Data Presentation Essentials
I have fallen asleep in my fair share of presentations, and I’ve worked hard at making sure my presentations are not snoozers as well. This takes practice, an open mind, and honest reflection about one’s own presentation. There are three keys in a presentation: the audience, the presenter, and the keynote. The keynote should be a crutch to help the presenter communicate a story to an audience, not the main attraction.
If a presentation is not a story, people don’t pay attention. People like stories. I like stories, and when the story is unclear or uninteresting, I disengage, and I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t go to an academic conference and disengage when experiencing a presentation simply because the speaker didn’t do a good job. Their work might be very valuable, but without good communication, the most prized idea is lost.
Your presentation is an experience for them. Your concern is their user experience, and with this principle, you can set aside personal feels about critics to your presentations while you’re working on it.
If the focus is on them, then they should be able to see your slides, hear your words, and follow your presentation. For your slides, anyone in the room should be able to see your content. It is up to you to scale according to the room, not your personal preference.
Everyone in the room should be able to hear you including older people who may be hard of hearing. Annunciate your words and keep a pace that isn’t too fast but not too slow. Too fast means people can’t follow your talk, and too slow means people fall asleep or disengage.
Imagine standing in the back of the room, watching your presentation.
This is one of a few slides I’m using as an example from I presentation I gave at BTAS 2010. If you saw this slide from the back of the room, you wouldn’t get anything out of it. I had argued for larger print, but my manager at the time was insistent that we include all of these details.
Tailor your presentation to your audience. For example, if I’m presenting to engineers, I can go very technical without much background story because often times, they already know. Even the first level or two of management also know the background story well. Beyond that, at the director and executive level, people will spend only a few minutes a month thinking about the feature I work on. So I have to give more background, but that has to be concise. I also have to give fewer results that tell the story of whether or not we’re performing well and what is biggest risk.
Your personality and presentation skills are one of the big keys to communication. You help the audience know when they should be ready for the next slide. You have to give them time to think about a slide, but not too much to where they get bored. You also need to be ready to improvise when unforeseen questions arise or people spend more time on portions of your talk than you had originally intended.
What questions would you ask?
To prepare, walk through your presentation in your head. Imagine you were someone else, seeing this for the first time. What questions would you ask? What data are you missing? To get into the objective mindset takes time and practice, at least for me it did. I also walk through a presentation out loud to see how it sounds. This helps in spotting deficiencies and deciding when to put pauses. The time and length you don’t talk is just as important as the time you do talk. People need time to digest.
Pre-flight your presentation. That means practice in front of a live audience. For my first presentation to my VP at Apple, I reviewed the presentation in a one-on-one with my boss multiple times, his boss twice, our director once, and in two meetings with everyone but my VP. This made the presentation solid gold, but then of course, the focus shifted mid-presentation, so I had to adapt.
If I have results, I present them to my co-workers, then in a small meeting with my team, and then in the big meeting. It is important to present them to people who care about the results and how they are viewed as well as people who will give you notes about your presentation.
Tell the story until it becomes as natural as talking about your favorite thing in life
Remember to relax. Usually during presentations, we’re all friends. So take some deep breaths, wiggle your toes, and open your mouth.
The keynote can’t make your presentation, but it can break it. I am for crisp and concise slides. I usually make a few dozen slides and cut it back to just the main bits. It takes time to even foresee which slides I should make to then reduce, but it is always a reduction. You can put the other slides in the backup slides, and you should always have backup slides because there are always questions that could go unanswered.
Here is an example from some drafts of a presentation of mine from 2010:
In this example, there are too many words on the left. Much of the text is from the paper itself, so there is no need for such detail. Why not have the presenter give just the big picture and talk to it?
Use large font please. People don’t want tons of words that they can’t read. They want a few words. More words on the slides means the audience isn’t listening to the words coming out of your mouth. So larger, fewer words. Images speak volumes (please forgive me for my long-winded prose).
Larger, Fewer Words
When it comes to key data, put the most important bits first and at the top of the slide. People in the back can’t see well, and usually only the top half of the slides.
Aim for figures, pictures, simple diagrams whenever possible. If someone wanted to read your presentation, why present?
For tables and numbers, please use the appropriate amount of significant digits. This is key in big tables. You want that audience to see a table, digest its contents, and come to the same conclusion you did fast without see insignificant digits. Any coloring or bolding to point to the important numbers is helpful, and remove information that isn’t a contributing part of the story. Check that the paragraph justification is the best for that data.
Enjoy yourself. I love public speaking, and I really do enjoy presenting to large audiences. I get such a kick out of it. I hope you do as well, or I hope these tips will help get you to that point.