Don’t use numbers just because you have them; Issue #261 May 15, 2012

Presentation Tip: Don’t use numbers just because you have them

You are a presenter who deals with a lot of numbers. Maybe they are financial results, operational analysis, or market research. You live in Excel and love spreadsheets. So, naturally, when you have to present to others, you include almost every number you have. Doesn’t everyone love numbers the way you do? Unfortunately, no. In this article I want to suggest what you should present instead of all the numbers.

Let’s start with why presenters feel like they have to include all the numbers they have calculated.First, they believe that if they include everything, the audience will better understand what they are trying to say. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. A slide full of numbers makes most people mentally check out. The second reason presenters include all the numbers is that they feel that they have to show how much work was done. If they don’t show a lot of numbers, the audience won’t think they worked hard doing the analysis. Trust me, they will be able to tell whether you worked hard or not in ways other than how many numbers are in your presentation.

I believe that the presenter has the responsibility to figure out what the numbers mean to the audience and only present that information in the presentation. It may require a few numbers, but certainly not all the numbers in the analysis. As a presenter, look for a change between time periods and draw a conclusion on whether that is a positive or negative change. Look at the trend over a longer period of time and determine if that trend needs to change in order for the organization to succeed. Look at the differences in results between different regions or products to conclude where future efforts should be directed. Your audience wants to know what the numbers mean to them.

I suggest that when designing your slide to present your analysis, you start by writing a headline that summarizes the one point that you want to communicate. If you have more than one key point, create more than one slide. This headline drives what visual you will put on the slide. Sketch the visuals, which may be a small summary table of numbers with indicators to show whether the numbers are good or bad, a graph showing a trend or relative results, or a diagram illustrating results through a process. Whatever visual you select, it will support the headline that you wrote. And it won’t be a slide with a spreadsheet full of numbers.

Most professionals are passionate about their work and have an emotional attachment to it. That is what makes my suggestions even harder to implement. When I suggest only including a few of the numbers or a summary graph, it is natural to have an emotional reaction: “What do you mean I can’t show everything I did? Don’t you know how much work I put in to this?” I do know how much work you put in. And the audience will see your effort when you provide an insight that makes their decisions and work easier.

In a recent workshop I showed how an organization could take a slide with 600 numbers on it (I am not exaggerating, I counted), and reduce it to the ten numbers that the executives really needed to know about. The improvement in clarity was amazing. You can achieve the same clarity by focusing on what the audience really needs to know. If you present financial information with spreadsheets, you may be interested in the webinar I did at the start of the year on presenting financial information effectively using PowerPoint; you can read more and get the recording here.