data, which is the focus of my customized workshops. I wasn’t always proficient at writing. In fact, in my first MBA Marketing assignment over 25 years ago the professor was generous to give me a passing grade and suggested that I seek immediate help with more effective writing skills. During those two years at the Tuck School, I learned how to write in a quick, focused way because I didn’t have time to create multiple drafts. That experience made me a much better writer. When I started speaking professionally in 1999, I joined the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers (CAPS). In the next few years I learned from many professional speakers in CAPS and the National Speakers Association (NSA) in the US that writing was important to developing expertise. I didn’t fully understand what they meant at the time, but thought I should consider taking advice coming from successful experts. My first attempt at writing an ebook benefited tremendously from the brutally honest review Dr. Brad McRae gave me. While that first ebook didn’t go anywhere, it was an important step in my writing journey. Having to share new insights every two weeks has turned out to be one of the best ways to deepen my expertise. Many of the topics for these newsletters come from questions that participants...

Don’t Grab and Hope; Issue #382 February 7, 2017

When I deliver a customized workshop, I always start the day spending at least 90 minutes talking about how to structure your message. During this time I don’t mention slides at all, even though I am talking about creating effective PowerPoint presentations. Why should all business presenters spend time on the structure first? Because the most common approach, what I call Grab and Hope, doesn’t work. Every business professional I speak to is very busy these days. Since the economic turmoil of 2008-9, almost every corporate professional is essentially doing two jobs due to downsizing and not adding staff when the business grew. Time is at a premium and people are looking for the fastest way to get things done. When they have to put together a presentation, they default to what they have always done, and what they have seen their colleagues do. They start by grabbing slides from previous presentations, theirs and ones done by colleagues, and throw them into a file. They then start trying to figure out how this will flow coherently. They add some slides when they think it might help or if a topic is missing. They hope it all comes together before they have to present it. Thus the name Grab and Hope. To borrow a line from Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for you?” Most professionals just chuckle when I describe this common approach. They know this is what they do. It isn’t working well, but they don’t know what else to do. The solution is to spend time up front planning the message first. Use the GPS approach I have...

Replace the default legend; Issue #381 January 24, 2017

When a column or bar chart has to be small so that other content can fit on the slide, the default legend can cause a challenge. The color chips used in the legend become so small that it may be hard for the audience to see which color represents which data series. This gets even harder when there are colors that are similar, like the three shades of green I saw used in a legend recently. Not only may the legend be hard to see, but it also takes space away from the graph area, making the graph smaller than it could be. Here is what the default legend looks like on a small column graph. What can you do instead? Create your own legend that combines the color and the series text. Create a small rectangle for each data series. Set the fill color to match the fill color of the columns or bars for that data series. Add text to the rectangle for the data series name. Here’s what this would look like for the graph above. Not only is it easier for the audience to match the data series name with the color, it allows the graph to be larger because part of the graph area is not taken up by the legend. When you have short data series names like the above example, you may find it hard to fit the text inside a small rectangle. It looks like the text should fit, but PowerPoint splits the text up because it says there is not enough room for the text. The issue is with one...

FastCompany.com January 14, 2017

In this FastCompany.com article, Dave's survey on what annoys audiences about bad PowerPoint presentations is used as a starting point for the author giving some tips on using images in...

Axis that doesn’t start at zero; Issue #380 January 10, 2017

If you read articles by data visualization experts on the topic of measurement axes that don’t start at zero, you will find one common theme: strong opposition to the idea. While I agree with them in most cases, I want to suggest an exception to this rule. Let’s start with the key issue. By default, Excel and PowerPoint select the minimum and maximum values for the measurement axis on a graph. For example, the vertical axis on a column graph is the measurement axis. I haven’t been able to figure out how the programs select these values. It seems to depend on the values in the data. The problem comes when the axis does not start at zero. What the programs seem to be trying to do is to make the difference in values easier to see by adjusting the starting value of the axis. This can lead to misinterpretation by the audience. This is especially true when there are no data labels and the audience is only comparing the height of the columns. In this example, the default chosen by PowerPoint makes the values for Day 2-5 look like they are double the value of Day 1, when that is not the case. The common advice from the data visualization experts is to always start your measurement axis at zero so that the relative size of the columns or bars is always showing an accurate picture of the values being represented. Here is the above graph with the axis starting at zero. The comparison is more accurate, but now the challenge is being able to distinguish the values...

Showing performance where we want to be below a goal; Issue #379 December 20, 2016

In a recent customized workshop a participant asked how to show performance of a metric where the objective is to be below a goal. Typically we want to show performance and being above the goal is considered better performance. In this case, where they were measuring response time in a customer service setting, the desire is to respond quicker than the standard. One of the common visuals I show to measure performance relative to a goal is a dashed line on a column graph, like this example. In this visual, it is easy to see if our performance is above the goal because the column extends above the dashed line representing the goal. If we were to use this type of visual to measure response time, the column would be below the goal in situations where we performed better than the standard. This would be hard for the audience to understand, since it is opposite to the typical interpretation of this type of visual. I spent some time thinking about this challenge. I wanted to find a visual that could work for this situation. I searched for what other data visualization experts had come up with and didn’t find anything for this situation. After some different attempts, here’s the visual I came up with. The audience needs to know which area represents good performance and which area represents performance above the standard. I use the red and green colors in a stacked column chart to create these areas. I added labels to the areas for those who have a form of color deficiency that would not allow them to...

Focusing the message for variance analysis; Slide Makeover #86

Finance (and other) professionals often analyze current performance compared to past performance or plans to look for variances. Too often they copy the spreadsheet onto a slide. This slide makeover shows how you can focus the message with visuals when you are discussing variances. You can also watch this slide makeover directly on...

Order data to support your message; Issue #378 December 6, 2016

One common mistake I see professionals make when presenting analysis is not ordering the data in a way that supports the message they are trying to communicate. This isn’t done intentionally, but happens because they accept the default order of data that comes from the source system. The data we use in analysis often comes from a source system, such as an operations control system, call center tracking system, or sales process system. The system organizes the data in a way that makes sense for the tracking system, which could be by date, by customer, or alphabetically by product. We extract the data from the system and analyze it to find insights that will help move the organization closer to its goals. The challenge comes when we go to present the results of that analysis. Often the results are in the same order as the data was when we first imported it. If we just accept the default order, we often make the audience do work to figure out how the data or visual supports the message. Here is an example from a recent customized workshop. The tracking system ordered the data by month because it is collected each day. The message of this slide was about how each location was doing compared to the goal that had been set. In order to see how each location was progressing towards meeting the goal, the audience has to connect the columns for each color across the four months. This is work that the audience may not be willing to do, or may not do correctly. Instead, as a presenter, we...

Monster.com November 22, 2016

Dave is one of the experts quoted in this article titled "10 PowerPoint hacks to make your presentations look more professional": https://www.monster.com/career-advice/article/powerpoint-hacks-1116....

Handling requests for one slide only; Issue #377 November 22, 2016

In two recent customized workshops a participant asked how to handle a request from an executive to provide just one single slide, instead of a full presentation. In this article I’d like to share my advice if you receive such a request. First of all, let’s discuss why an executive makes this type of request. I heard this type of request over two decades ago when I was an employee in the corporate world. I was working for the CFO at the time and he said to not give him more than one page on any topic as he just didn’t have time to read more than one page. We were dealing with memos at the time instead of PowerPoint slides, but the request comes from the same place. Busy executives are dealing with so many items that they don’t have the time to wade through all of the details of every issue. They need their staff to provide just the most important information required for them to understand the issue and make decisions related to it. That is why they ask for one slide, not a full presentation. Once you understand what the executive really needs, it becomes easier to figure out how to create that one slide. First, realize that the slide they are asking for is not for a presentation. It is more of a document that they can quickly review and be up to speed on the topic. So the one slide will not necessarily observe all of the best practices for slides in the same way as a slide intended to be presented. I...