Spreadsheets Don’t Belong on Slides; Issue #251 December 20, 2011

PowerPoint Tip: Spreadsheets don’t belong on slides

Frequently people tell me that financial presentations include a huge spreadsheet that has been copied on to a slide. The text and numbers are way too small and inevitably the presenter says, “I know you can’t read this, so I’ll read it to you.” Spreadsheets don’t belong on slides. Today I want to talk about why not and what you can do instead.

Why don’t spreadsheets belong on slides? Because a spreadsheet is an analytical tool, not a communication tool. We use spreadsheets because they are the best tool for analyzing numbers, doing calculations and comparing numerical information. A spreadsheet does those jobs well. It quickly allows us to do hundreds of calculations that would take hours if done by hand. It is so easy to do calculations that we may end up doing more analysis that gives additional insight into the numbers. So for this purpose, a spreadsheet is a great tool.

But when it comes to communicating the results of that analysis to others, the spreadsheet is a terrible tool. It contains far too much detail that confuses instead of informs. The audience only wants the results or conclusions of the analysis, not every step you took. The spreadsheet you used to do the calculations contains both the detailed work and the results, usually with the vast majority of the cells taken up by the details of the analysis, not the resulting conclusions.

So what should you do instead of copying the entire spreadsheet on to a slide? You should create a summary table of results. You can create a new worksheet in Excel or put the summary table below the existing worksheet, whichever you prefer. This summary table only contains the numbers that the audience needs to see in order to understand the conclusions of your analysis. The final numbers, the bottom line, is all they need to see.

When you are deciding on those final numbers, make sure that you aren’t forcing the audience to do math with the numbers. If you are presenting a comparison, don’t put both numbers in the table and expect the audience to figure out the difference. Show a percentage difference in the table if that is the important message you are trying to communicate.

Once you have the table down to the bare minimum of numbers, you can copy the table on to a slide or create a table on a slide and enter the numbers by hand. Add a graphic indicator, like an up or down arrow to indicate the direction of the change or difference. Make the table as easy to understand as possible. Now you have a table that truly gives insights and doesn’t confuse the audience.

Next month I’ll be doing a webinar that is a little different from the ones I’ve done this year. I will be sharing the best techniques for using financial data in PowerPoint. There will be more of a focus on the “how-to” in this webinar and I expect I’ll be dropping out of slide show mode to show how things are done in editing mode. You can see all the details and register here.

This is the last newsletter issue of the year, so I want to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I look forward to the opportunity to share with you in 2012.