Deciding what data to show in your presentation; Issue #218 September 7, 2010

PowerPoint Tip: Deciding what data to show in your presentation

When a presenter dumps data on their audience and expects the audience to figure it all out, they are setting themselves up for disappointment.  The “data dump” presentation is not effective communication.  So if you’ve done a lot of analysis and the research to back up your points, how much of it should you put in to your presentation?

Let’s start with why too many presenters think they need to include every piece of data in their presentation.  I think it comes from when we were in school.  Remember the teacher always saying, “Make sure you show your work.”  In school, the teacher needed to see all your work so they could evaluate whether you understood the material or not.  If you just show an answer, they don’t know how you got the answer and can’t be assured that you grasped the concepts they were teaching.

But the workplace is different. As professionals, our presentations are not an attempt by our bosses to check if we know our job. They do that evaluation before they ever hire us. If we couldn’t do the work, we wouldn’t get the job; it’s as simple as that.

Your presentations are to present the results of your work in a way that enables others to use the information to make decisions or use the knowledge to be more effective and efficient in their own work. If you show all the background and data, you lose the audience because it is overwhelming. There is so much coming at them, they don’t know what the most important point is. And they give up trying to figure it out, or, even worse, come to a different conclusion than the one you wanted them to reach.

Instead of a data dump presentation, I suggest you start with your conclusion.  By putting the result of your analysis at the start, the audience knows where you are going and how to interpret the backup that you will show.  If they don’t know where the presentation is headed, they won’t be able to ask appropriate questions during the presentation.

Once you have presented your conclusion, get their agreement on assumptions, inputs and methods so they have confidence in the basis for the analysis.  This builds the credibility of your work.  You can show the key assumptions you made, explain how you think they are reasonable assumptions and get agreement from the audience.  Discuss the data sources and inputs used so they have confidence in where the inputs came from.  Finally, discuss work methods (general approach only not in detail) so they have confidence in how the work was done.  With the foundation of agreement on assumptions, then inputs, and finally method of analysis, the audience can see how the conclusion you presented first clearly flows from the work you did.

The level of detail you include will depend on the audience, which can be different every time you present.  Most audiences will only want to see the final calculation or formula used to reach your conclusion.  If they want to get in to the details, you can hyperlink to the spreadsheet or analysis software to drive down deeper.  If you feel you need to present more details, use a break-down and zoom-in approach to show a summary of the data and each portion of the detail one at a time.

When you are making a decision about the level of detail to present, do not overlook the emotional side of the decision.  You are emotionally invested in the work you have done and will feel a need to present it all, in order to show how well you have done.  Resist the urge.  Instead, step back and see it from the audience’s viewpoint.  They trust that you have done the work.  They are only interested in what the results mean to them.  Most times, a presenter thinks the audience wants more detail than the audience actually wants to hear.

When deciding on the level of detail in your presentation, don't follow the rule from school.  Consider each situation uniquely and deliver the amount of detail that audience truly needs.