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Presenting Data: What, Which, Why, How?

February 11, 2010

When presenting data to an audience there are a few important questions that need to be asked… Unfortunately the answers to these questions are not immediately apparent, for example, how much should you present? How much context should you give to a statistic? And how many categories should you compare your figure to? Well the answer as I see it is… It depends, and it depends mostly on who you are presenting to and what you would like them to understand by the end of your presentation.

The approach taken by most presenters appears to be the good old “when in doubt… cram as much as you can into your slide” approach… And let’s face it, it does seem on the surface to be the safe option, because if you have all the relevant and semi-relevant data in a graph then surely you can’t be blamed for omitting something that could conceivably be important.

I read a passage in a presentation book recently, I believe it was Kosslyns “Clear and to the point”, that mentioned an annoying habit that sprung up when cheap digital watches  first hit the market. It seems that people thought that it would be a truly hilarious idea to give people who asked for the time in the most detailed manner that their watch allowed… “Hey Tim what time is it”, “Well it’s 10 minutes and exactly 41 seconds past 2”.

Obviously this type of answer is more irritating than it is helpful.

The same problem can often exist with graphs in presentations. For example a presenter may decide that they need to label every data point with the full number including 3 decimal places when all the audience require is knowledge of the figure to the nearest 100. Sometimes the presenter will compare some national statistic, such as birth rate, versus every country in the developing world in a choc-o-bloc table when all the audience really wanted to know was the difference between the UK and Ireland, and at other times the presenter may use a measurement that is indeed correct, but far too confusing for the audience in question.

I think the phrase “if you try to tell them everything, you will tell them nothing” applies here, you could indeed try to explain an issue, idea or statistic to an audience in the most precise and accurate manner, but it does not mean that they will be able to understand what you are telling them.

Presenting statistics to an audience requires thorough distillation and consideration of their ability to comprehend the material put before them. I think a best course of action is to present the basics, the skeleton and the take home points that are relevant to the audience in question, and then offer people access to a more hardcore level of detail by way of handout, links, videos etc.

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