Too Much Data Will Kill A Presentation: Here’s How to Avoid Death by PowerPoint

Nothing kills a presentation faster than data overload. We’ve all suffered through too many data-dense presentations, realizing at the end that we hadn’t a clue what the message was.  Here are four common presentation problems and how to fix them.

1. The “Glazed Eyeball” Effect

This is most common among those of our species who majored in English or Physics. English majors automatically tune out the moment you talk about numbers. To them, tables and graphs are better than Ambien. Physics majors, on the other hand, find our charts and numbers facile and irrelevant and roll their eyes at any line chart that goes up and to the right.

The Solution: The answer for both audiences is to remember that you aren’t “presenting” results, you’re having a conversation that tells a story. Presumably a story that he/she needs to hear—or why would you have collected the data in the first place?

As with any conversation, you need to start with an understanding of your audience’s hot buttons, worries, and interests. Figure out what problem you can solve for him or her. If you’re requesting money or support for an initiative, start by showing how your project will solve a problem or make the department work better.

Of course, you need to understand your data well enough to tease out that compelling story. But once you’ve learned how to make the numbers come to life you’ve eliminated the glazed eyeball effect forever. (For help on that, read our articles “How to Write a Communications Measurement Report that Will Tame the Data Puking Dragon,” and “How to Write a Fabulous Media Measurement Report in Four Hours or Less.”)

2. The “Panic In My Gut” Problem

I’ve been presenting results to clients for over 30 years now and I still get that slight feeling of panic every time I get up to speak. Of course, I worry about the accuracy of the data, because when you’re dealing with tens of thousands of data points, there’s a lot that can go wrong. So, relax, it’s normal.

What you need to understand is that there are two varieties of people to whom you are likely presenting: the terminally skeptical and the unquestioning believer.

  • The skeptic questions everything, and up to a point it’s a good thing. As we write this month in “The 6 Most Common Data Problems—and Practical Tips to Fix Them,” a lot of data is simply wrong, so skepticism is warranted.
  • The believer sees data and believes it. Frequently they’re too busy to examine the data so they take it at face value.

So, you have a 50/50 chance of having an easy time of it.

The Solution: Put yourself in the mindset of your fiercest critic, the terminal skeptic that will question everything. Go over your data and your presentation in that persona. Once you’ve found and fixed anything, give it to someone else to present and repeat the process, but this time be even more skeptical. No one will ever be as hard on you as you are on yourself.

3. The “I Can’t Fit It All In” Problem

Yes, I’m sure you have lots of data and a ton of pretty charts and great stories to tell about it. But the boss just cut your presentation time to 10 minutes and you’ve only got time for 4 slides. Do not—I repeat, do not—simply reduce the font to mice type throughout. You’ve got a bigger problem than that.

The Solution: In an ideal world you’d survey your audience and ask them:

  • Which charts do they like best and/or pay most attention to?
  • Which charts do they find useful and which do they ignore?
  • What do they wish your reports would tell them?

If you don’t have time to survey the audience, ask your boss or a peer to read through the report and watch them like a primate scientist studies a bonobo. Become a human eyeball tracker, and watch their expression. Anything that they ask questions about or linger over stays, the rest gets dumped.

And if you can’t do that, then you must do triage yourself. Here’s what should stay in:

  • Any data you need to act upon.
  • Any data that is needed to support a budget or resource decision.
  • Any data that will let you do less of the stupid stuff that wastes your time.

Here’s what needs to go:

  • Any data about things you can’t change (earnings announcements, for example).
  • Any data that exists “because it’s always been there.”
  • Any data that doesn’t help you make better decisions.

4. The “Too Many Numbers, Too Little Time” Problem

It’s the feeling you get when sit down with a social media, PR, or web analytics spreadsheet with 13 columns and you have no idea which ones are most important.

The Solution: If you’re using Excel, then hide (or throw out altogether) any columns or metrics that don’t represent a priority. If you find yourself faced with a difficult decision, then visit our guide to help you pick your metrics based on the general topic of your program: “The Only Metrics You’ll Ever Need: Katie Paine’s Guide to Taming Your Data Dragon.


About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.